Fox venture a key player in prestige piano trade
Selling pianos is a dream gig for Mark O'Connor. Photo: Jason South JPS
Flying to Portsea in a helicopter to tune trucking magnate Lindsay Fox's piano is all in a day's work for Mark O'Connor.
As is having customers part with $250,0000 for a grand piano, despite not being able to play a note. Then there was a time a potential customer arrived with a rubbish bag stuffed with $50,000 in notes, asking for a cash discount on a very expensive Steinway.
"It took us half an hour to count that," says O'Connor, the managing director of the Exclusive Piano Group, of which Fox is the major shareholder.
The business, which has one store in Essendon, Melbourne, and another opening soon in Adelaide, started in 2008, with all of Fox's profits going back into music and the arts.
With a floor full of pricey handmade instruments, it's a business that needs some serious financial backing. In its fifth year, it has just started turning a profit.
"That's the benefit of having a partner like Lindsay Fox," says O'Connor. He's just an amazing guy and I've got nothing but respect for him. I've known him for 20 years."
The pair met when O'Connor was general manager of music store group Allans. In August, Australian Music Group Holdings, owner of the 30-store Allans Billy Hyde chain, was placed in voluntary administration.
"Originally [Fox] was a customer of mine and we just seemed to get on well. He wanted his grandkids to learn the piano," says O'Connor.
Their long association eventually culminated in the Exclusive Piano Group, which sells mainly high-end pianos - with a focus on Steinways - to professional musicians, symphony orchestras, beginners and those who just appreciate the value of a handmade instrument that can be a year in the making.
"We estimate that about 60 per cent of our customers that buy a Steinway can't play," says O'Connor.
Lindsay Fox also belongs in that category.
"He absolutely loves music, he's got an amazing memory and can start singing songs I've never even heard of," says O'Connor. "He loves music, but he can't play."
The piano group is the only Steinway & Sons agent in Victoria, South Australia and the ACT.
Steinway is considered one of the best pianos in the world, with artists who favour it including Billy Joel and Harry Connick jnr. Designed and handcrafted in Germany, each piano can take up to a year to make.
"With a Steinway, the whole philosophy of their pianos revolves around making the most of the sound vibrations in the piano," says O'Connor.
Recently the group has sold pianos to the Melbourne, Adelaide and Tasmanian symphony orchestras and Melbourne's revamped Arts Centre.
"You can't reopen a centre like the Arts Centre and have old pianos," says O'Connor. "Generally a venue like that would like to have a piano that is less than five years old at any time."
A customer recently snapped up a piano that had been played by Tony Bennett, Burt Bacharach, Herbie Hancock, Regina Spektor and jazz legend Chick Corea.
While Steinway pianos date back to 1853, they have not escaped the touch of the techies. In his store, O'Connor sells an iPad-operated system called the PianoDisc.
By selecting a song on the iPad, a customer can bring a virtual concert to life in their own lounge room. Like a very modern-day version of the pianola, the keys play of their own accord, while the artist's voice booms out as if they were in the room. The system certainly impresses the punters, says O'Connor.
It's all a dream gig for O'Connor, who started his career as an organ demonstrator at Brashs in Melbourne's Northland shopping centre as a 15-year-old.
However, despite Fox's backing, and access to his company's infrastructure, such as lawyers, HR and payroll, the Exclusive Piano Group is a business much like any other.
"He doesn't give me a dollar for free. The business has to pay its own way," says O'Connor. "We're not making millions of dollars, it's not that kind of business'
The plan is to eventually have a store in each state.
"I believe there's an opportunity for us to have a real influence in the Australian market."