GHS Strings seems to have landed on a steady formula for sustaining a business: start with one product, make it the best product, and keep it available to the masses.
The company manufactures guitar strings in Battle Creek, MI, and is celebrating its golden anniversary this year. They produce strings for nearly every type of stringed instrument: mandolin, ukulele, bass guitar - and have had guitarists from Jack White to Hank Williams Jr. endorse their product.
The G-H-S comes from its founders - Gould, Holcomb, and Solko. The company was bought in 1975 by lawyer Robert McFee, and its day to day operations are overseen by McFee's son, Russ.
“My father was the attorney who incorporated the three people who started it. And in the late 60’s the Holcomb’s were pretty much the only family left, they needed investors," says Russ McFee. "So he invested and then in 1974 they wanted to retire.”
McFee contributes their success to both good luck – and good timing.
“We entered the guitar string market right as the guitar exploded in the 70’s and 80’s, that type of thing. And we established a brand name and a lot of market share," he says. "So by the time the guitar market started slowing down, which would have been in the late nineties, we were already very well-established.”
But you can’t make a good product without good employees – and McFee says that GHS has some of the most dedicated.
“A company is only as good as the people who work there and we have a lot of very, very good employees, and it goes from the people making the string – they’ve been doing it so long they know what makes a good string – and they’re the first ones to say ‘Hey wait a minute, something’s wrong here.’
Deena Garret is a supervisor in the company's packing department. She had no idea that when she started working for the company as a string coiler 41 years ago, she was laying the groundwork for a career that has lasted four-fifths of the company's life.
"I think we all have that intent when we start a job - 'eh, I'll just start and move on.' But I started and stayed," she recalls.
You're bound to see a lot of action happen over the course of four decades - machines, computers - and the occasional celebrity sighting.
But Garret says the company has always been focused on growth and improvement and staying ahead of the competition. McFee himself was responsible for designing the company’s first computerized guitar string machines, and is dedicated to making constant improvement in the quality of his product, both by machine and by hand.
At 45 years of service, HR director Diane Stroll is the most senior employee with the company. She began work at the age of 16 in 1969.
"I wanted a job for the summer so I could buy my first car. I was sixteen, so I had to get a work permit. I went in and I just said 'I would like a job,' and he said 'Why should I hire you?' And I said 'Because I'm a good cheerleader,'" she says of her limited skill at the time.
She worked summers in the office and occasionally on the line until she graduated, and then worked her way up after becoming a full-time employee after graduation.
"We have very high seniority here - people just stay. We have, I say, 30-35% of our people have been here over 35 years," she says.That loyalty has trickled down to the staff, who Stroll says have become more than just coworkers with each other. With a company whose has been headquartered in Battle Creek since Lyndon Johnson was president, Stroll says they still fall under the radar of their own neighbors. But McFee says that turnover is inevitable.
“Many of our long-term employees are reaching retirement age, and we are having about 4 or 5 people a year retire. And out of a workforce of about 100, which is what we now employ, that’s 5 percent a year.”
Though guitar strings might seem recession-proof, McFee says they’ve had to deal with finding more storefront distributors in the wake of traditional music stores closing down, and of course, the arrival of the internet. They’ve expanded into Best Buy, sell strings on their own site, and have grown their markets in China and Russia. But they’re not without their loyal fanbase.
“I was having lunch with my wife one day at home and my cell phone rang and I answered it. And I said ‘Hello, its Russ McFee,’ and the man on the other end said ‘Hey Russ, it’s Flea – you know, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers?’ And it really was Flea! He wanted to send some strings to friends in Nigeria, and you can’t send in to the country – so that part’s really cool," says McFee. "And then of course you get to meet a lot of people – I’m met everybody from Bon Jovi, over the years I’ve met Yoko Ono, I’ve met Jackson Browne I met Quincy Jones.”
“Day in, day out it’s worrying about health insurance and employees and everything else, but you know the product we make is very cool.”