By Patrick Sullivan | From the May-June 2021 issue of Strings magazine
John D’Addario III, president and CEO of D’Addario, a musical string and accessories company, triggered a few shockwaves earlier this year when he announced that his New York–based business had acquired the Super-Sensitive Musical String Company. Super-Sensitive, famous for its Red Label strings for student musicians, was established in 1930 and, like D’Addario, is a family-owned business. I asked D’Addario for a peek inside the process of bringing Super-Sensitive into the D’Addario fold.
How and why did D’Addario decide to acquire Super-Sensitive?
Last year, every business was dealing with the pandemic and had various degrees of challenges. Super-Sensitive was dealing with that, as were we. They had their facility shut down for quite a long time. And it got to a point where getting it back up and running was a pretty daunting task. So we got into discussions with Super-Sensitive president Jim Cavanaugh.
Initially we discussed maybe helping them in some way, in terms of getting them back in stock. But one thing led to another and we started talking about an acquisition. And that was consummated at the end of the year.
Super-Sensitive is an iconic company, and adding their brands to our portfolio was attractive. Over the last decade or two, we’ve invested considerably in our factory. And that’s led to extremely high-quality improvements as well as increased capacity. So it’s a nice fit for us.
Are you planning to discontinue any of the Super-Sensitive products?
Well, we’re going through a pretty daunting transition right now. We’ve never had an acquisition before where we had to do due diligence virtually. But we’ve been able to adapt. Our plan is to transition this business into our model in three different phases.
We’re in phase one, where our focus is on the most popular Super-Sensitive products that the market obviously craves, especially Red Label strings. We’re ramping up production right now for that. And we’re pretty confident that by the end of March we’ll be able to seamlessly supply retailers and distributors all over the world.
In the subsequent phases, we’re going to study the overall portfolio of Super-Sensitive’s brands and plan rollouts. Phase two will probably be in the second quarter. We’ll have assessed the other portions of the line—literally the Super-Sensitive brand itself among others—and put together a rollout plan. The third phase in the third quarter will be for a lot of the long-tail products.
Our plan is to study and honor the time-tested formulas of Super-Sensitive strings, but where we can make improvements we absolutely will.
Why are you moving production of Super-Sensitive products from Florida to New York?
Over the last decade or two, the investments we’ve made in our factory have been immense and have made us incredibly efficient. We’re producing our most consistent product ever. We’re moving production to New York because we have a highly trained staff of workers in the factory and a very talented engineering team. We also have a wire mill literally next door to our factory that produces the majority of our string raw materials. Super-Sensitive products will tap into that supply.
You’re already producing Super-Sensitive products in New York?
Yeah, we are. But like a lot of companies, we’re dealing with supply-chain disruptions. In the case of Super-Sensitive, we’re trying to get packaging materials and there are shortages. So we’re making strings and building an arsenal of string material, but we’re trying to get the packaging to catch up. We’re pretty confident that by the end of March we’re going to be in a strong position, at least for the most popular Super-Sensitive offerings, namely Red Label.
Where do the Super-Sensitive products fit into your brand?
First, just having them as part of our brand enhances the options we can provide educators and students, and we’re really proud of that. Where they fit in the portfolio, that’s something we’re still studying. Our focus right now is on getting the supply of the product resumed, because the market’s been deprived of it for months now. As we get through that, we’re going to make some decisions about how we position Red Label versus our other offerings. I don’t have all the answers yet. The paint’s still wet on the acquisition. But we’re studying that very closely.
Both Super-Sensitive and D’Addario are family companies. How did that play into this process?
Well, as a family business ourselves, we understand there’s an emotional connection that becomes part of your life. And that’s actually really helping with the transition. Jim Cavanaugh is committed to working with us. At the end of the day, he wanted to make sure his family’s business is in good hands. And it’s really gratifying that he felt confident in us.
How will all this look five years from now?
When we look across our offerings of orchestral strings, we’re really creating a journey for a player. And Red Label in particular is the beginning of that journey. It’s another option we can provide to someone who is just starting out and who hopefully will continue to be loyal to our brands and step up to, let’s say, Ascenté, to our Helicore brand potentially, Zyex, and eventually maybe Kaplan. And our teams are working on some premium offerings that we’re hoping to launch in maybe a year or so.
What are the biggest challenges facing string makers?
First and foremost: supply-chain disruptions from the pandemic. I’ve never seen anything like it. They call it a bullwhip effect. It’s wreaked havoc on different portions of our business. Fortunately, we’re highly vertically integrated so we’ve been able to mitigate that somewhat. We’re not overly reliant on third-party suppliers. And with the school music programs being shuttered in many cases, that’s put a strain on demand. But we’re fighting through, and we think it’ll come back in a big way.
Anything else you want to say?
Super-Sensitive is a highly respected company, and we intend to honor its legacy as a family business. Twenty-some years ago, we were vigorous competitors and it drove me crazy when we couldn’t convince some people that Prelude was maybe a better choice than Red Label. For me, having them as part of our portfolio now is really touching. For many years they forced us to get better, and to this day we’re grateful. It’s great to have them on our team now.