By Terry O'Mahoney
When Robert Zildjian talks about the cymbal business, it all rings true-the anecdotes about music industry leaders (William F. Ludwig, Fred Gretsch), drummers (Boston Symphony Orchestra cymbal player Tommy Thompson, Nashville session drummer Larrie Londin), the innovations in cymbal manufacture (hand hammering, signature series cymbals) and his joy of being in the cymbal business.
It rings true because he's lived all of it. He has been involved in almost every aspect of not one but two of the world's most respected cymbal companies. He spent forty-four years helping to make the Avedis Zildjian Cymbal Company the biggest cymbal manufacturer in the world and then launched his own cymbal company, Sabian, Ltd., which has consumed his time and energy for the past twenty-one years. For more than sixty-five years, Robert Zildjian has been involved with producing high-quality cymbals.
To speak of Robert Zildjian is to speak of the company he heads. The two are inseparable. When he speaks of cymbal making, he always says "we," even when he clearly means himself. He refers to everyone involved in the company as his "family." Both of his sons, Andy and Bill, work for Sabian, the company he founded in 1982.
"His favorite adage is, "The business is the family, and the family is the business,'" says Andy Zildjian. "His drive to improve the cymbal business, and to satisfy as many percussionists world wide as possible, is based on his desire to have the best for his family: his immediate family-my mother, brother, sister and me-and his extended family-all of the people who work with and for him in this business. I have heard of few people who have inspired the kind of loyalty that he has. We have people working at Sabian who have been with us for over 28 years.
"An energy and a sense of purpose fill the atmosphere when he is at the factory. Everyone is more centered and focused when he is there. He is very comfortable in a leadership role, and tries very hard to make sure that all of his people are comfortable and know that they are empowered in their roles."
Everyone who speaks of Robert Zildjian mentions his drive, energy, and enthusiasm about being in the music business. "You've got to have a supreme passion driving the whole thing," says his son Bill. "If anyone I've ever met had that, it would be the old man. He's definitely driven by a passion for the music, for the people in the music industry, and for moving the art form forward in as many ways as possible as a cymbal maker."
Nort Hargrove, Vice-President of Manufacturing at Sabian, has worked for Robert Zildjian since the 1970s. "Bob is one of the most respected men in the music industry," says Hargrove. "Being with Bob Zildjian for thirty years has been the best education in the music industry that one could ever get." Robert Zildjian's story is one of motivation and innovation, of drive, persistence, a keen business sense, concern for his employees, and the ability to bring out the best in people. He is always pushing his artisans to create new sounds for Sabian endorsees. "He's not a micro-manager," says Bill Zildjian. "He prefers to allow people to find their own way toward a goal and reward their successes."
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1923, young Robert began to work afternoons and Saturdays at the Avedis Zildjian Company, which was his father's cymbal factory in Quincy, Massachusetts. "My father (Avedis) paid me $2.00, but he put $1.50 in a savings account and gave me fifty cents," says Zildjian. "So I quit and got a paper route, made four times that amount, and kept it all for myself," he laughs. When World War II broke out, Robert served in the U.S. Army as an infantryman in Europe. After the war, he returned to Dartmouth to finish philosophy and history degrees before rejoining the Zildjian company.
Robert Zildjian wore many hats at Zildjian-accountant, advertising executive, artist relations, and sales-a job that required making personal contacts with dealers throughout the United States ("going on the road") and establishing a strong dealer network. "My wife, Willi, and I used to go to MENC (Music Educators National Conference) meetings and stand out in front of the booth for four or five days," he recalls.
The 1950s and early '60s were also spent developing company sales outside the U.S. (primarily Europe). In 1967, Robert and Willie traveled to Istanbul, Turkey, where they finalized the purchase of the K. Zildjian company and convinced the makers of K. Zildjian cymbals in Istanbul to relocate to North America. "Those guys-my cousins-wanted to get out of Turkey. We brought brothers Michael and Gabriel Zilcan [spelled the traditional Turkish way but pronounced like their American cousins' name] as well as their father Kerope to North America. Gabe still works for us." The Turkish cousins brought with them the ancient concept of hand hammering the cymbals-something that the Avedis Zildjian company had not been doing for many years.
In 1968, the Azco Company (as the Canadian subsidiary of Zildjian was known) was created to handle to the booming instrument market, and a plant was built in Meductic, New Brunswick, Canada. The location was chosen for two reasons-to gain market presence in the British Commonwealth (by producing a product in a Commonwealth country, Canada) and because it's close to one of the best salmon fishing and hunting areas in North America. (Since Bob Zildjian was going to run the office, he wanted to put it somewhere where he could enjoy his hobby.)
Zildjian also wanted to use the Azco plant to produce economically priced entry-level cymbals known by the brand name Zilco. At one time, the Azco plant also produced A. and K. Zildjian cymbals. Many of the more labor-intensive products were produced in the Meductic plant due in large part to its skilled, stable workforce, according to Wayne Blanchard of Sabian, Ltd.
The cymbal business continued to grow in the 1970s but the close of the decade would prove the most turbulent for Robert Zildjian. Robert's father, Avedis, died in 1979. Robert and his older brother, Armand, shared control of Zildjian for a time. Internal differences and pressures mounted. After three years of legal wrangling, it was agreed that the Zildjian company would be split. Armand would take the U.S. plant and Zildjian name; Robert would gain control of the Meductic plant and overseas holdings, but he could not use the Zildjian name on his cymbals. Ever the family man, he took the first two initials from the first names of his children (SAlly, BIlly, ANdy) and created his new company, Sabian.
In 1982, Sabian began production. For legal reasons, they could not immediately sell to the U.S. market. On January 1, 1983, however, the Sabian truck was at the U.S./Canadian border, ready to enter. "The truck was loaded to the gills, and it was so cold that they had to stuff cardboard in front of the radiator to keep it from freezing," remembers Zildjian. With that inauspicious beginning, Robert Zildjian began the difficult task of "cracking" a cymbal market that he had spent forty years helping to create.
The early 1980s were tough times for all percussion manufacturers, due to the popularity of electronic drums. Sabian met the challenge by instituting a program of innovation that was designed to create sounds that would complement the music of the day. A result of this effort produced such products as the Rocktagon and China Kang cymbals. Robert Zildjian also forged alliances with new distributors (like Charles Alden, Hohner, and Sonor) in an effort to gain market share.
Robert Zildjian has always advocated innovation and "trying the unthinkable." According to Zildjian, Sabian's business philosophy is simple: "Listen to the customer." The concept of the "signature series" cymbal developed as a result of listening to, and working closely with, such artists as Jack DeJohnette and Carmine Appice. "We were the new kid on the block, so we had to do something to attract the artists, keep them happy and with us," says Zildjian.
By the 1990s, Sabian was making its presence felt in the instrument manufacturing world. It was voted Most Innovative Cymbal Company by readers of Modern Drummer magazine, had huge sales in Europe, the Pacific, and the U.S., and an impressive roster of endorsements by drummers from around the world. Bob Zildjian also has a philanthropic side, having established the PAS Larrie Londin Memorial Scholarship and the PAS/Sabian PASIC Scholarship Fund that enables young percussionists to attend PASIC. Robert Zildjian now heads a cymbal "superpower," with offices in Canada, the U.S., and Europe.
"He's met a lot of people and made a difference in a lot of lives by motivating, counseling, and even investing in ideas, businesses, and more specifically, in people," says his son Andy. "He has great relationships throughout the industry, and beyond. His joy in his work catches people and sweeps them along with him. Enthusiasm is an easy description, but it is more than that. He has a deep pride in the industry and the contributions that he and his friends have made. He is not one to seek credit for helping a friend; just the satisfaction that he has helped a friend is the most positive motivation for him. Sometimes he is a bit gruff, but for the most part that is a cover for a more personal and affectionate feeling. We joke that one can always tell who he really likes because he makes fun of them and gives them a jokingly derogative nickname."
Robert Zildjian has an infectious sense of fun and palpable sense of joy when speaking about cymbal making. Never one to rest on his laurels, Bob Zildjian is at his desk every day, when he's not traveling on behalf of Sabian. As for the future, Zildjian says, "We're experiencing growth, but we want to maintain the quality."