NEWPORT, Maine — What do top chef Mario Batali, the University of Texas Longhorn Band, Scott Travis of Judas Priest, Weber barbecue grills, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra have in common?
Each uses and endorses products made at a century-old factory in Newport.
Everett “Vic” Firth, who spent 50 years as the timpanist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is the world’s largest maker of drumsticks. Firth’s company, which bears his name, also makes 400 other products, distributed in 175 countries: brushes and other percussion items, keyboard and timpani mallets, practice pads and drum bags as well as some of the country’s finest pepper mills and rolling pins.
Interesting? Wait until you hear this.
Every year since Vic Firth bought the company in 1994, it has had double-digit growth.
“Today, we are up 12 percent over last year,” Firth said earlier this week during a tour of his 60,000-square-foot facility on the banks of Sebasticook Lake. This is in a year when most manufacturers are reporting flat revenues or losses.
Some people may be forgoing medication to buy heating oil, but Firth said musicians would always need their instruments.
“We are selling the drummers’ bread and butter,” he said. “They may think twice before buying a new set of drums, but they always need sticks.” In fact, he said, they need 15 million a year.
That’s 75 pallets of kiln-dried, Appalachian hickory, each and every day. Firth employs 140 people at the complex of buildings in Newport, and 25 in Boston, where the marketing and shipping take place.
“Yes, it may be 15 million,” Firth joked, “but then a man in green pants and purple hair breaks it in one rim shot!”
Although Firth, now 77, lives in Boston, he is no absentee owner. A slight man, dressed nattily and with a quick smile and sincere laugh, Firth is at the Newport plant at least one day a week. He meanders through the complex of buildings, talking and greeting workers, shaking their hands and addressing them by name.
Firth said one of the keys to the company’s success is that he is a hands-on leader. He is involved in every aspect of the company, including product development.
When asked if it would make sense to move his plant closer to his wood supply, Firth is quick to defend his choice to remain in Newport.
“Maine is still more accessible to me. We deal strictly with wholesalers, so we don’t have concerns about selling from this location,” he said. “We have a great crew here. Maine people are willing to work. They are sincere and honest. These people do a helluva job for me.
“In fact, we are adding employees,” Firth said, noting that some of his workers were displaced from Moosehead Furniture.
A quick tour of the rambling complex of buildings reveals an immaculate work environment. Although the process can be noisy, some workers have spectacular views of Sebasticook Lake while they work. “My office,” Firth said, “faces the men’s room.”
The plant is filled with the clean, earthy smell of hickory and sawdust. “We are 93 percent percussion and 7 percent gourmet,” Firth said.
On one floor of the factory, exquisite salt and pepper mills are created as well as a full line of rolling pins. When Firth bought the business 14 years ago, it was Banton Bros. The mills, pins, beater bars for Electrolux vacuum cleaners, wooden knobs for the tops of Calvin Klein men’s colognes, wooden apples — they were all part of the business.
“But little by little the Chinese killed us,” Firth said. He has cut back and now produces a high-end series of gourmet products. “This we could do profitably,” he said.
He also increases his profitability by using waste wood to create steam heat for the facility. A small series of fires over the past few years prompted him to install a dust collector that gets rid of the very explosive sawdust.
Another key to Firth’s success is his education programs. The company offers training programs for drum teachers. “I wasn’t so far ahead of everyone else because I’m so good,” he said. “It was because I had a good teacher.”
These drumming programs are offered all over the world and several were just completed in Montreal, Bologna, Austin and San Francisco. “We need to plant these seeds because that will be a lot of our growth,” Firth said.
The future looks very bright, Firth said. “We are looking at great growth in the next five years,” he said. “We are getting ready to release 12 new products by January.”