01 Apr 1997

Guitar Hero

Henry E. Juszkiewicz (MBA '79) revives the legendary Gibson Guitar Corp.
by Garry Emmons


As any music industry executive will tell you, rock-and-roll drives the business. And as any ten-year-old with a boom box knows, the guitar rules rock. So when it comes to pop music's signature instrument, even though he may lack flashy moves and a marquee-friendly moniker, Henry E. Juszkiewicz (MBA '79) is a genuine guitar hero. Because of his managerial chops, a legendary American guitar company, once almost silenced by insolvency, has lived to play on.

Founded in 1894, the Gibson Guitar Corp. had lately been singing nothing but the blues when Juszkiewicz and HBS classmates David H. Berryman and Gary A. Zebrowski purchased the near-bankrupt Nashville, Tennessee, company in 1986. Gibson was suffering from the neglect and mismanagement of its previous owner of nearly twenty years - an Ecuadorian conglomerate that specialized in beer and concrete - as well as from a flood of inexpensive imported guitars from Japan. Recalling his decision to buy the company, Juszkiewicz explains, "Gibson had such a storied association with this country's emerging musical genres and with pathbreaking artists such as Maybelle Carter in bluegrass, bluesman Robert Johnson, Les Paul in jazz, and Chuck Berry and the Everly Brothers in rock. The company certainly fit with my love of music and was an interesting business challenge."

Gibson's new owners set out to revive the company with a complete makeover - new plant, management, sales force, and accounting systems. And just as musicians often do when engaged in artistic soul-searching, they looked to their roots - Gibson's reputation for quality. Today, attention to quality is evident in the Nashville plant's assembly area, where workers equipped with precision chisels and gauges fit together guitar bodies and fretboards, smooth edges, insert pearl inlays, and constantly check their handiwork. Nonetheless, dozens of these carefully hand-assembled guitars are destroyed every day because they aren't quite good enough to be Gibsons. Observes Juszkiewicz, "I haven't changed what people expect from a Gibson, I've just delivered what they want."

Juszkiewicz, who turned around an ailing Oklahoma electronics manufacturer before performing similar magic at Gibson, has done more than just resuscitate the guitar maker. Through the purchase of other small instrument manufacturers, he has created a new entity called the Gibson Musical Instrument Company (GMI), which produces banjos, mandolins, drums, and keyboards, as well as guitars. With quality firmly reestablished as Gibson's core competency, Juszkiewicz hopes one day to be the world's largest maker of quality instruments.

Like most of his company's 1,200 employees, Juszkiewicz is also a musician. An accomplished guitarist, drummer, and keyboard player, he has a recording studio in his home. He has also shared various stages (including London's Wembley Stadium) with musicians such as ZZ Top, Slash (of Guns N' Roses), and Joan Osborne, among others. The quality of his playing has surprised many of his customers, who include, among other superstars, B.B. King, Carlos Santana, and Emmylou Harris. "I'm not that bad," the CEO modestly acknowledges, "but I think I'll keep my day job."


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