Conn-Selmer, Inc. History

600 Industrial Parkway
Elkhart, Indiana 46516

Telephone: (574) 522-1675
Fax: (574) 295-5405

Wholly Owned Subsidiary of Steinway Musical Instruments, Inc.
Incorporated: 1874 as C.G. Conn Co.
Employees:2,000 (est.)
Sales: $184 million (2001)
NAIC: 339992 Musical Instrument Manufacturing

Company Perspectives:

The company's mission is to provide the finest band and orchestra instruments, products, and services in the world, representing the best value in all categories in which we profitably compete.

Key Dates:

C.G. Conn founds Elkhart company to make rubber-rimmed mouthpieces.
Colonel Conn sells the business to flour miller Carl Greenleaf.
Conn invents the first all-electronic organ.
The company is sold to publisher Crowell Collier Macmillan.
Daniel Henkin buys Conn from Macmillan and brings the company's headquarters back to Elkhart.
The company is sold to Skäne Gripen and renamed United Musical Instruments (UMI).
Bernhard Muskantor buys UMI from Skäne Gripen.
UMI is sold to Steinway Musical Instruments.
UMI is combined with Steinway's Selmer division to become Conn-Selmer, Inc.

Company History:

Conn-Selmer, Inc. is the largest manufacturer of wind instruments in the United States. The company makes and distributes many prominent brands of musical instruments, including C.G. Conn and Selmer brasswinds, Artley flutes, King band instruments, Bach trumpets, and instruments made under the names Emerson, Glaesel, Scherl & Roth, Musser, and Wm. Lewis & Son. Many of these are historic brands with a cherished reputation among both professional and amateur musicians. Conn and Selmer were both leading wind instrument manufacturers based in Elkhart, Indiana, since the early years of the 20th century. Both went through a series of ownership changes and made acquisitions of smaller companies. In 2000, Selmer's parent company, Steinway Musical Instruments, bought United Musical Instruments, formerly known as C.G. Conn. After the acquisition, the parent combined the two subsidiaries to create Conn-Selmer, Inc.

From Horse Collar Pads to Vulcanized Mouthpieces

The C.G. Conn Company was founded by Charles Gerard Conn, a skilled musician, band leader, inventor, entrepreneur, and politician. Conn was born in 1844, and as a young man lived in Buchanan, Michigan. A series of accidents led to his invention of an improved trumpet mouthpiece. Conn allegedly broke a finger while at work at the local horse collar pad factory. He was the Buchanan town band leader, and the injury made it impossible for him to play his violin. So he switched to cornet, which had been his secondary instrument, and quickly became a very good player. While playing in a traveling band, he got in a fight and received another career-changing blow, this one to the lip. Apparently the pain of playing his cornet with a swollen, tender lip gave Conn the idea for a rubber-rimmed mouthpiece. This happened around 1871. Shortly thereafter, Conn and his wife moved to Elkhart, Indiana, where Conn pursued various lines of work that included peddling a healthful ointment, engraving silverware, making rubber stamps, and inventing and selling sewing machine parts. Possibly in collaboration with his former boss at the Buchanan horse collar pad factory, Conn found a way to vulcanize rubber directly onto metal, and in 1874 he produced his first rubber-rimmed trumpet mouthpiece. Conn went into business making and selling a variety of musical instrument mouthpieces, working first out of a small second-story space over a drugstore and later opening his own brass foundry. He took out several patents for his mouthpieces in the United States as well as in Canada, England, France, and Belgium.

In 1876, Conn invited a French musical instrument maker, Eugene Victor Jean Baptiste Dupont, to join him in Elkhart. The two began working on improved brass instruments, hoping to create a "perfect" cornet. Dupont left the company after three years, but the C.G. Conn Co. continued to grow, making all kinds of wind instruments as well as mouthpieces. By 1878, the company had a large factory, and Conn had become a major employer in Elkhart. He was elected mayor of Elkhart in 1880 at the age of 36. The factory burned down in 1883, and Conn considered moving his business to Ohio. However, the town persuaded him to stay, and the company rebuilt in Elkhart. Conn's factory produced an estimated 10 percent of all goods made in Elkhart, and by the late 1880s the business employed as many as 300 workers, many of them skilled laborers brought in from France and England. At that time, Conn declared his musical instrument factory the largest of its kind in the world. Many well-known professional musicians endorsed Conn's instruments, which bore the brand name "Wonder."

After rebuilding the Elkhart factory, Conn also acquired a factory in Worcester, Massachusetts, that had belonged to the Isaac Fiske instrument manufacturing company. The company began making a greater variety of instruments. Conn produced the first U.S.-made saxophone in 1888, and the firm began putting out a line of flutes, piccolos, and clarinets. Conn continued to be involved in politics. He founded a newspaper, the Elkhart Truth, in 1889, and was elected to the Indiana state legislature that year. He was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1892 and served one term. He also bought the capital city newspaper the Washington Times. He served on the military staff of Indiana's governor as well and was given the rank of Colonel. He was called Colonel Conn for the rest of his life. His political activities did not seem to distract Conn from running his business. Conn opened a retail store in New York City in 1897, and around this time the company began producing "Wonder" violins. Conn also acquired a mandolin factory in New York and then combined it with his Elkhart violin-making division. The company also began making portable reed organs and debuted the Sousaphone, an instrument designed for bandleader John Phillip Sousa.

The Roaring Twenties through World War II

The C.G. Conn factory burned to the ground for a second time in 1910. Conn rebuilt again, this time putting up an impressive Spanish mission-style structure. The factory was up and running again in only four months, and Conn put out a new brand, "New Invention," that temporarily replaced the older "Wonder" lines. Five years later, Colonel Conn retired. He sold the business for $1 million to Carl Diamond Greenleaf, a flour miller from Ohio. Greenleaf had no background in musical instrument manufacture, yet he immediately brought improvements to the Conn plant. By 1917, the factory had been significantly upgraded and retooled, and it now employed some 550 workers. Greenleaf instituted new technology and quality control, leading to a more consistent product. The factory began turning out as many as 2,500 instruments a month.

Through the 1920s, C.G. Conn Ltd., as it was then called, increased its production of the popular new jazz instrument, the saxophone. The company produced saxophones in a wide pitch range, including odd instruments such as the contrabass sarrusophone and a combination saxophone, English horn, and heckelphone called the Conn-O-Sax. Conn also produced saxophones in vivid colors such as purple, green, and white-and-gold. During the 1920s, Carl Greenleaf also owned a part-interest in another Elkhart saxophone maker, the Buescher Company. The company made other acquisitions in the 1920s as well. For a short time it owned a half-interest in H. & A. Selmer, the company it would join with in 2000 to form the present Conn-Selmer, Inc. Conn also owned the Elkhart Band Instrument Company between 1923 and 1927 and ran the Continental Music Company, which was a wholesale division, and the Pan American Band Instrument Company, which made instruments for student players. Conn acquired a percussion manufacturer, Leedy Co., in 1927. When the stock market crashed in 1929, many musical instrument companies were hurt. Fortunately, Conn had the cash reserves to buy up its rivals at this time. It acquired drum-maker Ludwig & Ludwig in 1930, as well as the accordion-maker Soprani Company and the musical instrument division of Carl Fischer.

During the 1920s, Conn opened music stores across the United States and Canada. The company founded a Conn National School of Music in Chicago in 1923 and helped put together the first National Band Contest in Chicago that year. Carl Greenleaf wanted to promote student music programs, though he did not want this to be seen as his way of creating a school instrument market for his company. Greenleaf helped develop the National Music Camp at Interlochen, Michigan, founded by Joseph Maddy in 1923. C.G. Conn Ltd. donated $10,000 towards building the camp. Greenleaf also supported the development of experimental electronic instruments and acoustic devices. C.G. Conn Ltd. ran an experimental laboratory from 1923 to 1940 and developed the first electronic tuning device and the Stroboconn, the first device for visual measurement of sound.

During World War II, the Conn factory was completely converted to wartime manufacturing. The company put out compasses, altimeters, and other measuring devices used by the military. It had a few orders for musical instruments required by military bands, but because all its machinery had been retooled, these instruments had to be made the old-fashioned way, by hand. Meanwhile, other smaller competitors were allowed to continue to make instruments during the war. After the war ended, it took Conn some time to revert back to instrument manufacturing, and it lost business to these smaller rivals. Its long-time leader, Carl Greenleaf, retired in 1949, though his family still owned Conn.

Because of problems with getting back to peacetime production, the company lost sway in the world of band instruments. Conn was also put back to work for the military during the Korean War. During the 1950s, the company sold off its subsidiaries and began making different kinds of instruments. The company produced the world's first all-electronic organ in 1946, known as the Connsonata organ. Electric organ sales became increasingly important to the company through the 1950s. By the mid-1950s, sales and profits from organs exceeded that from all other instruments combined. Organ sales grew by about 40 percent a year in the early to mid-1950s. By 1958, Conn's total sales were over $14 million, with more than half of that coming from organs. The company also produced pianos after the war. In 1940, Conn bought the Haddorff Piano Company, in Rockford, Illinois. The next year it picked up Chicago's Staube Piano Company. Conn made pianos in Rockford through the 1950s, and in 1964 bought the Janssen Piano Company. Conn made pianos until 1970, when the division was sold. Leland B. Greenleaf, son of Carl Diamond Greenleaf, took over the presidency of the company in 1958. (Carl Greenleaf died in 1959 at the age of 82.) During Leland Greenleaf's tenure, Conn began acquiring again. It bought the Artley Company, a major flute manufacturer, in 1959, and built the Artley division a new factory in Elkhart in 1963. The company also built another factory for its organ division and moved its school music division to facilities in Nogales, Arizona.

A Series of Owners: 1969-85

By the late 1960s, business conditions did not seem rosy at C.G. Conn. Its earnings were flat, and Leland Greenleaf, in his sixties, was thinking about retirement. Greenleaf was apparently considering selling the company when he received an offer from the Kernal Company, a Wall Street investment firm. Unwilling to sell to Kernal, Greenleaf began negotiating with another suitor in late 1968. In April 1969, the deal went through, and C.G. Conn was sold to Crowell Collier and Macmillan, Inc. for around $35 million. Crowell Collier Macmillan was a publishing company, and it had no background in running a musical instrument manufacturing business. Macmillan made a series of drastic changes at Conn. It moved the company headquarters out of Elkhart to Oak Brook, Illinois, while the organ division was moved to another Chicago suburb, Carol Stream. Some of the manufacturing was moved to Japan, while the reed instrument division moved to the former school music division facility in Nogales, Arizona. Conn's brasswind factory was sold to its rival and one-time partner Selmer, while an older Elkhart facility went to Coachman Industries. All these moves left Conn decentralized. By 1980, Conn had divisions or subsidiaries in several Chicago suburbs as well as in Texas, Arizona, Ohio, Indiana, Georgia, and Mexico. The company continued to be unprofitable through the 1970s, and Conn's reputation as a manufacturer suffered.

In 1980, Macmillan sold C.G. Conn Ltd. and its various subsidiaries to Daniel Henkin. Henkin had worked for Conn in the 1960s but left in 1970 to own and manage the historic Elkhart flute manufacturer K.G. Gemeinhardt. Henkin sold Gemeinhardt to Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in 1977, and three years later he plunged his capital into Conn. The purchase included the Slingerland Drum Co., flute maker Artley, Inc., a case manufacturing company and a music distributing business, two Mexican manufacturing subsidiaries, and other far-flung divisions. In May 1981, Henkin moved Conn's corporate headquarters back to Elkhart, an event celebrated with a week of elaborate entertainment. In 1981, Conn acquired the W.T. Armstrong Co., a woodwind manufacturer, and Henkin brought out new product lines, including the Henkin clarinet and the Severinsen trumpet, named for the leader of the Tonight Show band, Doc Severinsen. Henkin hoped to rebuild Conn and to bring it back to its Elkhart glory days. The company made another acquisition in 1985, the King Musical Instruments company, but then Henkin abruptly sold C.G. Conn to a Swedish conglomerate, Skäne Gripen.

United Musical Instruments in the 1980s-90s

Skäne Gripen AB was a large Swedish company with interests in many areas. It had a small music division, having bought Sweden's largest musical instrument distributorship, Muskantor Musik AB, in 1982. Bernhard Muskantor, head of this family company, took a seat on Skäne Gripen's board when the conglomerate bought him out, and he directed the company to purchase Conn from Henkin in October 1985. Conn was renamed United Musical Instruments, or UMI. It consisted of C.G. Conn, its recent acquisitions King Musical Instruments and Armstrong Woodwinds, the Cleveland stringed instrument company Scherl & Roth, Benge Professional Brasses, and Artley Woodwinds. The Swedish company did not buy the Slingerland Drum Co., and other divisions were quickly sold or consolidated. UMI also encompassed the Swedish companies Muskantor Musik and two music retailers. In 1987, UMI bought a 50 percent interest in a German percussion instrument manufacturer, Sonor GmbH. While sales at UMI during 1989 were estimated at $80 million, Skäne Gripen's sales were over $1 billion, and the large company decided to shed its smaller subsidiaries and concentrate on a few main business lines. So UMI was sold to its chairman, Bernhard Muskantor, in 1990.

Shortly after the sale, UMI made another acquisition in Europe, buying up an Austrian instrument maker called Musica GmbH. Now the company had two Swedish subsidiaries; a Danish subsidiary, Anders Hoeg AS; and a Norwegian subsidiary, Starton AS, as well as its new Austrian company and its half-interest in Germany's Sonor. The company seemed about evenly split between European and U.S. markets. In November 1990, UMI's U.S. president, Tom Burzycki, resigned and moved to the Selmer Company. Selmer, based in Elkhart, had followed a somewhat similar trajectory to Conn's. After long years as a leading brasswind manufacturer, it had concentrated on the school music market almost exclusively since the late 1960s, when it was owned by the television manufacturer Magnavox. Magnavox sold it to Philips Electronics in 1975, and then in 1989 it changed hands again, going to an investment firm called Integrated Resources. Burzycki's move to Selmer was unexpected, but he was quickly replaced by Robert Palmer as president and Rocco Giglio as vice-chairman.

There were more changes in the musical instrument industry over the next decade. In the United States, UMI continued to sell well-known band instrument names, including Conn, King, Artley, and Benge, as well as Scherl & Roth, Hermann Beyer, and Otto Bruckner stringed instruments. It had three manufacturing plants, one in Elkhart, one in Nogales, Arizona, and one in the Cleveland suburb of Eastlake, Ohio. Meanwhile, its fellow band instrument maker Selmer was sold again in 1993 after its parent, Integrated Resources, went into bankruptcy. Its new owner was the investment firm Kirkland & Messina. Selmer then made a major move in 1995 and acquired Steinway & Sons, undoubtedly the best-known name in piano manufacturing. In order not to lose the prestigious name, the parent company was then named Steinway Musical Instruments, Inc., holding its two subsidiaries, Steinway & Sons and the Selmer Company.

Putting everything together, Steinway Musical Instruments then bought the U.S. assets of UMI in 2000. The company paid Bernhard Muskantor roughly $85 million for the company he had managed for 15 years. This gave Steinway two stables of brass instrument brands, along with UMI's string manufacturers. The Selmer and UMI lines overlapped somewhat, but Selmer had more sales of trumpets and trombones, while UMI's strength was in its bass brass instruments. The two companies integrated slowly, operating separately for two years. In 2002, Steinway combined Selmer and UMI into the present Conn-Selmer, Inc. This had long been the dream of Thomas Burzycki, who had been president of UMI before leaving for Selmer in 1990. Burzycki retired in December 2002, declaring that his work was done now that the two companies were under one roof. Conn-Selmer was now not only one of the world's largest band instrument makers, but it had brought together almost all the historic Elkhart-based instrument companies. Conn-Selmer, Inc. was still reorganizing in 2002 and 2003, working on its manufacturing processes and negotiating with its labor union. Sales for 2001 were around $183.6 million, which represented an increase of almost 25 percent over the previous year. The company faced a fairly flat market in band instruments and stiff competition from manufacturers of professional-grade instruments. Nevertheless, as the company moved slowly to bring together its Conn and Selmer units, it felt it had good prospects for increasing market share in the future. Conn-Selmer's new president in 2003 was John M. Stoner, Jr., who came to the company from Ames True Temper, Inc., a leading manufacturer of lawn and garden tools.

Principal Competitors: G. Leblanc Corporation; Yamaha Corporation.

Further Reading:

  • Banks, Margaret Downie, A Brief History of the Conn Company (1874-Present), Vermillion, S.D.: National Music Museum, 1997.
  • "Bernhard Muskantor on the Future of United Musical Instruments," Music Trades, June 1990, p. 88.
  • "Conn-Selmer Created from Merger of Selmer & UMI," Music Trades, November 2002, p. 30.
  • "Musical Chairs in Elkhart," Music Trades, November 1990, p. 62.
  • "Muskantor Acquires United Musical Instruments," Music Trades, November 1989, p. 24.
  • Sibley, John, "Electric Organs Playing a Sales Crescendo," New York Times, March 26, 1959, p. 43.
  • "Steinway Beats Earnings Projections," Music Trades, April 2002, p. 38.
  • "Steinway to Pay $85M for United Musical Instruments," Music Trades, September 2000, p. 28.
  • "Stoner to Head Conn-Selmer, Burzycki Retires," Music Trades, December 2002, p. 159.
  • "UMI & Selmer: A Long and Shared History," Music Trades, September 2000, p. 30.
  • "UMI Poised for Growth in Europe," Music Trades, October 1990, p. 26.
  • Wilke, Gerd, "2 Bidders Raise Offer for Conn," New York Times, October 18, 1968, p. 67.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 55. St. James Press, 2003.