Influence, Within and Without
Established in 1956, The Pearl River Group set up shop in the city of Guangzhou (pronounced KWAN JOE) and was named after the river on which it sits. It’s no coincidence that this city should be the site of one of the first piano manufacturers in China, since the piano is traditionally considered a western instrument.
When we think of China we often view the region as closed-off, an isolated area with no foreign influence. But in fact, Guangzhou (originally Canton), the capital of Guangdong Province, has a 2,000-year provenance as the locus for South China’s political, economic, and cultural environments. As far back as the Han Dynasty in 207 BCE, it connected Asia and Europe through land and sea with its trade of silk (aptly named the Silk Road, or Silk Route). And after the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 20th century, the city continued to grow as a commercial hub for China’s reformation and “reopening” to the outside world.
As the center of the Lingnan indigenous culture, the region enjoys a long history of its own influence, as evidenced by its architecture, opera, calligraphy, sculpture, and many other art forms. With this rich atmosphere and prime location in Mainland China, it is not surprising that Pearl River has flourished (albeit with a few early hiccups), and rapidly become the number one selling piano domestically, as well as one of the largest internationally.
Making A Viable Piano
By comparison to today’s market, The Pearl River Piano Group (though owned by the Chinese Government until 2012) had a very modest beginning. Cobbled together by a group of reed organ dealers from six small shops in a shed on the side of a street, it is said that the workers had to carry the pianos barefooted using carts for delivery. Initially lacking knowledge in piano engineering, it took some time before their 100 technicians could manufacture a viable piano. But by the end of the first production year, they managed to sell thirteen pianos, the first of which to a buyer in Hong Kong.
With only one other piano manufacturer from Shanghai (owned by an English businessman), Pearl River became one of the first domestic producers of pianos in China (though at the time they had to import parts from abroad). Even at this early stage, space was added to process their own wood, which helped solidify an output of four pianos a month.
China Closes Its Doors
What began as a very promising new enterprise of innovation, bridging Western and Eastern cultures through music, saw a rapid decline just ten years later during the implementation of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976. Part of the decree, enacted by Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Communist Party of China, forbade any capitalist and traditional influences from Chinese society. This included music, which encompassed the piano—an instrument perceived as a symbol of the West. As a result, citizens lived in fear of purchasing and even learning to play the piano.
Somehow, Pearl River continued to sell a small number of units (less than 1,000 per year); that is, until 1978, when economic reforms steadily changed the course of things to come (see Piano Fever).
No Longer A Taboo
The Pearl River Group wasted no time continuing were they left off prior to 1966, and soon became China’s number one piano manufacturer, selling 800 pianos per month by 1985. This rapid expansion resulted from several important factors: Pearl River attained import/export autonomy; Hong Kong motivated additional economic reforms; availability of inexpensive raw materials increased; and the Chinese people saw a rise in disposable income.
As the taboo on embracing the instrument dissolved, the piano became an essential part of a child’s cultural and educational development, leading China to become the largest consumers of pianos.
Two Pillars: Innovation and Quality
The mid 1980s proved to be a pivotal period for Pearl River as it illustrated a willingness to apply progressive foresight in instrument making: reaching out to foreign markets, taking financial risks to invest in future growth, and improving the foundation of its technical and production teams.
During this time, the company brought in the first of its outside experts, Bud Correy, a manufacturing engineer, who immediately recommended ways of transforming the manufacturing processes. His suggestions laid the groundwork for investing in machinery for automation, applying temperature control to regulate humidity levels, and reinforcing more rigorous training.
Production increased once again, and in 1987 Pearl River expanded their plant to a five-story, one million square-foot facility. However, the biggest change was still yet to come.
Drawing on the momentum, Zhicheng Tong was promoted to CEO in 1992. Originally hired in 1959, Tong had already spent his entire professional career as an employee of the Pearl River Group, making him one of the most experienced and long-term employees of the company (the only exception being his father, who recommended Tong and was one of the first employees).
One of Tong’s immediate aspirations for the company was to turn it from a solely domestic dealer into a global supplier, an undertaking that would require the assimilation of the piano standards and heritage of the West and its European roots. To accomplish this feat, he orchestrated a dual-approach that stressed innovation and quality to deliver an extensive range of pianos to upper, medium, and low-end markets.
The company invested $60 million to enhance its production lines and computerize its product design, tuning, and quality control—while still requiring many specific tasks by hand.
The hard work resulted in a joint venture with Yamaha in 1995—which afforded the licensing of new technology for key components—and in 1998, Pearl River was awarded the coveted ISO9001 quality certification for both parts and finished pianos (making them the first Chinese piano manufacturer to do so).
The Asian Tortoise Strategy
Despite being a quality, economical piano for many years, Tong recognized China’s reputation in the international market wasn’t always a positive one. Beset with the notion of Country of Origin Effect, or COE, which reinforced nationality bias in the perception of Western and European consumers, Tong set about rebranding Pearl River by an approach best exemplified by The Asian Tortoise Strategy, a theory explained in Nimalya Kumarand’s and Jan-Beneddict E.M. Steenkamp’s book, Brand Breakout: How Emerging Marketing Brands Will Go Global:
Armed with the new approach, Tong’s first order of business was to add to the success of Bud Corry by recruiting additional American representatives to handle the U.S. market; specifically, Dave Campbell and Al Rich.
Dave Campbell’s musical origins were steeped in the family business. His father was a professional piano player and both his grandmothers taught the instrument. Campbell himself played piano professionally in his early years but his secondary interest in engineering led him to work on the manufacturing side, the efforts of which led to developing patents on soundboards, plates, bridges, and the like. His CV includes Kimball, Aeolian, and Kamen.
In 2001, Campbell became Director of Technical Services for Pearl River and delineated which products were better suited for the American palate to help drive sales. While assessing ways to enhance quality and production for the manufacturing of grand pianos aimed at exportation, he outlined 22 protocols to improve the methodology.
Al Rich too came from a family with a background in music but on the retail end of it rather than performance, selling his first instrument at the age of 16. His resume includes Wurlitzer, Young Chang, as well as owning his own shop. Rich was brought on to Pearl River in 1999 to lead the expansion in the U.S. market where he served as president.
To navigate both US and European markets, Pearl River acquired two established piano brands: Ritmüller and Kayserburg. To head each new division, respectively, Tong turned to two more consultants with extensive knowledge of the piano, with several decades of combined experience: Swiss master piano designer, Lothar Thomma, and his apprentice turned master production engineer, Stephen Mohler.
Lothar Thomma’s background showcased an impressive 30-plus year contribution to the industry as designer, teacher, and builder working for many major piano brands. For Pearl River he would oversee all aspects for their new acquisition – the methods, parts, and design for Ritmüller. Hiring Thomma was quite a coup. His cache of high-end, hand-crafted piano making experience, coupled with the latest in technological advances that Pearl River had to offer, helped secure the historical reputation and reinvigorate Ritmüller while simultaneously elevating Pearl River as a major player in the international market.
Following in Thomma’s footsteps, Stephen Mohler, who also had over 30 years’ maturity in the industry, received his certification in 1981 from the Switzerland Piano Association. In him, Tong found a protégé who perhaps surpassed the master. Mohler along with a dozen Chinese craftspeople, whom he individually chose and helped train to hand-make the high-end Kayserburg, have already garnered praise and awards internationally.
A Culmination of Ingredients
Pearl River now boasts 2,500 workers and sales of 125,000 pianos annually, its reputation firmly established throughout the world. A second joint venture with Steinway in a collaboration to produce Essex proves how far the company has truly evolved.
In 2007, Pearl River became the largest piano factory in the world. Today, it remains the top selling brand in China, and exported to over 100 countries. And in 2015 and 2016, Pearl River piano line was named “Acoustic Piano Line of the Year” by the readers of MMR Magazine and has been nominated once again in 2017.
After 60 years, the Pearl River Piano Group—under the leadership of Tong’s transformative strategies and his successors—has shown its willingness to learn and innovate, refusing to allow economics or politics to impede artistry and craftsmanship. By combining patience, humility, drive, high-end raw materials, skilled craftspeople, innovative technical advancements, experienced piano-makers, and intelligent marketing methods, the company has changed the minds of what “Made in China” can really mean.