Friday, November 11, 2011
Oregon master luthiers strike a chord with hippie capitalist
Though there was no rainy outdoor concert to commemorate it, no tie-dyes made for the occasion and no ten-bong salute, the combination of Two Old Hippies Guitar and Breedlove Guitars was acoustic harmony with roots in the ’60s.
Quietly last year, Tom Bedell, chief hippie and co-founder of Two Old Hippies, swept into Bend and signed papers that created the growth platform and common future for two iconic guitar manufacturers. The acquisition brought immediate stability to the financially troubled Breedlove Guitars and preserved one of Oregon’s top musical institutions on its own soil. The new company, Two Old Hippies, brings together the yin and the yang of an Oregon dream and a grounded financial team.
To understand Bedell’s attraction to Breedlove Guitars, is to know the genesis of Breedlove and Two Old Hippies.
Breedlove Guitar Company opened shop in 1990 in Bend. Founded by Larry Breedlove, but later taken over by Larry’s brother, master luthier Kim Breedlove, the tiny shop in Tumalo, Oregon was a craftsman’s fancy. The small batches of handmade acoustic guitars introduced a new sound and shape to an industry dominated by big strummers such as Taylor, Martin and Gibson. Breedlove carved out a niche as a balanced and deep-throated picking alternative. Its guitars and mandolins were hewn from Pacific Northwest woods such as myrtle, redwood and Port Orford cedar. Its sound was making waves at industry shows.
Artists such as Grammy Award winning guitarist Ed Gerhard from Philadelphia, all-acoustic Makepeace Brothers from New York and angel-voiced Erin Cole-Baker from Bend were drawn to the Breedlove sound.
“My Breedlove is the perfect size and responds well to finger picking and strumming with a pick,” notes Cole-Baker.
What strength Breedlove Guitars had in craftsmanship, creativity and cult devotion, however, it lacked in long-term strategy and capital. In 2000, a new management team came in to wring revenues from reveries. The new management added lower-priced models from a Korean manufacturing partner, increased revenues manifold and, in 2008, built a $3.6 million, 20,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Bend staffed by a growing cult of luthiers.
Just as Breedlove Guitar Company was ramping up, however, the economy was shutting down. About that time, self-made guitar and fishing tackle tycoon, Tom Bedell, was on a year sabbatical and getting restless to get back into the music business. He researched fifteen guitar manufacturers before making an offer.
“There was nothing like Breedlove,” says Bedell, 61. “It was like we wrote the same book. They care so much about making quality guitars.”
At 9 years old, Bedell got his first guitar for Christmas. As a young teen, he began giving lessons in a music store in Spirit Lake, Iowa for $1 and often sold guitars to customers. When the store’s proprietor wouldn’t cough up 10 percent sales commission to young Bedell, he began importing guitars from Japan. By age 14, he was selling guitars wholesale in five states. “I brought in guitars under the Bedell name and just doubled the price,” he joyfully recalls.
By his junior year of high school, Bedell Guitars was a half-million-dollar business. More successful capitalist than hippie, Bedell eventually took over Berkeley Fishing, his father’s tackle business and turned it into a $500 million company with offices in twenty-two countries before selling it in 2007. Coming off his year-long retirement, he rejoined the industry, launching the Bedell Guitar line at the 2010 National Association of Music Merchants Show in Anaheim, California.
To Breedlove, Bedell brought that same experience and passion. “We began investing in marketing, product development and benefits packages,” he says. “Most of all, we were able to give hope.”
Unlike local tech companies that often get raided for their intellectual capital and then consolidate somewhere else, the combined company will remain in Bend, where its custom luthiers live. Two Old Hippies has retail shops in Aspen and in Nashville but now calls Bend its headquarters.
“What a gift!” exclaims Bedell. “First, Breedlove was in Bend, Oregon and second, it was surrounded by great luthiers.”
The Oregon facility is the home of the custom shop, where each week seventy-five guitars and mandolins are transformed from wood to music. Dozens of luthiers rotate through all aspects of guitar and mandolin creation—from building bridges and necks to lacquering and polishing.
The Bedell and Breedlove lines number nearly 200, split evenly. By year's end, the company will have sold 18,000 guitars, with 2,000 of those of the $3,000-plus veneer made in Oregon.
Present in all of this swirling mass of capitalism is a hippie ethic. Bedell’s wife, “original hippie chick” and Two Old Hippies co-founder, Molly, is a Eugene native, who runs their retail site in Aspen, Colorado.
The company’s handbook is an extension of that culture. “Two Old Hippies is inspired by the values of our generation, steeped in the belief that we are one human race, that all living things have equal value and purpose, that we have stewardship responsibility for our mother Earth, and that the more love we give—the more we get!”
In his office window in Bend, Bedell displays a photo of him with the Dalai Lama, a suit and a maroon-robed monk—two facets of Bedell’s own beliefs and perhaps a tie-dyed corporate model that will help Two Old Hippies bring more acoustic music to the world.