Feature Story

Hendrickson Organ Company

Photo by Kris Kathmann

He owns every issue of The American Organist published since 1929, and every issue of The Diapason back to 1913. Those trade magazines still print today. His bookshelves are crammed full of faded cloth books with out-of-print titles like Organ Building, Vibration and Sound, The History of the Organ in the United States and The Art of Organ Building. A few have German titles: Die Brabenter Orgel and Zungenstimmen. Not everyone builds pipe organs these days. When the company phone rings, Charles Hendrickson, 63, casually picks it up and says “Charles Hendrickson.” He absolutely loves his freedom as owner at Hendrickson Organ Company in St. Peter.
His management style might raise the eyebrows of many business owners. “Each of my employees has complete freedom to come and go as they wish,” he says while resting in his chair with his feet kicked out and hands clasped behind his head. His soft-spoken voice seems almost Garrison Keillor-like in its soothing texture. “They have jobs that are either drawn up on paper, or if they’ve worked here long enough the jobs are verbally described to them. They just go ahead and work on their own. The only rule here is No Smoking.” For everything to run smoothly, he concedes, every Hendrickson Organ employee must be a self-starter.
High-tech here is two Brother Word Processors and a Remington Quiet-Riter circa 1953. To be fair, Hendrickson does massage a 486 occasionally. He draws out plans for each pipe organ with pencil and paper. His son, Andreas, a University of Minnesota graduate who majored in architecture, has told his father they can’t justify buying CADD software with their work load.

Charles Hendrickson seems attracted to the creative freedom pipe organ building brings. “I’m very situational [in building a pipe organ],” he says. “I’m not one to say ‘this is the way God intended a pipe organ to sound in every church.’ I have never used the same approach twice in 35 years.”
Sometimes an individual hears one of his pipe organs and wants the exact same one for their home church. It just doesn’t happen that way. “I can try to give a church the sound and look of another church, but each situation is usually vastly different,” he says. “No two organs I’ve made look alike, and no two sound alike. There aren’t even two of the same size. This business is very situational, which is what’s fun about it. Here you’re not doing the same thing over and over and over.”
The challenge in the pipe organ business, he says, is in taking a blank slate and making something beautiful out of it. A pipe organ builder must factor in a church’s architecture, its acoustics, and even the congregation’s personality and taste.
Some of his friends might think he’s nuts for being in an industry that isn’t going anywhere, but he doesn’t mind. He’s his own boss and doesn’t answer to anyone but himself. “I’m in a very free, and wonderful position,” he says while spreading his arms out to take in his neat-as-a-pin office with maple-clad cabinets. One bookshelf nearby contains all the American Organist and The Diapason magazines. “I’m with a small firm that has a big backlog. I have clients who want you to do it right and they’re willing to spend the money to do it right. I don’t have to try to beat out the competition. I feel very lucky in having a job that gives me this much freedom. I know that many business owners don’t have that freedom.”
Hendrickson Organ Company has a two-year backlog and always has contracts in-hand or in the process of being signed. They produce only two or three pipe organs a year. The seven-employee company grosses in the “mid-$300K range.” Labor makes up about 60 percent of costs. “Labor always costs more than material, which is surprising considering the expensive woods we use,” he says. “The materials we need can’t be bought cheap. They never have any fire sales.”
Many small business owners sometimes wonder if they’re ever going to make it through the year or even make payroll on Friday. Charles Hendrickson hardly ever worries about finances leave that to the owners of “regular” companies. For over thirty years he’s had advance orders and a nearly guaranteed cash flow that takes him out two years. The business structure provides a measure of financial freedom.

The Family Friend Primed The Pump

A Willmar native, Hendrickson graduated in 1957 from Gustavus Adolphus College where he studied physics and math. He later studied graduate-level physics at the U of M. Just like his later venture into organ making, Hendrickson majored in physics because “it was something I wanted to do.” During graduate school he became fascinated with pipe organs and began servicing and moving them on a part-time basis. This hands-on experience whetted his appetite for more.
After graduate school he meandered throughout the U.S. teaching physics at various colleges: Northeastern State (Okla.), Union University (Tenn.), Superior State (Wisc.) and finally Minnesota State University, Mankato. While teaching at MSU he began his pipe organ business on the side at an old Green Giant cannery building in Winthrop in December 1964.
An old family friend, Rev. Lambert Engwall, who was a pastor in Winthrop, “had just decided for me that I was going to build a pipe organ for his church,” Hendrickson recalls. “He had a great amount of faith in me. He talked his church into it. He talked his church council into it. Then he talked me into it. I am indebted to a man who had more faith in me than was justified by my background.” Hendrickson’s newlywed wife, Birgitta, even though she “secretly thought [he] was nuts,” never came out and said it. “She was supportive, though.”
Physics and pipe organ making have a lot in common. Both are “tinkering,” he says, and involve mechanics, electricity and acoustics. They also have design challenges that involve figuring out how processes work. He’s not the only pipe organ maker with a physics background: a physicist that worked on the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb, became so unnerved by his noisy creation that he later became the creator of beautiful organ music.
It’s an occupation that fits his talents. “If you were just interested in drawing up plans you would be an architect,” he says while pointing to his T-square and drafting table. “If you were just interested in visual design, then you would be a sketcher or an interior decorator. If you were interested only in the sound of the instrument, you might find yourself designing the mechanism that makes the sound. Organ making takes all of the above in order to develop a good instrument.”
For someone so wrapped up in pipe organs it’s surprising that he doesn’t really play the instrument. He prefers to hear someone “who knows how to use [the organ] properly.” He belongs to First Lutheran in St. Peter but doesn’t attend much because he’s constantly on the road listening to pipe organs he’s installed in other churches. When he does make it to Sunday worship in his home church he finds it hard not to critique his pipe organ’s sound. “I’m always concentrating on what’s going on with the organ,” he says.
Unlike most small business owners he doesn’t seemed worried about handing over the business to his children. Hendrickson believes his two sons, Eric and Andreas, won’t miss a beat when he retires. “I give them more and more responsibility all the time. Sometimes they take more responsibility than I’ve given, which is fine with me because it tells me they’re interested in the business.”

Pulling Out The Stops

There are about forty larger organ companies in the United States, like Hendrickson Organ Company, and hundreds of one- or two-employee outfits. The Top 40 have a convention every year, and they all know each other and most consult regularly. All those faded out-of-print books and the stacks of The American Organist and The Diapason can’t answer every question. And the pipe organ industry has publicity and metals supplier issues that can only be solved collectively. “Just one company in this industry wouldn’t have much leverage,” Hendrickson says.
Hendrickson isn’t out on the street drumming up orders, and he doesn’t advertise. Churches contact him. His potential clients normally reach him by phone or letter saying they need an instrument. Most have heard a Hendrickson organ or heard of him. “Sometimes it’s hard to pin down why they’ve chosen us because I never ask.” Most clients are from the Upper Midwest, and choose him he thinks because he’s closer, which makes him more available for service calls.
He’s turned down several potential clients for one reason or another.
To get to the point of having a signed contract, he must first create drawings, specifications, and prices. “We work with church committees,” he says, “and must use patience. You can’t be pushy. You have to hold their hand because they’ve never bought a pipe organ before.”
Providing information is his job, he feels, even ideas on fund-raising. After his initial contact, up to five years may lapse before he has a signed contract. “I must be patient,” he says with a laugh. The process takes less time if the church has raised money in advance. If the church decides that another organ company would be better suited for its needs, or if fund-raising plans fall through, in many cases Hendrickson still earns compensation for his time.
“We have a wonderful setup that allows the church to decide how it will pay for its organ,” he says. “Like our organs, each payment contract is unique.” Some churches may finance a purchase with CDs due on a certain date, or others with a large estate gift. It varies. Hendrickson Organ Co. designs each church’s payment schedule accordingly. Even when a church falls behind in fund-raising, Hendrickson will often rework its payment schedule. Seventy-five percent of churches raise more than initially expected.
“I can’t produce an organ for less than $75,000,” he says. “On the high side it could be ten times that. We do everything from design to installation, which is part of the appeal of working with us. I’m the one they call with all their questions. There aren’t a dozen cooks here.”
Most of the wood is grown locally, and all of it dried in-house. Southern Minnesota has quite a few sawmills that know the specific cuts of maple, oak or walnut that Hendrickson needs. “We get some wonderful wood,” he says. “I’ve often thought we have a better grade of wood than most other parts of the U.S.” Since Hendrickson doesn’t make metal pipe in-house, he must buy it from a supplier. All organs have metal pipes, and most have wood pipes, which they make in their own wood shop.
He says: “When I hear an installed organ for the first time it’s always a surprise. You never really know exactly how it’s going to sound. From then you have to decide what you need or don’t need to do to get the instrument sounding the way it should.”
In St. Peter, Gustavus Adolphus College owns two Hendrickson organs, and Union Presbyterian, First Lutheran, and the Church of St. Peter, which had theirs destroyed by the tornado, each have one. Organ customers in Mankato include MSU, Grace Lutheran, St. Peter & Paul’s, and Belgrade Ave. United Methodist. In New Ulm, Hendrickson organs are at Martin Luther College and Our Savior’s Lutheran.
Pipe organs aren’t a growth industry, he admits. Not every church wants one, and certainly not every church can afford one, though enough people appreciate them to keep the age-old industry going.
Does he like what he does? “At times what I do is magnificent. At other times it’s a grind. It’s magnificent when you’re just coming into a church where you’ve installed a new organ. The organist and choir are thrilling. Maybe an instrumentalist is playing along with it. But there are times when the organist isn’t very good, and the choir has lost half its members. Maybe they’re away for the summer. This is the grind.”

©1999 Connect Business Magazine

Daniel Vance

A former Editor of Connect Business Magazine