When Larry Frye, owner of String Instrument Workshop in Green Bay, looks back on his 40 years as a business owner, he would probably tell you that his journey has been better than he ever expected.
"I thought the store would give me the chance to work on really nice instruments and be challenged by the work itself," Frye said. "It took a while to see that it wasn't the instruments that made the business special, it was the owners of the instruments."
In working with customers, he finds a shared love and passion for music, and as a musician, Frye understands what musicians are looking for.
"To me, it doesn't matter whether you're playing a $200 instrument or a $20,000 instrument, each instrument deserves professional, careful attention," Frye said. "And, I know the passion that musicians bring to their art. I try to bring that same type of passion into the work that I do."
In that, he has been successful. It wasn't his dream to own a business; things fell into place, step by step. His skills developed from an early age. With parents who believed in the benefits of music, he took up violin in middle school and learned piano in high school.
"My brother and I started the instruments together," he said. "But he quit after high school and I made it a career."
Frye majored in music at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and was planning to be a performer when his counselor steered him toward teaching where more jobs would be available. He was pointed in yet another direction when his violin instructor, who repaired violins out of his home, needed part-time help. He took the job, and then opened his own shop.
"I started a shop in my parents' basement while I was in college," Frye said. "It was exciting to learn. I don't think something like this comes naturally. You have to work at it."
Continuing on that trajectory, he decided against taking a teaching job and took a position in repair. From there, at just 24 years old, he was hired at Red Wing Technical College in Minnesota to develop and teach a musical instrument repair program.
"At the time, it was the only curriculum like that in the country. There were serious students and hobby students. I started out with an empty classroom and got to create the program," he said.
During that time, he says he learned more than any of his students. That prepared him for the next step when he moved to Green Bay, his wife's hometown, with their 5-year-old son and decided to start the business.
His preparation and business plan were simple. He checked for competition and discovered there wasn't any. It was a wide-open market where he could fill a niche.
"Initially, we started with restoration and repair as the focus, and within a year, added sales of instruments and accessories," Frye said. "I determined what to do through customer demand."
That reliance on demand has continued and grown throughout the decades.
Frye said he relies on experience rather than a business plan and was surprised to come across it not long ago and discover how much it has changed. He originally expected to do work with the school systems, but instead found it went more toward individuals as customers and commercial work for music stores.
As the store grew, he purchased and renovated a building in downtown Green Bay. At the time, his son planned to work with him full time, but having learned so well from his father, his son now works in Chicago at one of the top repair jobs in the country. Frye says he is a one-man show, but as a Green Bay SCORE client, looks years into the future to plan an exit strategy when the time is right.
In the interim, he continues to do what he loves and adds to his collection of stories. He talks about an instrument that a customer thought was worthless but was actually worth about $50,000, about how he amassed an intriguing collection of instrument strings, and about the role that performing in Green Bay has had in his life.
Frye has performed with shows and stars at the Weidner Center and has had performers stop at his shop.
"A few years ago, I was looking at the cover of Strings Magazine and there were three prominent musicians featured on the cover," he said. "All three had been in my store as customers or just stopping in to see it."
But, while Frye can't help but smile when he remembers having a tour bus pull up at his front door, it is music that is his greatest joy.
"If you think of your life without music, it would be pretty bland," Frye said. "There is a need for people to be creative, and music adds dimension to someone that doesn't come from anything else."
Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and past district director for SCORE, Wisconsin.