Chingford Grows... and Grows
When Rick Wakeman wanted a C3 he got it from Chingford Organs. When Keith Emerson wants his mighty array of keyboards serviced he goes to Chingford Organs. When the local vicar was thinking of buying a church organ Chingford Organs gave him the elbow — politely of course.
That's not to suggest that the only market Chingford are interested in is groups — quite the contrary. Chingford Group Gear, their new showroom at Chingford Mount Road in Chingford, is naturally orientated towards the heavy needs of the heavy player. But the other five branches of the Chingford empire concentrate on the high quality keyboards market, which of course includes gigging musicians and domestic players.
The Chingford success story is one of the most spectacular in the retail side of the music industry. Since November 1969 the company has grown from a one-man, one shop company to a multi-million pound organisation which by the end of 1974 had branches in Northampton, Finchley, Dagenham, Eastbourne, and two in Chingford. The man behind the success is Gene Ashworth.
Ashworth, still in his early 30's has a background in both music and finance. He gained his musical training in the Royal Army Corps Staff Band and as a brass and woodwind man (trumpet and sax) Gene continued gigging after he left the army. His family background was highly musical as well. His father was a trumpet player with Henry Hall's band for many years so it was the obvious instrument for Gene to learn.
Although he continued gigging after he left the service, Gene found a greater degree of success in the financial world and eventually rose to the powerful position of Finance Manager in a large company. Then Gene discovered the organ market.
He approached his father with the proposition and father and son decided to open an organ shop. The question was where?
For 12 months Gene scoured the country, looking for the right town promising little competition, a reasonably wealthy population and a useful degree of working musicians in the area. Finally he settled on Chingford.
Chingford is predominantly upper working and lower middle-class, and it's inhabitants are fairly well-off. Here, Gene decided, was the ideal spot.
"We decided that the only reasonable way of ensuring some sort of success was to get a Hammond dealership. It's incredibly difficult to become a Hammond dealer: last year I think one Hammond dealer was appointed, the year before, none. It's a question of being in the right area. We would choose places and Hammond would say, 'That's too close to another dealer'. Finally they agreed to Chingford.
"In the beginning we couldn't find any other staff but me. I used to sell the organs, deliver them in a VW van, sweep the floor, clean the toilet and then go home in the VW van — I'd sold me car to get the van. I remember our opening party. We had Robin Richmond down to do the tape cutting ceremony and I looked around at everybody drinking my booze and spilling ash down the new organs and I still had to sell one organ. I thought 'Gene, What have you got yourself into?'
Six months later Gene knew that he was into a winner. In the beginning, people were passing by the shop in suburban Chingford Mount Road and staring in disbelief at row upon row of organs and other keyboards costing hundreds of pounds each. "Many people said I was mad, but things started to move."
Selling organs is quite a hard sell — and Gene's one hell of a good salesman. Something of an aggressive sales policy was adopted in the early days and Gene was constantly going out into the field and dragging people along to discover just how easy it is to play the organ.
The advent of the fully transistorised organ has revolutionised the organ retail market. Today it's undoubtedly the easiest musical instrument to play passably and it undoubtedly gives enormous pleasure and satisfaction to the player.
The built-in rhythm units and cassette units provide the delights of self-accompaniment and these aids have offered relatively unskilled players the chance to sound really professional.
Service has been the watchword at Chingford. Since the earliest days of supplying organs, it's been as important to Gene that these organs function properly after they have been sold as it is before they're sold.
Today there are three full-time service engineers working for Chingford, senior engineer John Bellamy, Malcolm Hall; and Paul Lucas. In addition, there are freelance engineers who can be called on if there is a particular rush of work.
"We really believe that we have the fastest service for organs of any retailer in this country. We reckon we can service any organ in 48 hours. Usually it's a lot quicker than that, but we say that to allow us a little breathing time".
Gene's general manager is affable Gerry Haim. He's professional — in the old-fashioned sense of the word. He runs the operation on a day-to-day basis ensuring that the machinery set up by Gene functions smoothly. One of his important responsibilities is training new salesmen. Naturally, Gene also has a large say in this aspect.
"We believe in training a salesman properly", says Gerry. "It's no good having people who can't sell when you're talking about items like organs. It's not a question of being aggressive, just understanding the best way to help a customer get the organ he wants. We deal with most sections of the organ market except for church organs — someone came in to ask us about a church organ, 'Perhaps you could explain it to me', he said, 'We're thinking of getting one in a year's time'. I mean, in a year — in that time the model will be obsolete".
Opening six shops in five years isn't bad going by any standards, but the most surprising thing is that none of it's been done on tick.
The Chingford group actually own most of the freeholds on the premises they occupy and Gene hasn't had to go to the bank or the mortgage house for any part of the expansion programme.
"We've managed to finance ourselves at each step", says Gene, rightfully pleased with himself, "I suppose that my training in finance must have helped quite a bit".
A surprising side of Chingford's business is in exporting. You wouldn't think of a chain of retail shops as being the most obvious exporter, but nevertheless, Chingford have opened up a vast — previously untapped — market in Europe and the Far East.
"We export a considerable number of used organs to the Continent. A second hand Hammond that may well be worth £1500 there is £700 here. We've also started exporting to the Far East".
A new section of Chingford that is growing rapidly is the Chingford Organ Hire.
"Two of the managers, John Ellis and Russ Cook came to me and said they wanted to expand the hire side of the business. We've always done a fair amount of hire — to studios and so on — but the boys felt that side of the business could be considerably expanded. And they've been proved quite right.
"Most of the hiring we do is for studios, holiday camps and similar establishments. We don't do very much hiring per gig, it works out too expensive. We do a fair amount of hire work for big bands who tour here, but we're usually dealing with the record companies rather than the bands".
Chingford Group Gear is typical of all that's good in British rock gear shops. It's stocked with amps and guitars and nearly every brand name is represented. Names include Fender, Gibson, Marshall, Yamaha, W.E.M., Leslie and a total of 26 keyboards.
It goes without saying that you can get virtually any keyboard from the Chingford shops. The main brand names that Chingford have done best with include Hammond, Leslie, Lowery, Fender, Gulbransen, Elka-Orla, Yamaha and Gem.