ORRVILLE: For a niche business that’s been around for 140 years, Schantz Organ Co. is looking ahead to a long future.
Schantz specializes in designing, making and installing custom pipe organs, primarily for churches. It calls itself the largest company of its kind in the United States.
Behind the timeless look and sound of Schantz organs is a modern business that marries the latest technology in design and manufacturing with craftspeople and musicians who team up to make its instruments.
Schantz Organ’s longevity can be attributed in large part to family ownership’s willingness to adopt new technology. The Wayne County company has proved flexible enough to move with the changing needs of its customers. And it is now preparing for what it sees as the next big technological change in manufacturing as well as grooming younger family members to eventually take the helm.
“We didn’t come to any precipice. We just adapted,” said Victor Schantz, 60, company president. “There is a kind of legacy of keeping the business going. ... The concept of any niche family business is to maximize your presence in that niche.”
His great-grandfather Abraham Schantz founded the company in nearby Kidron as the steam industrial revolution was getting underway. He was an inventor who started in a workshop on the family farm and moved to Orrville to set up a steam technology building, Schantz said.
“When he started, steam was revolutionizing everything in America,” Schantz said. “That was the height of technology at that time.”
The fledgling business started making reed organs, small musical devices used as entertainment in home parlors. From there, the company gradually transitioned into church organs, “which has been our primary focus for much of our history,” Schantz said.
As electric power became widespread, Schantz Organ adapted, substituting electro-mechanical controls for mechanical ones and creating a company to make electric-powered blowers for its pipe organs.
“We still have the Zephyr Blower Co. today,” Schantz said. “One of our divisions is making blowers for people all over the world.”
The company now has about 30 employees, down from a peak of 90 or so.
Schantz Organ’s business model goes beyond making new pipe organs.
“We can build new church instruments, we can build new concert hall or academic institution or private residence pipe organs. Or we can restore, rebuild and make parts for any brand, any type, any size, any vintage pipe organ. And we do that as a good percentage of our business,” Schantz said. “We’re a restoration specialist. We have a service network in which we go all over the country.”
The company has had to change the way it does things for a number of reasons, including a decline in church membership and slowing interest in classical music that has hurt sales of new pipe organs, Schantz said. That has been exacerbated by the significant economic slowdown of the last five years, he said.
“That’s the reason that we are so convinced of the need for us to be a restoration, rebuild and repair expert, because whenever there is an economic downturn, there is less new and a great deal more of restoration and rebuild. And we’ve certainly found that to be true,” he said. “In the last five years, the percentage of our business that is restoration and rebuild has been going up.”
Since World War II, Schantz has built about 2,300 large pipe organs, he said. Many of those instruments are hitting the upper end of a projected 60- to 70-year useful lifespan, he said. That opens up opportunities for the company to repair and rebuild those aging pipe organs, he said.
Schantz Organ continues to work to persuade churches that its pipe organs are a better investment than cheaper electronic options, said Jeff Dexter, vice president.
The digital options clearly have gotten better over the years but still cannot match the sound of a real pipe organ, Dexter said.
It’s akin to listening to the Cleveland Orchestra on a home sound system and then going to Severance Hall for a live performance, Dexter said. “There’s a demonstrable difference there,” he said.
The high level of quality that Schantz Organ provides is expensive, Schantz said. An organ can cost from $75,000 to $2 million. “It’s something that we believe enhances singing in church and enhances the performance of a choir and enhances the overall liturgy of the church and its religious experience.”
Schantz Organ upgrades the technology of its organs as it rebuilds and repairs aging instruments. The company’s blend of old world and new world skills shows in such ways as installing new electronics in older pipe organs, including modern industrial controllers that can give pipe organs “memories” that players can use, Schantz said.
Where in years past pencil and paper were used to design organs, today computers are used, he said. Everything is custom-made in the company’s 45,000-square-foot workshop, set in a residential neighborhood in central Orrville.
“We have our own mill. We stock our own lumber,” Schantz said.
Employees work with wood and metal. The big difference between decades ago and now is that some of those employees deploy computer-controlled equipment to do some of the work. That kind of woodworking ability also opened up other business opportunities.
“We’re already in the architectural millwork business in a way,” Schantz said. “That’s why we have a division of our company called the Schantz Custom Woodworking Co. We build contract woodwork for other customers.”
The woodworking division designed and made furniture for a boutique hotel in Wooster, lamp bases and more for another customer in Cleveland and others, Schantz said.
“We’re able to do things for people who are looking for very high end types of custom woodwork. We can do that as well,” Schantz said. “It’s not our principal line of work but we can do that as a company.”
Schantz is also looking to the future.
The next generation of family ownership is being groomed Schantz said.
“We have been doing that kind of planning a long time,” he said.
The company’s future may include using three-dimensional printing technology, also known as additive manufacturing, to do custom work, Schantz said. The 3-D printing process uses technology similar to inkjet printers in which material, now typically plastic, is “sprayed” in layers to form a three-dimensional object. That’s vastly different from traditional methods such using computer-controlled machines to cut and shape large pieces of wood into organ parts.
Schantz sits on a Wayne County economic development board that is studying the subject of 3-D printing. The technology has not yet developed to a point where Schantz Organ can use it, he said.
“There’s great potential there. It’s coming,” Schantz said. “I want to be in on the ground floor of it.”
He is pretty sure he won’t be around for the company’s 280th anniversary.
“The thing that I hope the most is that, the true measure of any businessman is his ability to preserve the company for all the stakeholders in the next generation,” Schantz said. “And so my hope is to simply keep the quality up, make sure we’re building the best instruments possible and keep on doing it. And that can go on as long as this particular culture and this particular country values what we do.”
Jim Mackinnon can be reached at 330-996-3544 or email@example.com