'Quintessential' California banjo maker enjoys stellar year
One day in 1963, a San Diego kid and his friends got their hands on an album by a popular folk group. Greg Deering, 12 at the time, recalls studying the musicians on the cover and thinking, “I've got to get a banjo” — not out of love for the twangy instrument, but mainly because his pal already had a guitar.
Fifty years later, Greg, his wife, Janet, and his daughter, Jamie preside over the bestselling banjo-making business in the country.
From a small Spring Valley, Calif., factory, the Deering Banjo Co. is having its best year ever, defying the nation's skills gap and California's manufacturing doldrums. It has expanded and trained its own workforce and expects to top $4 million in sales for the year ending June 30.
Greg Deering, 62, is the creative force behind the banjo design and the machinery used to build them. Janet Deering, 58, handles operations. Daughter Jamie Deering, 34, might have the most fun job: liaison with the company's big-name roster of professional musician customers.
During the company's 38-year history, it has developed a loyal following from the likes of Taylor Swift, Keith Urban, the Dixie Chicks, Steve Martin and Mumford & Sons. Artists who play Deering banjos were nominated for a total of 13 Grammys this year.
Two of Deering's fans illustrate how the company has managed to ride the banjo's renaissance as an instrument that crosses several musical genres as varied as country, reggae and indie rock.
“It's great working with a family company, an American company that really cares about the artist and making top-quality banjos,” said Jeff DaRosa, singer, bassist and banjo player for the Dropkick Murphys, the Boston-based Celtic punk band.
Scotty Morris, lead vocalist of the contemporary swing revival band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, called Deering Banjo “the quintessential American instrument builder.”
“When I call Deering, I talk to a Deering, and I like that almost as much as I love the instruments they build,” Morris said.
That kind of reputation, combined with specially crafted manufacturing tools and a skilled, veteran workforce has helped the company weather the recession and cheap competition from China. Deering has been able to expand its workforce in a way that other companies have not, growing to 42 workers from 30 a year ago.
If you ask the Deerings what their greatest challenge has been, the answer has been running the business in California, particularly during a run-up in workers' compensation insurance premiums that began under Gov. Gray Davis.
“That nearly put us out of business. We're still paying off some of those debts,” Greg Deering said, noting that the company has remained in California mostly because the family considers it home.
“And because we are stubborn. We are so stubborn,” Janet Deering said.
Deering Banjo's main path to success has been “being efficient. Not being afraid to be innovative,” Greg Deering said.
Inside the 18,000-square-foot factory, he's like a man walking through his garage workshop. He not only designs the guitars and many of the machines that make them, he's personally involved with the fretting work and inlay work on some of the instruments.
“We just bring pallets of wood in and raw boards, and we turn those into banjos,” he said, as if the whole process was simple.
Mostly, Greg Deering credits his workforce for the quality of the finished product.
Some of Deering Banjo's employees have been at the company for 30 years or more and came with considerable skills.
But he said skills aren't necessary for the newest employees, trained through an apprenticeship-style program.
“What really matters is that they are conscientious and responsible people,” he said. “That is really the most important thing. The rest can be taught.”
Along the way, he said, there have been moments he said he never could have imagined. One of them was buying the Vega Banjo company, makers of the banjo he had ogled in a music store as a child, but couldn't afford.
The best might have been making banjos for the members of a certain singing group he once idolized.
“We've made banjos for the Kingston Trio,” he said, “and that's something I never could have imagined happening.”