Joe Meidl Quietly Hits All The Right Notes As He Expands His Longtime, Family-Owned Retail Operation.
The band Chicago describes itself as a “rock and roll band with horns.” Indeed, horns aplenty…including a trumpet, a trombone and a couple of saxophones. This Grammy award-winning group made a stop to a sellout crowd in Mankato last year. On the day of the show, they needed an instrument repaired. Good thing Mankato has a store for that: The Music Mart. Without missing a beat, Joe Meidl’s team was able to repair the instrument and the show went on without a glitch.
But while being on call for the growing number of musicians that come through Mankato is exciting and all, Meidl admits, it’s the day-to-day operations of the store and the people his team gets to meet with every week, that gives them the most satisfaction. It’s the success of local musicians he is interested in and has been since his father founded The Music Mart in Lamberton, Minnesota, in 1971.
“My father was a longtime band director and he saw a need in southern Minnesota: servicing area schools. So, he started in Lamberton by calling and talking to every band director in the area. He would drive out every week to another band director. That’s been the base of the company,” explains Meidl, who has kept that business model going even as he expands The Music Mart. “We drive from here to Waconia, all the way down to Blue Earth and as far west as Windom. We call on most school band directors every week to pick up, drop off or provide any kind of supplies that they need.”
In a world of Skype meetings, online orders and screen time, the good old-fashioned weekly visits from a member of Meidl’s sales team are music to the ears of school band directors throughout the region.
A retail instrument supplier to schools, The Music Mart is a franchise dealer for most major brands of band and orchestral instruments. The need his dad identified almost 50 years ago panned out, as The Music Mart, Inc. now works with over 150 elementary and secondary school choir, band and orchestra directors, along with many other music teachers across southern Minnesota and now has locations in Mankato, Faribault and Rochester, as well as the original in Lamberton. Meidl started helping in the family business in 1991, and now runs the operation.
“I graduated college with a degree in music management because I wanted to help Dad, however, I didn’t necessarily want to live in Lamberton,” explains Meidl. “So, when I came on board, I opened the store in Mankato. We were in a couple different locations in Mankato, then in 2007 we purchased and remodeled the current building, so now I’m in control of my own destiny.” (he smiles)
While Meidl has evolved the business plan a bit, he remains true to the foundation set by his dad.
“Music education is really where my focus is,” he says. “We focus on band, orchestra, and we even help with general music and choir. In addition to supporting school band and orchestra programs within a 100-mile-plus radius of Mankato, our customers also include churches, over 260 piano teachers, as well as parents and students with all different musical backgrounds. For them, we stock major piano series, contest music, fun books and sheet music from many publishers.”
While maintaining harmony with area band directors from the Mankato and Lamberton stores, Meidl saw another opportunity in 2007 and began expanding school partnerships. He started in Mankato by merging with another family-owned operation, Midbell Music, and in 2017 added a store location in Faribault by absorbing Eastman Music. More recently, in August 2018 Meidl partnered with Wellhaven Music in Rochester, Minnesota.
“Wellhaven Music has been around a long time and again it was a family-owned business. We started actually working together in May of 2018, and then I took business operations of Wellhaven in August 2018 and eventually bought a building in Rochester in January 2019 and we moved in to the current location April 1, 2019.
“And in the middle of all this, I bought out a string shop in Northfield December 2018.”
The expansion of Music Mart into other locations is indicative of the trend happening in the retail music store industry: the numbers are dwindling as smaller, family-owned shops are consolidating.
“The biggest change I’ve seen in my decades in the industry is the consolidation of stores,” he says. “Many of the smaller stores are starting to go away. Right now, within our territory, there’s a small store in Waseca, a small store in Owatonna, and a small store in New Prague. Once they disappear, I am not sure anyone will replace them.”
Meidl says the mergers and acquisitions he’s made so far, have just seemed to make sense when they are brought to his attention.
“It’s usually just word of mouth,” he says. “No matter how big you think the industry is, it’s really quite small and word gets around. The only reason I knew of the Rochester opportunity is because I have a sales rep who mentioned I should talk to them. I put in a call to start the conversation and it went from there. It’s usually just word of mouth within the industry because the same sales reps have been traveling around talking to stores for years.”
As the number of locations has increased, so has, of course, his number of employees. When his dad started, he wrote maybe five checks. Today, Meidl writes 31 each pay period, which he says is equal to 20 full-time employees. That includes the sales reps, but also a team of qualified employees to help manage operations and repair instruments.
Their knowledgeable sales reps visit area schools on a weekly basis during the academic year to deliver and/or pick up instruments for repair, cleaning, exchanges, and more. To further support students and schools, Music Mart store locations in Mankato, Faribault and Rochester have excellent repair facilities with experienced repair technicians on staff. They repair woodwind, brass, percussion and string instruments; complete stripping and lacquering of instruments is outsourced.
“Music repair is trade and you learn the basics in the repair school,” he explains. “There’s Red Wing Tech School (now Minnesota State Southeast Technical & Community College), it has a one-year program in instrument repair, and you can learn to repair wind instruments, orchestral instruments, or guitar. I’ve had a number of Red Wing grads work at The Music Mart. I have one employee in Mankato and one in Faribault who has been through the instrument repair program. A lot of times people will learn to repair on the job. I also have a recent high school graduate who is taking a gap year and is interested in orchestral repair. She’s learning orchestral repair on the job here at The Music Mart. She graduated from Mankato East.
“I don’t think people realize the level of knowledge it takes,” he says. “Our employees have over 100 years of combined experience, some holding degrees in music, music education, music business/management, music performance and band instrument repair.”
Servicing the needs of area schools fills a niche in Mankato, a city he says is fortunate to have a variety of music stores each with its own focus. Purchasing the other stores in surrounding cities has allowed him to branch out a bit.
“In Mankato, we all work well together. I work well with Scheitels and Rhapsody. They have their own genre, their own part of the music industry. We do print and educational, they do the pianos, guitars and amplification. Now, in Faribault, there are no other music stores. The previous store had sold guitars so we continued selling guitars at that location. When I bought Rochester, there are only two music stores in Rochester by the way, they were a little heavier in the guitars themselves. So now, we’re doing a lot of guitars and digital pianos in that market, in addition to band and orchestral music.
“Rochester is just growing at such a fast pace, I read somewhere they expect the population will double in the next seven to 10 years,” says Meidl. “The store that I purchased was in downtown Rochester, just a miserable location for music retail. For starters, there was no parking. Meters, if you could find them open, and parking ramps, but not conducive to what we needed so we left the downtown area and that has been a good decision.”
While the industry is seeing consolidations, business has been steady for Meidl.
“There are not a lot of peaks and valleys. It’s consistent. It’s not a high-profit margin. In fact, it costs a lot to get going. If I’m going to rent a string bass for $50 a month and it’s a $2,500 instrument, it takes a while for return on investment if it comes back to me at the end of the rental period. I have a number of years before I start making money on it. But once you have a big pool of instruments out there and it keeps going, it starts generating some revenue. Mankato has been a great community. It supports the arts world pretty well and you need that. It’s a good school system that has really been our bread and butter. Low support from area school systems could hurt music programs and the business. I don’t see that changing as Mankato keeps growing.”
Like all retail entities, online shopping takes its chunk of the pie.
“Challenges have been the online competition. We are online and we’ve started doing online contracts so people can complete them at home. This does surprise me a bit because traditionally people like to hold the instrument, try it out before buying, so I wouldn’t have believed that we would have as many online contracts as we’ve had. We’ve done over a thousand rentals online. People go online and order and we deliver it to the school, so it combines with our weekly deliveries.”
While it sometimes surprises him how the industry has changed, he is also happy that in some ways, it has stayed the same.
“Even though there aren’t a lot of people out there, the Lamberton store will always be there so we can remember how we started,” he says.
“That’s also a territorial thing. Plus, it is well established, and the people there know what they’re talking about and have been there for years. They are loyal employees so that store will stay open as long as they want to work. It really is a part of the fabric of that community and this company no matter how much we expand our footprint.”
Meidl may have started out as an engineering major when he first left Lamberton to go to college, but he’s glad he made the switch and jumped into the family business.
“Yes, it’s been very good for us,” he reflects. “The educational music industry, I don’t think, is going away. It’s been a good industry. I hope to do it for many more years.”
Music Man, Family Man
Meidl met his wife, Linda, while going to school at St. Scholastica in Duluth. They have three children, two sons and a daughter. While they all share some musical tendencies, they also find balance.
“My oldest son played trumpet through high school, but was also very involved in sports and gave up trumpet when he graduated high school,” he says. “My daughter is still playing tenor sax and she’ll graduate from high school this year. Hopefully she’ll play in college. My eighth-grader is playing the baritone and he plays a little guitar. We’ve all played piano, but nobody seems to be going into it right now.”
Meidl the Musician
This is a case where it’s fun to take your work home with you.
“I play the trombone,” Meidl shares. “I used to play a lot more when my kids were young. You know how that is, when kids get older, you start running and following them around and some of your hobbies get dumped. When I first came to town, I played a couple of different concert bands including the Schell’s Hobo Band, but now it’s hard to find the time.”
Family first, but community is also important to Meidl and his wife.
“I’ve coached a lot of baseball, I coached some football. I’ve been on The Salvation Army board, I’ve been on the Twin Rivers Center for the Arts board, been on the Greater Mankato Growth board. Also, I’m very active with Kiwanis Holiday Lights, too.
“When I first joined Kiwanis it was largely because they sponsor the Thunder of Drums performance each summer. Also, they award the Kiwanis Music Excellence Awards. So I’ve combined personal service with things that are also very pertinent to my industry, because that’s what I’m after, that’s what I’m passionate about.”
1014 N Riverfront Drive
Mankato, MN 56001
Photo by Jonathan Smith