The Beat Goes On

Vic Firth's factory in Maine turns out 85,000 to 90,000 drumsticks a day.
Vic Firth's factory in Maine turns out 85,000 to 90,000 drumsticks a day.
From the north woods of Maine, a success story. Drumsticks … 85,000 a day … as a testimony to American ingenuity, and hard work. A lesson in what you could call "stick-to-it-tive-ness" with Russ Mitchell:

What do legendary drummer Buddy Rich, Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones, and master chef Mario Batali have in common?

The tools of their trade.

Drumsticks of all kinds … along with pepper mills and rolling pins … are all made by Vic Firth at his factory in Newport, Maine.

"Are you surprised at how successful your company has become?" Mitchell asked.

"Am I surprised? Maybe shocked is a better word!" Firth laughed.

Even today, in the midst of the recession, Vic Firth's factory turns out between 85,000 and 90,000 drumsticks a day!

That's 140 jobs in a part of the country where jobs are scarce and many factories have closed, or moved their operations to China.

"From jazz to classical to rock, to metal to marching bands to drum corps, we got a stick for all purposes," Firth said.

Four hundred different models of drumsticks, all made from Appalachian hickory from Tennessee, dried in Firth's own kilns, shaped and molded and measured to his own strict specifications, then computer-matched by weight and pitch, and shipped all over the world.

Firth says his company has a 62 percent share in the drumstick market.

"From a business standpoint, what's the secret to your success?" Mitchell asked.

"Quality, innovation, new products," he said.

Not to mention drive ... along with discipline, determination and a love of music, particularly drumming, that was there right from the start.

Firth started as a teenager ("I had a 14-piece, 15-piece band"), and by 21, Firth had earned a spot in the prestigious Boston Symphony Orchestra, a spot he held, as principal timpanist, for 50 years.

"When I go back to Symphony Hall, it's like a temple of music for me. It's an overwhelming aura."

Today, at age 77, Firth has retired from the orchestra, but he's still greeted as a rock star when he visits Symphony Hall.

What makes him so beloved here?

Bass player Lawrence Wolff said, "Constancy, consistancy, musicianship. He may be a captain of industry, but it's his musical and personal presence, at all times, that has earned my undying respect."

"He was always a pussycat!" Firth said of Wolff.

It was behind big timpani drums that Firth came up with the idea of making a better drumstick.

"The sticks I could buy commercially didn't measure up to what I had to do," he said.

He began making, and selling, drumsticks from his basement at home. Then one day …

"I dropped a bunch of sticks on the floor one day, and heard all these different pitches."

The secret to his product's tag line - "the perfect pair" - is matching the sticks' qualities. "Moisture content, weight, density, pitch are identical between these two pieces of wood," Firth demonstrated.

Fifty years later, he's still innovating, like a signature pepper mill of chef Mario Batali. "He said he wanted an orange pepper mill," Firth recalled, "and I said, 'It'll never sell.' It's one of the best sellers we have!"

Firth says the recession hasn't really affected his business because, even if someone didn't have enough money to buy a new drum set, they could afford sticks, what he likens to "bread and butter."

And what is Firths' secret for success?

"The key word for me is persistence," he said. "Whatever you set out to do, you have to have a magnum passion for it, and you've got to work beyond what you ever dreamed you're gonna work to succeed at the level that you want to succeed at.

"Persistence, persistence, persistence!"

A lesson in stick-to-it-tive-ness.

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