Small Business

Inside a centuries-old maker of strings for musical instruments

All in the musical family

It's not uncommon to see small family businesses fizzle after a generation or two. But in Farmingdale, New York, Jim D'Addario has been keeping a manufacturing tradition alive that began in Italy in 1680.

D'Addario comes from a long line of musical instrument string makers. His grandfather Charles D'Addario brought the trade to America in the early 1900s, and laid the foundation for the business to transition and plant a stake on U.S. soil. In 1973, the family business was launched in New York under the name D'Addario and Co. Customers today include rocker Lenny Kravitz and country star Keith Urban.

Jim D'Addario, now CEO, joined the business at 13, with a love for music and tinkering.

"I was always magnetically pulled towards it," he said. "Once I fell in love with playing the guitar, I became the string tester and product development guy."

Aside from the family's lineage in the trade, another rarity is the company—projected to do $175 million in sales this year—is able to keep 95 percent of its manufacturing in the U.S. While most manufacturing associated with musical instruments and parts has moved overseas, D'Addario and Co. has firm roots in Famingdale.

The company also has a sawmill in Tennessee to cut wood for drumsticks, a factory in California for making reeds for woodwind instruments, as well as cane plantations in Argentina and France as a source for reeds. The remaining 5 percent of its accessories that can't be made in America are imported from Asia. Globally, D'Addario employs close to 1,200 workers.

Jim D'Addario, CEO of D'Addario & Company.
D'Addario & Company

Beyond end products, the company also builds its own tailored-made machinery for its New York plant. And by keeping everything literally under one roof, the business is able to maintain consistent, quality standards—instead of outsourcing portions of the manufacturing process overseas. "It's our strategic advantage," D'Addario said.

The company in fact invests $8 million to $15 million toward its factories and new technology annually, D'Addario said. Additionally, a family foundation provides support for music education in underprivileged areas.

"We're updating every minute," he said. "What we do today, my grandfather probably wouldn't even recognize."

D'Addario says nine family members of the next generation are already working for the business, waiting in the wings to take over. They have a "family business assembly" annually, involving company stakeholders and their spouses and children—40 in total.

"We've gotten successfully to the fourth generation [in America]. We're hoping we can put the right governance in place and the right systems to perpetuate itself, and go on for as long as possible," he said.

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