Corner Office: Henry Juszkiewicz, Chairman/CEO of Gibson Brands, on Surviving Scandal and Setting Up Shop on the Sunset Strip

Joseph Llanes
Henry Juszkiewiez photograped by Joseph Llanes at Gibson Guitar in Nashville, Tennessee on Nov. 5, 2014.

The guitarist-turned-CEO on reimagining a 118-year-old company, surviving scandal and setting up shop on the Sunset Strip.

A conversation with Henry Juszkiewicz, chairman/CEO of Gibson Brands, is as colorful as his office and conference room -- peppered with rustic asides and anecdotes about guitar legends like Les Paul and B.B. King and revealing a reverence and appreciation for their impact on the 118-year-old company. Among the items lining the walls of his Nashville office: thank-you letters from Dolly Parton and Dwight Yoakam, an invitation to play golf from the Clinton Foundation signed by the 42nd U.S. president, a plaque from the mayor of Waukesha, Wis. (Paul's hometown), an oil painting of company founder Orville Gibson and enough six-strings to open a small retail shop.

A guitarist himself, Juszkiewicz, 61, bought a nearly bankrupt Gibson Guitar Corporation in 1986, just seven years out of Harvard Business School, and promptly went about diversifying the brand with lines of drums (Slingerland) and keyboards (Baldwin Piano & Organ Company, Deutsche Wurlitzer), eventually venturing into audio, acquiring Stanton Group, a manufacturer of Stanton DJ products in addition to KRK monitors and Cerwin-Vega loudspeakers, in 2011. In April, Gibson acquired WOOX Innovations, a division of Dutch technology giant Philips that makes consumer entertainment products. During Juszkiewicz's tenure, Gibson has grown from a $700 million company to one valued at more than $3 billion, with nearly 5,000 employees worldwide and a global market share that he estimates at 40 percent.

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It hasn't always been smooth sailing for the married father of two. In 2009, Gibson made headlines for a U.S. Department of Justice raid investigating illegally imported wood -- no charges were brought but a settlement was reached in 2012. And Gibson is looking to gain goodwill with an experiential retail store in the iconic Tower Records building on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Juszkiewicz, who co-chaired ASCAP's Nov. 17 Centennial Awards, talks about the changing market for guitars, Gibson's incredibly consistent growth and what song to play for a room full of drunk people.

Some say guitar-based rock'n'roll is dead. What's your take?

From everything I see around me, it's still a viable category. ... Our business is not nearly as volatile as hit-record-driven businesses can be. There are lots of guitarists who don't play rock; they play all sorts of genres. Also, when I came into the industry, 95 percent of the customer base was male. Now, more and more women are playing. The guitar business has been extremely stable for almost 100 years, and it's growing.

What inspired you to take over the former Tower Records location?

One objective was to show that we're not really a guitar company anymore: We're a music company with a lot of different assets, many of which are in the consumer electronics field. This is a dream I've had for an experience store not unlike what Nike does in their field. Their stores demonstrate their products but are also learning centers for consumers.

Gibson has long issued artists' signature models -- Dave Grohl and Robby Krieger are two recent ones -- as well as vintage-model reissues. How do they sell compared with new models?

Many of the artist models are done on a very selective basis. So as a percentage of our production, they're fairly modest. That's what makes them more desirable, because they're, in fact, limited runs.

The first Les Paul was issued in 1952. Why do you think that guitar has stayed so popular for so long?

It's a player's instrument: the way it feels, the size. ... Gibson instruments [have] a shorter scale length than our honorable competitor [Fender]. What that means is there's less tension when you press the strings, so you can do bends more easily. There are a lot of aspects to it that are very subtle from a guitar-design standpoint, and that's mainly because it was designed by a guitar player. Les had played many guitars before designing one. He did a really great job.

The company has grown massively since you came in. Was it a slow build? Were there up and down years?

We have had in excess of a 30 percent ­annual growth rate since 1986.

What has been the primary driver?

Acquisitions, because they were so sizable, are the majority of our growth at this point. But we continue to expand market share in our core business. We have something like 27 offices with thousands of people in various countries. As an example, we have 100 people in Russia, and that's a fairly big market for us. About a third of our revenue is in BRIC countries [Brazil, Russia, India and China]. We have 20 percent of our revenue in South America. Through the Philips home-entertainment acquisition, we're one of the top five brands selling consumer electronics in China. And we do very well with guitars. We've been in China almost 10 years selling musical instruments.

Even though there were no ­charges brought by the U.S. government in regard to illegal wood imports ­allegedly used for Gibson's custom guitars, do you worry the brand has been tarred by the controversy?

I'm sure some people hold a bad view of us. But with social media, we're able to track exactly how many people that is, and we had remarkable statistics of something on the order of 97 to 98 percent supported us. It was the government that came out looking bad, not Gibson. Overall we gained in stature.

Did anything change? Any supply-chain practices?

Absolutely. Everything goes through our legal department now.

You were in bands in your youth. What kind of music did you play?

I used to do a lot of weddings, anything from Frank Sinatra to the bunny hop to rock'n'roll. The most fun thing was to play [Dave Brubeck's] "Take Five." Everybody's drunk. The song has a 5/4 time signature. We used to have a ball watching people try to dance to it.

How much did your musical past play a part in acquiring Gibson?

A lot, actually -- the opportunity was brought to me because people knew I was into guitars. But really, I was the typical customer: I was not a professional, I've been paid to play, but I had a day job. So I understood who was buying Gibsons.

This article first appeared in the Nov. 29 issue of Billboard.