“Create Stepping Stones!”

Andrew Cooper, Andrew Cooper & Co Pipe Organ Builder

Having learned my trade over ten years, I wanted to branch out. But I had no training in running a business so I wasn't brave enough to go for it, says of Andrew Cooper & Co Pipe Organ Builders based in Ryde.

I am an organ builder specialising in the restoration, rebuilding tuning and servicing of pipe organs. It's a very quiet and conservative niche and your reputation is vital. Producing sometimes complex reports and estimates but getting the pricing wrong would be disaster!

So I partnered up and we developed a successful business over 23 years. Having learned from that, I got more confident about branching out. Five years ago I started up and we're doing well.

You have to adjust your pace of development to your market. This three-step 'career' has worked well for me.

The Island has the oldest working organ in the UK at Carisbrooke Castle Museum – it's 414 years old. We work on most of the Island organs but that alone can't sustain us.

We've travelled from Westminster to India. Recently we've been around France, Malta and we have an order for Gibraltar Cathedral.

Obviously, travel is part of the job for any organ builder. Living on the Island is not a problem. Despite the costs of the Solent, we find enough savings to stay here...

as published by IW County Press, Column by Dave Simon

Small Is Beautiful

Commentary from Dave Simon

Specialising is a tricky strategy.

Done well, it can greatly increase your revenue. That is why it is worth understanding your market, looking for details.

Big data is all the rage in some industries. But specialisation needs attention to slow trends, minority interests and small pockets of need. It often takes personal judgement, sometimes against the flow of statistics.

The trick is to find a small area where you can rise to the top of the demand. That allows you to focus, to become expert, and to answer customer needs swiftly and confidently. This boosts your fame and shrinks your marketing costs. And you regain time lost trying to cover everything. Perfect!

The danger is that you over-estimate the opportunity. Narrowing so much that there aren't enough customers is one risk. Upsetting a few customers who could ruin your reputation quickly is another.

The Island needs new money brought into our economy. The tourist sector seems unlikely to accelerate. Government grants seem further away now. European support may disappear.

But many small trades and professions do bring profits quietly back to the Island. So they should join the list of heroes helping to rescue the Island's economy.

More about Andrew Cooper's experience

While organ building is precision work, every job is different. It is a craft, and we use the same methods as the original builders maybe 500 years ago. It's a long tradition, and we all want the job done right. There are no short-cuts.

Branching Out

I worked in a well-established national company based up North for ten years, learning my trade. Then I felt I wanted to work more independently, so I partnered up and we developed a successful business based in the South.

Setting out on my own was almost an artistic statement. I wanted to express myself in the way the business was run. While organ repairing is about exact replacement, I wanted to set my own stamp on the quality of work, the speed of response, the working relationship with the customer.

This is a vocation – high quality means a lot of skilled time investment. While that costs a lot, I don't make a lot of profit. Much of it is reinvested back into the business for necessary specialist tools, new vehicles and safety equipment. Many people don't realise that parts of the organ are up in the roof, or down in a dusty cellar – we probably have to be as safety conscious as steeple-jacks!

Growing Slowly

And profits have to support each new member of staff. Every new job a business creates is an investment. While the training costs money, the fact is that it can take a long time before a new employee reaches full productivity – in organ building it is three years, depending on the individual.

While it is true that you never stop learning, there is also a cost to the mistakes you make along the way. When we have to make or mend something twice, the materials cost is small compared to the labour cost. That is a lot of investment to grow the business.

Our Poor Island

I'm Island born and bred and I returned here some years ago. I've stayed here despite travelling so much because the low workshop rental cost allows me savings that make up for the ferry costs.

The Island is short of money. That is obvious to me as I travel around the country. And the Island does not compare well, I'm sorry to say. Our disappointment shows more than our enthusiasm. We need to be more positive in attitude and in action – we have such a beautiful place here.

I feel our tourism industry needs to pull its socks up. It needs to tidy up to minimise the distractions from the beauty around us. It needs to provide better value for money – not by being cheaper, but by being better. I know about quality and how that commands a good price.

Down With Apathy!

Our biggest enemy is apathy. Sinking into a depressed attitude puts tourists off. We need to be ambitious – that's the opposite. We need to accept that it is hard work and get on with it. Otherwise the recession will amplify our depression.

I admire the people who employ large numbers of people. It's such a responsibility – to keep finding that ever-lasting steam of orders that gives the security to people in their jobs. I guess employees often don't understand that – they just want to do their job and switch off. That's OK, but the reality is that the business needs more than people just doing jobs. It needs enthusiasm, belief and commitment.

Helping Youngsters

Church organs live longer than we do. Churches and perfectionist quality work might not seem to go with youth.

It may be a shrinking market as church closures continue, but the organs still need care. And Music Colleges do still teach organ playing, so it's far from a dying occupation.

True, a few places have switched over to digital organs, which have a lifespan of 17.5 years on average. That's nothing compared to a wood, metal and leather original that will last 100 years without too much trouble. So we will need organ builders for many generations to come.

Not all organ builders play the instrument, but I do. In fact I started very young – piano at 6 and organ at 9. That started a career that led me to five years on the Executive Board of the Institute of British Organ Building and ten years on the Church Buildings Council's Organs Committee.

We have a very long tradition of teaching youngsters. Apprentices are the only way the trade will survive – there is not enough call for dedicated College courses on organ building, though the Institute of British Organ Building devotes a lot of time to encouraging training and are trying to set up a course resulting in recognised qualifications. It is a long and slow process which relies heavily on a few dedicated volunteers who are investing a lot of their time for the good of British Organ Building. And when you consider that most of the 350 or so of us in the UK are already over 60, it's essential we train up replacements!

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