When Jim Dombrowski, a trained guitar instructor, lost his job due to a store closure in 1986, his wife, Karen, was quick with a solution. That solution turned out to be Jim’s Music, and the first store opened in Escanaba, Michigan.
Although they never planned to own a business, the store quickly became a success. A second store was added in Marquette, Michigan, in 2003 and a third in Iron Mountain, Michigan, in 2007. In 2010, the Dombrowskis bought out a bankrupt store in Green Bay and EJ Dombrowski, Jim’s son, was ready to step into the role of manager. "I grew up in the business," EJ Dombrowski said. "By age 8, I was helping with sounding, recitals and events. At age 16, I was a guitar instructor."
Through college and an assortment of odd jobs, Dombrowski had a clear goal for the future. He would obtain a business and music degree and return home to work in the family business. In 2008, he took over as manager of the Iron Mountain location; then moved to Green Bay to manage that store.
"I was young, and if you asked me then, I would have said I knew it all," he said. "I was teaching initially, but handled marketing and came up with advertising campaigns. I felt like I was on top of it all, but looking back, I realize how much I had to learn."
The learning included a broadening in understanding that things are not as black and white as he thought. That realization affected his management style.
"When you manage people, you need to recognize the best way to work with them," he said. "You don’t want to be a dictator, but should lead them into the right solution."
That same approach, he said, works best with customers. It is important to ask questions and find out what that person wants. Don’t make assumptions; the aim is to lead them to the right product or service.
And that philosophy has had great success. Dombrowski is a goal setter, but although those goals might have seemed optimistic at the time, he is far eclipsing them. The four store managers meet quarterly and then annually to see if they are on course to reach goals via an Entrepreneurial Operating System created by Dombrowski to chart one-year, two-year and five-year goals.
"The system was hard to set up, but to be honest, it was exciting to see the growth. We set up a five-year goal and hit it in two. If we hadn’t set those goals, that probably wouldn’t have happened. We were up 25% in rentals last year — that was huge," he said.
While many other music stores have felt the effects of ecommerce and gone out of business, Dombrowski said he has embraced it.
"You can’t make the same profit margins you used to make. We know that customers will find the same product online so we have to be competitive with that. We also sell on eBay and Amazon," he added.
In addition, Jim’s Music has found a niche. While most music stores have independent contractors as instructors, Jim’s has them as employees. This change in 2017 has led to greater consistency in programming and the lesson quality is better and more standardized. There are 15 teachers who give lessons in piano and a variety of instruments.
Recitals are held four times a year to showcase the students with larger events twice a year. All are held at the Neville Public Museum Recital Hall. The mix of students ranges in age from very young to the oldest student at 92 who just decided to take up piano. The benefits are clear.
"Music is something you have forever," Dombrowski said. "I played football in high school, but I don’t play anymore. But when I learned an instrument, this is something I have forever. You can always do it."
That love motivates him to get more people involved in music. He wants to see sales and rentals grow and to build a sales team that can make a good living and has a better benefits package. As he works toward that goal, he works long hours and is an active community volunteer. He now believes that learning is a continuous process and leans on his dad’s experience and also has SCORE mentors to assist.
Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and past district director for SCORE, Wisconsin.