Triumphs & Trials of an Organ Builder
Building a Viable Company
From 1946 to the early 1950s, I fought hard for the survival of Allen Organ Company. Often, the money coming in from sales was not enough to cover expenses. At the end of 1946, I was forced to lay off a few employees. It was very troubling for me to have to let good people go. I imagined the distress they must have felt at suddenly being without a job; I felt a heavy burden of responsibility. I know that layoffs are commonly used by companies to solve cash flow problems, but this tactic was not at all palatable to me. In the years that followed, we struggled through cyclical, downward business conditions without resorting to layoffs. In retrospect, I believe Allen Organ Company has been aided in establishing itself as the leading manufacturer of institutional organs partly because of this no-layoff policy.
Some other important Allen Organ "philosophies" evolved during this time period. Most of the organs we built went into churches. I sensed early on that churches are bastions of permanence. For example, when I went into a church, I observed stained glass windows with the names of people long since departed but not forgotten. Outside, the world appeared to be rather unpredictable with its many issues, events, and interests that emerged daily but quickly receded from relevance. But inside these churches there was a distinct ambiance of predictability, stability, and lasting values. I wanted Allen organs to fit comfortably into this ambiance of permanence. Therefore, I wanted Allen organs to be built to last.
Our organs would carry multi-year guarantees and could be serviced indefinitely. This was an ambitious strategy, especially in the vacuum tube days. For example, in the months following the end of the War, we could only obtain military-surplus tubes. However, these tubes were surprisingly reliable. I remember that when commercial tube production was resumed after the War, we tried the new tubes but encountered some reliability problems. Through a very knowledgeable friend at the Western Electric plant in Allentown, I received some suggestions. As a result, we learned how to vastly enhance tube reliability through special circuit design techniques. Today, there are hundreds of Allen vacuum tube organs in operation and still serving satisfied customers well. This permanence-of-service policy paid off. We can now point with pride to many customers who have enjoyed our instruments for years, even decades, without fear of abandonment.
Another philosophy became firmly implanted during these formative years in the history of the Company. Top priority was given to the quality of the sound. There are many opportunities to cut corners in designing an organ. Often, the resulting deficiencies are not readily apparent to the listener. Many times- as I had discovered early on in my organ venture- even organists and good listeners may not immediately "pick up" these deficiencies. However, I believe that, after people live with an organ for a time, many of the listeners and certainly the organists will become aware of such deficiencies and the organ will gradually fall out of favor. This scenario is what I wanted to avoid. I knew that customers would be "living" with the Allen organs they bought for many years; to stay in their good favor for the long haul was vital. My motive was not entirely altruistic. I intended to remain in business indefinitely. If an Allen organ was ever traded in, I wanted to be sure it would be traded in on a new Allen. Also, I knew that new organs are often sold upon the recommendation of current owners; therefore, I wanted to make sure that the owners of Allen organs would recommend Allen Organ Company to other prospective customers.
I can't say that these "policies" and "philosophies" were part of some carefully designed "grand plan" for success. They just "felt" right to me. In retrospect, I must say that ideals such as craftsmanship, quality, loyalty, honesty, and permanent values were very much a part of the predominantly Pennsylvania German culture of the Allentown area. Undoubtedly, I was influenced by a long exposure to this culture and the people who lived by its ideals. Happily, many of these people joined Allen Organ Company and helped establish our reputation for excellence.
Of course, just "wanting" to be excellent was not enough to make it so. I learned that running a company is like paddling a canoe upstream-it takes a lot of effort just to stay where you already are. There were always bills to be paid, new customers to be found, proper equipment to be bought and kept in repair, and adequate factory space to be obtained. We had gotten upstream "a ways," but I sensed we could quickly be swept back if we were the least bit complacent. During these formative years, the Company was a partially successful enterprise-successful in that sales were increasing each year but hardly profitable. In fact, during this period I had to, once again, solicit financial support from outside the Company. Luckily, several local individuals were willing to invest in a still fledgling yet promising Company.
As far as finding new customers, I knew even in 1946 that we would have to look beyond the local area. At that time, the standard method of selling musical instruments was through dealers. Therefore, ads were placed in the appropriate trade magazines, and we started to build a dealer network which began with three or four dealers. During this time period another important event occurred in the life of the Company. Sometime in 1946, we sold an Allen organ to an organist by the name of Robert Pearce. He was working as a free lance entertainer at the time but had a broad interest in the organ field. At some point during one of his visits to the factory, the idea of his joining the Company arose. In 1947, Robert Pearce became an employee, serving as a combination salesman/demonstrator/fixer. Since then, he has put in many years with the Company making sales, teaching, working with customers, and establishing an outstanding sales and dealer organization. As the Company grew, he became Vice President of Sales, a position which he still holds today.
In those days our competition-besides pipe organs-was, of course, the popular Hammond as well as some newcomers into the "non-pipe" field. Conn, Baldwin, and Wurlitzer all began producing competing instruments. I quickly learned that I could not rest on my laurels given the "all is fair" mentality of the business world. I realized that I had better hang on to the innovative spirit which got the whole thing going in the first place. If I didn't, I knew the competitors would have no qualms about invading our turf.
Fortunately, I was not only able just to hang on to my innovative spirit, I became rather adept at it. I don't mean to imply that this was only a one man show, but I did continue to make direct, innovative contributions to the art of electronic organ building. However, perhaps more importantly, I developed an ability to sense and to promote innovation in others within the Company. I always kept an open mind to new ideas- even some radical ideas from outside the Company. I didn't know it at that time, but I was destined to play a key role in the birth and growth of one of the most significant innovations in the history of organ building-the Digital Computer Organ. If I had not been able to maintain my innovative spirit through the years, I probably would have "missed the boat" in foreseeing the impact of that momentous development and would have unwisely rejected it. I will expand on that story later. At any rate, Allen held its own over the years against stiff competition-on the strength of its innovation as well as its reputation for uncompromising sound quality, superior construction, and permanence of service.
When I looked outside the factory at 8th and Pittston Streets in late 1952, I saw knots of congestion in all directions. I knew that if the Company was going to break through into profitability, we would have to sell more organs-which I thought was possible. However, if we sold more organs, I could not see how we would be able to build them efficiently in the cramped quarters we were then leasing. We only leased a portion of the building and had to share such things as parking space and the loading dock with the other lessees. This added to the frustration and further reduced efficiency.
As I pondered this situation, I also began to consider a vacant textile plant for sale in Macungie, a small town several miles southwest of Allentown. We needed more room, and there it was. By early 1953, we had taken the plunge, had purchased the 25,000 square foot plant in Macungie, and were moving in immediately. After all the financial details were ironed out, the mortgage payments actually weren't too different from what we were paying to lease the smaller facility at 10th and Pittston. However, the much larger Macungie plant seemed luxuriously spacious-at least for a while.
At this point, seven years had passed since I resumed my organ venture back in 1945. There were many ups and downs during these years, and I had learned a great deal about business and the art of running a company. But by 1953, I was finally beginning to feel that true viability had been achieved-profitability was occurring and the Allen Organ Company was here to stay.
On a personal note, in early 1949, I was married to Martha, and by 1958, had four children, Marc, Steven, Sandra, and Judith. Steven, especially, became interested in the affairs of Allen Organ at an early age and became active in the company upon his graduation from Penn State University in 1975. And, in 1964, I purchased a farm which subsequently became my "second business."