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Kalamazoo guitar company strikes a new chord

Al Jones
Kalamazoo Gazette

Kalamazoo — When the guys at Heritage Guitar Inc. developed a new guitar model, they would show it at a large guitar industry trade show.

If retailers there were interested, they’d buy a limited number to display in their stores and sell. After that, most other sales were done by word of mouth.

That has been the case for most of the past 31 years, since a cluster of former Gibson Guitar workers decided to stay in Kalamazoo and start Heritage Guitar.

But that is set to change with new owners.

“We haven’t done a good job of telling the story of Heritage,” said Kyle Sobko, a marketing specialist for one of the company’s new owners and now marketing director for Heritage Guitar.

They are prepared to try to ramp up sales and marketing of Heritage guitars. That is starting with the reorganization of the ground-level, 10,000-square-foot guitar-production area of its Parsons Street facility. The effort is being made to enable greater efficiency, including a thorough cleaning of the space.

Production has been halted for two weeks to enable that.

Heritage was purchased on April 1 by Archie Leach and Jeff Nicholson, co-owners of PlazaCorp Realty Advisors Inc. Last year, that Kalamazoo-based commercial property management and development company bought the Parsons Street property on Kalamazoo’s North Side.

After consideration by Leach and Nicholson, they decided to buy the guitar-making business inside. Terms of their acquisition were not disclosed.

“Over time we have great plans for renovating the building,” said Sobko, although he would not provide details.

“With an increased focus on marketing and sales, there’s going to be more demand for Heritage guitars and we need to be able to handle that in a more efficient way,” he said.

He also said the new owners want to maintain the landmark, 99-year-old smokestack of the facility, which was the original factory of Gibson Guitar Corp. The building’s brick smoke stack continues to bear the Gibson name. Word that PlazaCorp planned to dismantle it last year was met by pleas from community members to save the historically significant structure.

“There is a community campaign to save the stack and we are working with them on a long-term vision for that,” Sobko said.

Gibson closed its operations in Kalamazoo in 1984 after re-establishing its headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee. The company was founded in Kalamazoo in 1894. Since the 1940s, its instruments have been some of the most widely used in rock ‘n’ roll and other popular music.

The former Gibson guitar makers who chose to stay here rather than relocate with Gibson, kept the guitar factory in use.

Jim Deurloo, one of the founders of Heritage Guitar, and until April 1, a co-owner of the company, said he is encouraged by the resources that he expects the new owners to bring.

“They’re concentrating on quality,” Deurloo said. “They’re concentrating on supplying the product and telling our story — about how we started and where we are now.”