The Hot Seat: Henry Juszkiewicz

Published in The Music Network


When Henry Juszkiewicz led a buy-out of Gibson Guitar Corporation in 1986, he took on a company just weeks away from sounding-out forever. The legendary instruments maker behind such icons as the Les Paul and the Flying V is making more noise than ever. Today, the Gibson Company has an array of interests, from guitars and basses to amplifiers, Slingerland drums and Wurlitzer Jukeboxes. Despite the harsh economic climate, business has never been better, the relaxed Gibson Guitar CEO exclusively tells The Music Network from its HQ in Nashville. And Australia is very much part of Gibson’s plans.


Henry, what is your vision for the company?

For one thing, we’re growing. And we’re getting more marketshare and expanding into some new areas. My objective has always to be No. 1 in the industry. And we’re heading in that direction, but we have a long way to go.


How close are you to achieving that?

The big gun is Yamaha. Right now, they’re considerably bigger than we are in the musical instruments space. We have a significant amount of growth that we have to accomplish in order to beat them.


How does Australia fit in with your strategy?

If you look at the last century, while there were a number of companies which operated on a global basis, they did that by segmenting. I’m trying to accomplish the first global group, where it’s one business. It isn’t one company that operates in a lot of different areas geographically. It has separate heads and policies. We are doing that, step by step. It’s enormously difficult. In a business sense, we are breaking new ground.


Do you envision opening your Entertainment Relations (ER) hubs in every market?

Absolutely. Everywhere there is music. And we’re continuing to expand that network, and we’re over 30 offices. I like to describe them as embassies for the Gibson nation. Just like an embassy, you want to have somebody there that people can talk to and build relationships with. (Our staff) represent the nation, in this case Gibson as a brand and a company. We have to pace the expansion to our revenue base, but we’re already looking to Australia. I’d say within the year, we’ll have a physical presence there. I’m pretty certain it will be in Sydney. Australia has disproportionately a lot of great music for population base. It’s a really musical place.


Gibson’s guitars are seen in the hands of the world’s best guitarists, but they are rarely advertised in the traditional sense.

If you reach out using traditional advertising, it’s very unsatisfactory. Imagine trying to convince someone to buy an album with a TV commercial. That’s just not the way you become fond of something.

Our whole focus is on developing new fans and satisfying the fans that we have. Those relationships are fostered by attending a concert, being there and being part of the group. It’s about relationships and it’s about people, not brochures and ads on TV.


Gibson has brought out some pretty wild ranges of guitars in recent years. What is behind the cutting-edge designs?

It goes back to the founder, a gentlemen named Orville Gibson. He decided that the only way he was going to get an instrument which was up to his standards was to build it himself. He designed a radical new mandolin, which was the popular music in the 1800s. He applied for and got a patent. That was the foundation of the company. There were various periods when the company has been extremely innovative. You look at the Flying V and the Explorer, which were viewed as Martian inventions. Gibson has been quite an innovator over its history.


Will games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero introduce the guitar to the next generation?

It will be a very big factor in the future. People love guitar, and a lot of them who didn’t want to pick up the instrument would be resorting to air guitar. Finally there’s something that they can do, short of actually putting in the time and effort in to learn how to play. In time (the games) will inspire a lot of people to go the next step. It’s a really positive thing for the guitar business. Those things have a long lead time. We’re just starting to see significant numbers of people moving on to the next step.


How is your relationship with the games world?

Good and bad. We’re in a lawsuit with two major game companies (Activision and MTV). You could say from that, it’s not that great. Fundamentally, we have a patent. We’ve been doing guitar technology stuff for quite a long time. We don’t claim to have invented the game. But there are a couple of fundamental things that they do which are patented, and they were unwilling to recognize that patent or even negotiate any kind of payment. We were forced to go to court.


What is the state of guitar sales worldwide?

We’re in this depression, economically. But Gibson is looking up, and we just had our best year in 2008 since I’ve been at the business. We’ve increased both our top line revenues and our marketshare numbers. In general, the industry has seen a decline. But the decline is relatively small. If you look at the music store with all the various products they sell, the best department today is the guitar department. It has been the least impacted by the troubles at retail.


How often do you wield the “axe”?

Everyday. I did it this morning. I have a little home studio, and it’s a big part of my life.