Westend Piano keeps banging away
High-end piano restorer wrestles with cheap imports, new instrument dealers and electronic models

Trevor Payne has devoted the better part of his life to music. He founded and directs the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir. For the past 30 years, he has been teaching music at John Abbott College. So you'd think that when buying a piano he'd jump on the latest electronic model with the most up-to-date gadgets. Not so.

"I'd never buy a new piano," Payne said. "I don't like the way they sound. I don't like the way they feel. They just don't make them like they used to."

When Payne decided to upgrade earlier this year, he went to see Doug Yeats at Westend Piano. And last week he took delivery of a restored 1899 Steinway seven-foot grand piano, which carries a street price of about $50,000.

"It's an amazing instrument," Payne said, in a telephone interview conducted one hour after his new piano arrived. "When they did the restoration work, you could see the original serial numbers on 20 or 20 of the parts. So I know that it's all original."

Payne isn't the only music professional to have bought a used piano from Westend Piano. Each year Yeats sells between 50 and 75 uprights. The company also does piano tuning, moving and general repairs. But it's the two or three Steinways that Westend restores each year that get Yeats really excited.

"There's not a lot of money to be made in buying and selling uprights," Yeats said. "But restoring a Steinway takes specialized knowledge, and there are a lot of man-hours involved so we can add a lot of value."

Good piano restorers are rare. One Westend Piano employee, Kazuhiko Kaneta, was trained at a specialized school in Japan that is sponsored by the Yamaha piano company. The school has no Canadian equivalent, and when Yeats heard of Kaneta's training, he hired him on the spot. Yet according to Kaneta, Yeats brings far greater attention to detail to his restorations than is common in similar firms in Japan.

"Japanese people don't like to buy used instruments. They want everything new. So when we got used instruments at our shop in Japan, we'd polish them and ship them overseas," Kaneta said. "When Doug restores a piano it's as good as new. He strips it, sands it, paints it, and replaces worn parts like hammers and strings."

Yeats acquired his business the old fashioned way - he inherited it. His father John Yeats, founded the company during the late 1940s along with a partner, whose shares he later bought out. Doug Yates, a well-known amateur wrestler, who is enshrined in the Quebec Sports Hall of Fame, took over after his father passed away in 1996.

During the ensuing years Yeats build up the business rapidly, by doing restoration work for the U.S. market, a practice he phased out during the post-9-11 era, in order to concentrate on domestic demand.

Used piano dealers face stiff competition from new and reconditioned Asian imports, as well as from increasingly cheaper electronic keyboards, that are cutting into the traditional piano market.

In 2001 Yeats bought the 18,000 square foot building in Montreal West, where his company is currently housed for $335,000. As it has for many business owners, Yeat's diversification into real estate turned out to have been one of his more profitable investments. He now estimates the building to be worth at least twice what he paid for it.

According to Joe Ross, president of Pianomart.com,-- a classified advertising service which lists 1,200 used pianos that are for sale in Canada, the U.S. and Europe,-- there are several advantages of owning a used piano.

"You can get one for between 50 and 75 per cent of the cost of a new model, and often they are in perfect shape," Ross said. "There are a lot of people who buy new pianos for their kids' lessons, only to find out the kid loses interest."

According to Ross, older models like the Steinways often have additional prestige and historical value.

"You just don't see the old Victorian craftsmanship and cabinet work on newer models," Ross said.

Payne agreed. "A well restored piano is more than a musical instrument, it's also an impressive piece of furniture that really dominates a room," said Payne of his new possession. "But right now all I want to do is play it."

 

Fact Box:
Company Name: Westend Piano
Web-site: www.westendpiano.com
Owner: Doug Yeats
Founded: 1948
Products: Piano restoration and repairs
Employees: 5
Phone #: 514-486-5373

 

 

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