September 29, 2020 Larry Gulko

CEO Lounge: John Stephans

CEO, Zildjian

John Stephans CEO Lounge

“We always need to stay ahead of where sound is going. It is critically important that we stay connected with our consumers and artists to understand their wants and needs while also understanding the wants and needs of the greater music community.”
~ John Stephans, CEO, Zildjian

Zildjian_LogoLG: What’s it like being the first steward of a 400 year-old family run company recognized as the #1 global brand of cymbals and drumsticks?

JS: It is incredibly humbling and exciting. Humbling that the Zildjian family has put their trust in me to be the CEO of their company. Exciting because of the possibilities for our brands to grow at a pace that far exceeds the category. I wake up excited about my job every day. We have an incredible team, outstanding products, and an unrivaled connection globally with percussionists and musicians of all ages and skill levels. The sky is truly the limit for where we can take the business.

LG: What trends are you seeing in the music business and do they reflect opportunities or threats to your business?

JS: Several trends are occurring in the music industry, but I think two stick out; the increased use of electronic instruments to create sound and the amount of playing, practicing, and recording in the home, both of which have been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As an acoustic instrument manufacturer, it important that we find a way to leverage our brands to participate in electronic music. Moreover, it is equally important that we also find ways to further ingrain ourselves in the percussionist’s day to day playing experience in the home. Both trends reflect areas of opportunity for Zildjian.

LG:  Similar to the challenges in the golf ball industry, how does your brand stay fresh and relevant, embrace bold and disruptive innovation to market the ‘perfect’ drumsticks and cymbals to ensure authentic differentiation and category leadership?

JS: This is a good comparison. There are many ways to ensure we stay fresh and relevant while maintaining category leadership. First, regardless of the level of innovation we bring to the market, our product quality must be second to none for everything we make. That is the expectation our consumers have, and we need to exceed these expectations, always. We also need to make sure we are relevant to all fans of the Zildjian, Vic Firth, and Balter brands through our communication, especially via social channels. It is paramount that we provide relevant content that is not only entertaining and engaging but helps the percussionist with their journey, no matter their level or style of music.

Moreover, we always need to stay ahead of where sound is going. It is critically important that we stay connected with our consumers and artists to understand their wants and needs while also understanding the wants and needs of the greater music community. By doing so not only provides direction for our innovation but allows us to continue to lead in the segments we play in as well as providing ways for us to stretch our brands beyond traditional percussion.

LG: Who are some of Zildjian’s rock star brand ambassadors and how do you identify which musicians to engage to represent your brand

JS: Honestly, they are too many to count or mention. This said, Avedis Zildjian and his son Armand introduced Artist Relations to our industry. Beginning in the late 1920’s, Avedis and Armand partnered with the world’s most accomplished percussionists to not only grow the brand from a marketing perspective but to help us develop new products. They understood that by partnering with percussionists and listening to their needs, that they would be always be ahead of where sound creation was going. We also benefitted by the Vic Firth Company (which Zildjian acquired in 2010) approaching artists in the same manner. Vic was arguably the greatest tympanist in the world and understood, like the Zildjian’s, that product development and brand credibility was enhanced by partnering with the world’s best percussionists.

This legacy is carried on today by our Artist Relations team. We have an outstanding Artist Relations team that is continually working at identifying the next generation of top percussionists. The identification process happens in many ways, through artist recommendations, scouting online, or in person. Ultimately, we want to develop relationships with artists who will impact music and are good people. Our current artist roster represents the best and the brightest percussionists across all genres of music globally.

LG: Share with us how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected your strategic plans and product demand.

JS: COVID has affected the entire Music Industry, from live performances to retail purchases, and we have not been immune to its impact. That said, while we must manage today’s realities, we need to keep our eye on how we will deliver the future. Thus, we have continued to stay focused on our key growth initiatives and are investing in their development to bring them to market to drive greater growth then we were experiencing pre-COVID.

LG: People don’t leave companies. People leave people. Describe your leadership style to inspire and motivate teams to believe in your vision and understand how their roles contribute to the success of the business.

JS: First and foremost, I work hard to gain the organization’s and my direct reports’ trust. Trust, I believe, is the foundation for everything you do. I also try to be approachable by engaging everyone in the organization in some way on a consistent basis. This allows me to learn what is important to each employee and hopefully they learn something about me in return. I also believe that you must communicate, often and with clarity, about where you want the organization to go. People want to have a clear idea of the direction you want to bring the organization and their role in the journey. Ultimately, your teammates need to understand their importance to what you are trying to accomplish. Moreover, you need to trust your teammates to do their job; get out of their way, let them own their piece of the business. The business road is full of potholes, thus as a leader, you need to let people know through your actions that you will be there to support them, especially when they encounter setbacks, so they can ultimately deliver the results they set out to deliver. This support also comes with accountability. I am a big believer that you need to deliver on commitments, holding teammates accountable, married with the knowledge that their boss will support them is a powerful combination. Lastly, I am a cheerleader for our vision and will push forward with urgency, but I try to do so calmly. That does not mean I am not passionate, I am, but I believe calmness in a storm creates strong followership.

LG: Tell us something we don’t know about John.

JS: I was a college lacrosse coach before I went back to school for my MBA. It was a crash course in managing a group of people with very different needs and motivations. Much of what I learned coaching, how to, and how not to manage and motivate, I use today in my current job.


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