Doing things the right way makes Elderly Instruments America’s Top Small Business
Success stories might look the same in the end, but they certainly don’t all have the same starting point. By her own account, the president of America’s Top Small Business had no plans for a future when she was younger.
“I lacked ambition,” Lillian Werbin told BOSS with a laugh days after Elderly Instruments took home the top prize on Oct. 19 from among a record-breaking 15,000-plus entrants in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s annual competition that honors small businesses around the country.
Even Werbin’s own father, Stan, told her, “You will be an extra body, please don’t waste our time,” when she asked him if she could work at Elderly out of college.
But she had found her calling in public relations, and she found her passion for the business her dad co-founded in 1972 in the corner of another’s business’ basement.
She commuted 90 minutes to work part-time in the warehouse, picking orders for a year before moving back to Lansing, Mich., to work full-time in the warehouse, showroom, and phone room.
“I found a natural love for the people and what we do,” she said. “I truly can’t see myself anywhere else, which is funny because I couldn’t see myself anywhere at one point.”
That’s a testament to the spirit of Elderly, where about 40 employees work at the storefront in Lansing Old Town where the business moved in the ’80s after progressing from that corner of a basement to the full basement and across the hall.
Today, Elderly has about 36,000 sq. ft. of space to work with in offering new, used, and vintage fretted and stringed instruments to a loyal clientele in Lansing and around the world. Elderly has been doing ecommerce since launching its first website in the ’90s, and there are still real people taking phone orders, answering questions online, and assisting customers in-store. They do it all in-house, from IT to marketing, purchasing, warehouse inventory management, repairs, and appraisals. Just like Werbin and her father, they live the Elderly core values of being community-focused, knowledgeable, enthusiastic, authentic, results-oriented, and resilient.
“America’s innovators and risk-takers are the backbone of our communities and our economy,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Suzanne P. Clark said. “As we celebrate Elderly Instruments — a beacon of excellence in the music retail world and beloved in Old Town Lansing — we celebrate the entrepreneurial spirit of small businesses across America. Their growth and continued success are built on a commitment to innovation, customer satisfaction, and investing in their employees.”
Customer at the Forefront
Lillian Werbin now runs day-to-day business and is the primary decision-maker at Elderly. Stan Werbin is semi-retired and remains a trusted adviser and fount of knowledge of what works for the business, what doesn’t, and why.
“We work to do a constant balance of where we’ve been, where we would like to go, and I maintain where we currently are,” Lillian said.
When Elderly was much smaller, Stan was all of the departments personified, and Lillian is thankful to have worked in all the departments because of the total picture of the business it provided.
“We both took the time to understand how the work gets done and why it gets done, not just knowing it’s getting done for the sake of business,” she said.
Director of operations Dawn discovered the U.S. Chamber contest and encouraged Lillian to apply. In filling out the application, they bonded over their shared love of Elderly – the name comes from a 1971 classified ad in which the seller marketed his vintage guitar as “a nice, elderly instrument” – as they worked to explain how much they care about the business to judges who might know nothing about them.
Elderly sponsors local events, has promotional partnerships with local theaters, and sponsors festival creation, organization, and execution across Michigan and the U.S.
“We put the community and the customer at the forefront of everything we do,” Werbin said in explaining why she thought the Chamber chose Elderly. “That’s displayed in our entire process. Not only are we meeting the community where it is, we’re treating them like family when they’re in-store. Their instrument is our instrument. We treat it with that same amount of care. In everything we do, we are super passionate about doing it the right way and in a way the customer will appreciate.”
What’s next for Elderly after winning the $25,000 grand prize? A bunch of the same, Lillian Werbin hopes.
“I think some things are better left unchanged,” she said. “If we focus on continuing to do good business with good people, I anticipate more will happen for us. I think focusing on what we do best is what we’re successful at.”
Like what the Americana music artists pluck out of Elderly’s instruments, that kind of dedication to customer service has a timeless, universal appeal. Though the tunes might wander, they always bring you home.