Meet KRF Chairman & Willis Music Co. President Kevin Cranley
By SARAH ROWLETTE
Since the age of 12, Kevin Cranley has worked at Willis Music Company, a retailer and more widely-known publisher of sheet music.
Kevin got his start with the company’s publications division but after graduating college moved into the retail side, running Willis’ retail stores. Fresh out of college, Kevin said it was a large responsibility for a 22 year old kid.
“So here I am, I had worked retail in one of our stores after school near where I lived but I didn’t have the background to take on such a task,” said Cranley.
While he had good people around him and a passion for business, he had to learn the hard way. Kevin says he doesn’t want it to be that way for Colleen, his youngest daughter, who is being groomed to one day follow in her father’s footsteps.
“She’s been on a development plan and learning all aspects of the business and I think that’s the way it should happen,” Kevin explained.
Willis Music Company has always been a family business but ran by three families over the years. Following two early owners, Mr. Willis and Gustave Schirmer, the Cranley family became involved when Kevin’s grandfather took over in 1955.
While Kevin didn’t come into the business with the passion for music because he didn’t play in school, he says that’s certainly changed over the years.
Under Kevin’s leadership, Willis Music Company expanded their stores and in 1989 he took over as the company’s president.
Willis Music Company has five retail locations and a corporate office. Their retail stores can be found in central and northern Kentucky as well as Ohio.
Their West Chester, Ohio location is a company that Willis bought in recent years. That store specialized in band and orchestra rentals and the purchase of the business almost doubled Willis Music Company’s band rental division.
Willis has three and a half employees out on the roads, visiting middle and high school band directors and parents of students interested or participating in the school band.
“We’re visiting most of these band directors every week, same time each week, we discuss their needs and take care of any repairs they might have; this is an extremely important part of our business,” said Kevin. “We cover a large area of central Kentucky out of the Lexington store and then approximately a 50 miles radius out from Cincinnati, into Indiana and into eastern Ohio.”
The band rental division isn’t the only outreach for Willis – the company also services churches with its piano division doing analysis of worship areas or the company’s repair person doing sound installation, and universities representing Yamaha for the state of Kentucky and Steinway and Sons in Greater Cincinnati and Dayton.
The company’s involvement in the community also takes place in the form of music lessons and recitals. Willis has recital halls in multiple stores where students can showcase what they’ve learned.
“Music education has always been the foundation of our company. When somebody comes in to buy a guitar, we’ll talk to them about lessons first. ‘So you want to play guitar, how are you going to learn?’ And maybe they have someone that’s going to teach them, that’s great. We’re thrilled,” said Cranley. “But we just hate for someone to have a disappointing experience and forever say I wasn’t very good at music. It’s not true, everybody can play.”
Willis is best known outside the region for its publishing division.
“We’re known outside of this region as a publisher and not as a retailer and that’s a global business,” said Cranley. “We probably have the number one selling piano method of all time – the John Thompson Piano Course. John Thompson’s books alone are published in 17 different languages.”
Kevin says one of the greatest things about having a family-owned business is that you’re able to combine family and business.
“It’s not always easy. I worked for my dad and we were both pretty hard-headed but we were very close. I see my daughter every day,” he explained. “I’m 60 years old and when my friends are talking about when they’re going to retire, it’s not even in my thought process. It would be extremely difficult to completely walk away from the business. I’m having too much fun to think about walking away. Ultimately when I begin to wind down, my management team and Colleen will have everything under control and I’ll just contribute where they need me. But like I said, not even on my radar at this point.”
MR. CRANLEY GOES TO WASHINGTON
Music education is a major pillar of Willis Music Company’s mission. Over the years, Kevin has made a point to do his part in advocating for music education through about nine trips to Washington, D.C.
“If we can just get every school to recognize that music isn’t an extracurricular activity, it is part of a well-rounded education, our education improves dramatically. Studies all over the world all point out that music education assists the student with a wide variety of skills. From better math and English scores to increased teamwork, confidence and self-worth. A foundation in music education simply leads to a more fulfilling life,” stated Kevin.
Cranley has made the trip to Washington, D.C. several times in recent years, on behalf of KRF and retailers across the commonwealth, lobbying for changes in retail issues such as sales tax fairness, data breach, credit card processing fees and more.
“Becoming involved with our industry organizations has helped me and my company tremendously.” said Cranley.
Willis Music Company has been involved in many music associations for years. Kevin served as chairman of the National Association of Music Merchants (more recently known as the International Music Products Association) and traveled the world speaking at conferences over the two-year term. Other groups that have had a major impact on Willis Music Company include the Alliance of Independent Music Merchants and the Omega Group, which is a group of thirteen retailers who gather to critique two of the group’s store each year to continually improve.
Willis Music Company became involved with the Kentucky Retail Federation through the health insurance program. It wasn’t long before the company decided to move their workers compensation insurance to KRF as well.
“Both programs introduced Willis to so many benefits of being a member of KRF but the savings in health and workers compensation alone make being a member a no brainer,” said Cranley.
Kevin says the relationships he’s made through attending trips to Washington for the Retail Advocates Summit and his involvement on the board have been extremely beneficial in discovering new ideas and learning from peers in the industry.
“For any retailer to be involved in an organization like KRF just allows you to expand your perspective,” said Cranley.
“I think for various reasons we tend to just look within our own companies, but I believe that is shortsighted,” said Kevin. “I give my father credit for seeing that involvement in organizations like KRF can be critically important to being a better leader. My grandfather frowned upon sharing with other companies so my dad never experienced it, but he saw that it was a mistake so he pushed me to join and share. I honestly don’t know where we would be today without the input and sharing with the groups we belong to. Fifty years ago, business didn’t change a whole lot year to year, now it is changing so rapidly I don’t think anybody can focus just on themselves anymore and not learn from others.”