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Reverend Guitars - Lust For (Guitar) Life

Destined to be in the guitar business ...

 

by Blake Wright - (adapted by Team HC)

 

 

 

KEN HAAS was a musician by night, and a paint and sand paper salesman by day when he first crossed paths with Reverend Guitars founder Joe Naylor. Ambition, skill and a little bit of luck landed Haas a full time sales director job with the company in 2006. When Naylor was actively looking to sell the company in 2009, Haas and his wife Penny made an offer and by January 2010, Ken Haas was CEO of his favorite guitar company.

 

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IT WAS 1999 when Ken Haas knew that he was destined to be in the guitar business. A chance visit to a Detroit-area Music-Go-Round introduced him to Reverend Guitars — then only a two-year-old company. One of the company’s early guitars was hanging in the shop and Haas noticed the Eastpointe, Michigan stamp on the head stock. Being nearby, he paid a cold-call style visit to Reverend headquarters both to ogle over the guitars and convince Joe Naylor to buy some sand paper. He was successful in both endeavors. In fact, Haas and Naylor hit it off and a quick friendship was formed. Naylor, who obviously saw the salesman potential in Haas, invited him to the Summer NAMM show.

“He asked if I had ever been to one,” recalls Haas. “I didn’t even know what that was. He was like, you should come. He took me as a guest… and I lost it. This was Nashville, when Nashville bled off into the hallways and down the street. I had a moment where I realized I was doing the wrong thing with my life. I was pretty excited. I was hanging out in a booth with Bob McNally (of Strumstick fame) and Will Ray comes to the booth and starts talking to Bob. I join in on the conversation the whole time thinking ‘This is Will Ray! How fucking cool is this?!’ So he looks at my badge and says “Reverend Guitars… what’s that all about, Ken?” So I started telling him how the guitars were made and he thought it was interesting and said he’d have to stop by the booth and check them out. A couple of hours later I walk by the booth and Will is writing Joe a check. He bought two guitars. I come walking into the booth and Will said “Oh Joe, here’s Ken. He’s the guy that told me about the guitars. He’s a real nice guy.” Will goes away and Joe was like “How the fuck did you do that!?” I told him I didn’t know. I just started talking to the dude. Joe said he was going to bring me to every one of these from now on. So that started it with me and Joe.”

 

The 2000 Winter NAMM was a stronger eye-opener for Haas, reinforcing the notion that he needed to be in the MI business. He accompanied Naylor to several trade and public guitar shows over the course of about five or six years, each time taking payment in the form of a new Reverend. To this day, Haas has a stash of about 15 guitars from days past — his ‘payment’ for services rendered. Haas would eventually leave his paint sales job in 2003. He and a colleague from another band had aims to start up a car business, which would flounder and result in Haas buying out his partner’s end. He closed it at the end of 2005, but it served as a vital part of his business development.

“I did my own books, I did my own payroll,” says Haas. “I learned how to run a difficult business that has chunks of money coming and going.”

Ahead of the 2006 Winter NAMM show, Haas convinced Naylor to hire him for a month. He would do NAMM right, setting up appointments ahead of the show and following up with potential dealers afterwards. Naylor agreed. This was a pivotal show for the Reverend brand as it was introducing its Stage King line, consisting of its Korean-made Flatroc, Charger and Jetstream designs. Haas sold over 400 guitars at the show, and Naylor hired him as Reverend’s sales manager.

“So I started working full time,” says Haas. “I lived down here and drove up to Detroit. I did that for a number of years. We did really, really well for a couple of years… until the economy went south in 2008. MI took a huge punch in the gut. We had dealers that were doing really well with us go out of business. Joe, at that point, had had enough.”

Naylor spent most of 2009 trying to find a buyer for Reverend Guitars.

A few companies showed serious interest in the brand and assured Naylor and Haas that they would be transitioned and retained by the new ownership, remaining in their respective roles, but both men knew better. The buyers would have their own people who they would insert into those jobs and leave the Reverend crew in their rear view mirror.

“We were always just a little different,” recalls Haas. “Always just a little quirky and earthy with our stuff and artists. I didn’t want to work for somebody other than Joe. I didn’t want to change the way we did things, because it was starting to work… finally. It was starting it catch on.”

 

Haas found a solution. He, along with his wife Penny, would make an offer to Naylor to buy Reverend Guitars themselves. The offer included guaranteed employment for Naylor and a percentage of what the company did. He accepted. The Haas’ found a building up in Livonia, Michigan in order to keep some of the company’s Detroit-area employees.

“Zack Green, our set-up guy, was who we were most concerned with,” admits Haas. “That first building was about halfway between us and him. When we started in 2010, it was just me full-time, Penny part-time from home, Zack part-time setting up guitars and Steve one day a week doing website stuff. We did $490,000 of business in 2010. That’s what it had come to. Since then, we’ve had 20% per year growth.”

Today’s Toledo-based headquarters is a bigger, more convenient spot for the crew. Broken up into three distinct sections — front office, warehouse, and workshop — the 7,800-plus square foot shop is nearly four-times the size of the previous 2,000-square foot space.

 

“We had people sharing desks, we had people sharing computers so people couldn’t be there on the same day,” recalls Penny Haas, COO of Reverend. “Guitars were stacked up over people’s heads or you were stepping over them.”

One of Reverend’s staples over the past decade has been its signature guitar series. The signature guitar has always been a curious animal. Most brands approach the notion of a signature guitar by taking one of their existing designs and swapping a few parts to make it more to the artist’s liking. Reverend has always approached signature models with more conviction — taking a ground-up approach if necessary.

“When we make a signature model for someone, and we get into trouble with this every so often… when I approached Mike Watt about doing a bass, his response was, ‘Brother Ken. I like you… and I like Reverend. But I play what I play. I do my thing. While I like your basses, I’ve got this funky style,’” recalls Haas. “And I told him I didn’t want to put his name on something that we make. I wanted to make what he wanted. The bass that he was touring with… as weird as it may be, and when his fans buy it they will know they are buying what you tour with. This is the philosophy that got us Pete Anderson. This is the philosophy that brought us the Reeves Gabrels models. We’re going to make it as weird as the artist wants it. Billy Corgan… we don’t do some fancy version of this for Billy. That’s what we do that I think sets up apart. The Watt thing got us in trouble because it took five years. What happened with Mike, and artists in general, is that what he thinks the perfect instrument is… changes.”

Reverend’s size allows them to react quicker and be more nimble when navigating change. They can drop new designs or small innovations without being weighted down by its legacy, like a lot of the big players who are married to the success of their legacy products.

“My favorite example of this is pin-lock tuners,” says Haas. “Once somebody has used a pin-lock tuner on an instrument, why would you go back to the multiple windings? We have that now. Why would we have to go back? Another thing that I think sets us apart is that we do what we do in our price range. Every once in a while a dealer will come to us and say something like ‘You should make a high-end, US-built version of the Flatroc’. It would just be a marketing gag. I’d have to tool it up. I’d have to install a paint facility. In order for me to make that guitar here that guitar would cost $2,499 versus $799, and it may or may not be as good as the one sitting over there right now. In order to have that guitar made we are tapping into a factory that has 80 years experience building instruments and 60 years experience building electric guitars… and 16 years experience building our stuff. They realize our design in a way that I just don’t know that we could here. We’d just have the same thing that we’d have to charge more for it. That being said, when we’re releasing our product line out to the public we don’t have to complete with our own $3,000 guitars. Japan, Korean and now Indonesia to a degree… these aren’t third world countries with 12-year girls stamping out guitars.”

The average age of the employees at Mirr Music, which makes Reverends, Italias and works with other companies like Duesenberg, is over 50.

Owner Hank Cho, a third-generation guitar maker, who saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan when he was young, and went to his parents and said they had to start making electric guitars. They were the future. The company was already making violins and cellos and the like. They initially shrugged him off, but he was persistent and ended up talking them into it, according to Penny Haas. Italia has been Mirr’s house brand since 1998.

   Today, Reverend remains focused on slow, steady growth while giving artists and players the guitars they desire without breaking the bank. Joe Naylor remains chief designer for the company and has the final design say on all products. He works mostly from his home in Troy, Michigan.

Haas is somewhat coy about the immediate future for Reverend, but he revealed there is a patent-pending for a ‘cool, little feature’ to be added to future guitars. Also, the bolt-ons will all be getting roasted maple necks.

 

As far as business philosophy, the mantra remains getting the Reverend brand in the hands of their personal heroes, and then into those heroes’ fans.

 

“I think that if you can figure out how to be small and survive then it is easier to grow,” says Haas. “We learned what we had to do to make it work. My intention in owning this company is not to end up some chairman of the board having to answer to a bunch of bank people about where we’re going and what’s coming. We make guitars. We make signature guitars for our artists. I don’t think that it’s a privilege for somebody to use my stuff. I think somebody choses to play our stuff and we make the guitars right for them. I want to continue to make guitars for artists that they want to play. I want to continue to fill this niche for real players that play live. All levels of touring bands… vans to jets. We have guys touring with our guitars on every level and I get the biggest thrill out of that. They can play anything they want, and they are playing our stuff.”

 

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Blake and Holly Wright are Gearphoria. They travel full-time in their 25 foot Airstream while writing about cool guitars and guitar accessories. Gearphoria is a bi-monthly free-to-read online publication. You can visit their website by going to www.gearphoria.com and while you are there, sign up for their free e-zine.

 

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doctormrd  |  July 17, 2017 at 1:30 pm
I have an "Unknown Hinsen" signature model. I searched for awhile to find it and I love it. Last week at the Wallace Blues Festival (Wallace Idaho) I saw a different model Reverend guitar in action. It was played by an awesome blues guitar player and it sounded great. These are good instruments at a good price. Doc
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