The Spectator’s Economic Disruptor of the Year Awards 2019, sponsored by Julius Baer, are open for entries at www.spectator.co.uk/disruptor. We’re looking for innovators from every part of the UK who are disrupting their marketplace in terms of price, choice and accessibility and have the potential to scale up, nationally and internationally.
Meanwhile, a shining example of all those attributes: in the third of our series of inspirational stories about UK entrepreneurs, Martin Vander Weyer talks to Steven Greenall, founder of Warwick Music Group — the plastic instrument maker that was Midlands regional finalist in The Spectator’s 2018 Economic Disruptor of the Year Awards.
Steven Greenall was nine when his music teacher brought a shiny tubular object into the classroom and asked ‘Does anyone want to play this?’ Steven immediately raised his hand. ‘The trombone chooses you,’ he tells me: it chose him that day and has played a huge part in his life ever since.
He grew up to play in and conduct big bands and student orchestras — and marry a clarinettist — but never saw himself becoming a full-time musician. Instead, having studied electrical engineering at Warwick University, followed by a masters in cultural policy and business administration, his entrepreneurial urge led him to establish Warwick Music in 1994 as a supplier of brass and woodwind sheet music. While that relatively modest business ticked along, he spent seven years as executive director of the US-based International Trombone Association, a role that included running festivals as far afield as Beijing and Brazil.
Then, in 2007, he was headhunted by a small venture capital fund in the creative sector — and turned his mind to the ‘pretty dire’ condition of music education in the UK. In the state school sector in particular, music teaching was diminishing and learners were discouraged by lack of access to brass, woodwind and string instruments that typically cost hundred of pounds even at the starter level. Steven’s response was to set out to create an instrument that played like a trombone, with no compromise on sound quality, but was also affordable and fun.
The answer was to use plastic technologies adapted from the automotive industry that is clustered around Warwick — durable, largely recycled plastic being no worse for the environment, and possibly better, than brass. But there was ‘no manual’ for the design process, only patient trial and error. With two fellow musicians, Hugh Rashleigh (still a shareholder) and Chris Fower (now Warwick’s director of creativity), he persevered for three years — on the principle attributed to Winston Churchill that ‘success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm’ — until they perfected the robust, lightweight, maintenance-free and brightly coloured ‘pBone’, which currently sells for £109 with a ‘mini’ version at £79. When the pBone was launched on Warwick’s website in 2010, the team watched in happy astonishment as their first stock of 500 instruments sold out in just 19 minutes.
Manufactured to high specifications in Guangzhou, China, Warwick’s range has been extended to plastic trumpets and cornets (some made to look exactly like polished brass) and the simplified six-note pBuzz starter instrument, suitable for kids as young as three and priced at just £16.99. Hundreds of thousands of children, in schools across the US as well as in the UK, have discovered music through Warwick instruments.
Warwick notched up sales growth of 43 per cent last year, bringing accolades for the company as an export champion. A tireless traveller (he was heading for California the day after we spoke), Steven Greenall clearly relishes the success of his business as a true disruptor of a sector that had otherwise seen little change over the past century. But above all, he says, ‘our team gets a huge kick from seeing the next generation of musicians pick up a pBone’.
The closing date for entries to the Awards is Friday 7 June 2019.
For details of how to enter, please visit www.spectator.co.uk/disruptor
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