The modern piano has entertained, inspired and enthralled the world for over 300 years. Pianos are uniquely versatile: from symphony auditoriums to living rooms across the globe, they accompany full orchestras, family life and everything in between. The piano’s appeal is universal; this instrument is not limited by genre or generation, and it is often passed down as an heirloom. The Ruggero family’s enduring passion for the instrument, transmitted from one generation to the next, has made their business a beloved community fixture.
The Ruggeros are a family of musicians defined by three generations of piano expertise and craftsmanship. Since Robert Ruggero founded the family business in 1958, they have used their expertise to support amateur and professional musicians in their community.
Recently, Tharawat Magazine sat down with Richard Ruggero and his son Chris, second- and third-generation family business members respectively, to discuss the advantages of family business in today’s marketplace, as well as their transformation as a company, which has evolved alongside the piano.
How did you both become interested in music?
Richard: We come from a musical family, so it was very natural for us. My brother is a Juilliard-educated concert pianist, and my sister is a clarinet teacher and performer. Piano lessons weren’t mandatory for our children, but they had to commit for at least a year if they wanted to pursue music. After that, they could move on to any other instrument.
Chris: Music has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. After my year of piano, I chose the electric bass and guitar as my main instruments. My oldest brother John, who now owns a thriving piano tuning and service business, attended school for percussion. My middle brother Joey, who works in piano sales and service on the west coast, attended school for trumpet.
Music has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. – Chris Ruggero
Given all the other instruments your family plays, what made you decide to make the piano the focus of your business?
Richard: There was an evolution that brought us to the piano. My dad was an amazing concert violinist as a teenager in Italy. When his family came to the USA in the late 20s to make their fortune and then return to Italy, he decided to stay. His is the classic immigrant story.
He initially found work in the restaurant industry but then discovered he could make more money teaching music and learned to play the accordion. He quickly became a top instructor at Wurlitzer in New York City. With the help of an investor, he opened the Ruggero School of Music, which was extremely successful.
In the mid-50s, the city purchased his school’s property for a development project, and he decided to move to North Carolina. While teaching accordion at a local piano store in Raleigh, he became fascinated with piano tuning and repair and learned the basics from local technicians. While my father didn’t have a formal education, he was very determined and extremely intelligent. In 1958, he started his own piano service business and quickly became the go-to technician for famous touring artists who came to our area.
When I was in college and needed a part-time job, my father approached me to work at the shop. I fell in love with it, quit school and eventually took over the business in 1981. Later, after my father had retired, I decided to take the business in a new direction.
At that time, Ruggero Piano was a home-based service operation – just piano rebuilding and tuning, with an occasional used piano for sale. My wife Deborah helped build our business by taking phone calls and scheduling appointments. In the mid-90s, we were finally able to hire our first employee, who worked out of our garage shop.
As the business continued to grow, we rented a space and decided to start selling new pianos in addition to our tuning and repair service. With the help of my eldest son John, that decision proved to be successful. We moved to our current location in 2002, and Chris joined the business in 2012 after graduating from college with a business degree. He takes care of sales, marketing and bookkeeping and wears many other hats in the family business. He also has a great eye for design and has implemented many changes to upgrade the store’s layout and furnishings for a more modern and upscale feel.
How does your business continue to grow despite the piano industry’s current stagnation?
Chris: Our community is really growing, especially due to medical and tech industry opportunities, and, with that, there’s been an increase in the number of families who want to provide their children with the opportunity to play the piano. Our current range of products – which includes Yamaha, a brand that takes advantage of technology and offers elements that make the piano modern, relevant and interesting – also helps. We don’t put a lot of emphasis on marketing or big offsite sale events. We prefer taking a slow and steady approach and offering honest guidance to our customers.
How does craftsmanship tie in with the sales side of your business?
Richard: I think there’s always going to be a need for piano technicians. We are the only store in our area that offers services for all the products we sell and piano restoration. Customers who enjoy their instruments or invest in nicer instruments for their family want to take care of their investment with routine maintenance. We have a team of four in-house and four external technicians that offer these services to our customers. We also have two full-time restoration specialists who rebuild vintage pianos in our shop facility.
Has being family-owned and family-run brought you any kind of competitive advantage?
Chris: Customers appreciate it and feel comfortable doing business with a family-owned business that has a long history in the industry and community. Last year, we turned 60 and celebrated with a week-long sale event with free concerts, masterclasses and other activities. It was one of the biggest events we’ve ever organised and was a great success.
Richard: I believe it makes customers feel more confident in their purchase and in our business. They know that we are going to be there for them in the future to assist with whatever need they may have. As a technician-based business, we can fix anything that may need attention. Customers know that they can make one phone call to us and the problem is taken care of without endless back and forth communications with the manufacturer. Customer satisfaction is always our top priority, and our family’s reputation and community goodwill are extremely important to us.
How do the two of you work together as father and son?
Richard: We have unique skills and personalities that are complementary. I let Chris do his job. Even if I sometimes don’t agree with a decision he’s made, I want him to learn from the process, whether the outcome is favourable or not. Fortunately, he usually makes very good decisions.
Chris: Working with dad has been a lot of fun. He’s a great teacher. As with all family businesses, there are challenges that have to be overcome. We are fortunate to have a great working relationship with each other and with our entire team.
I’m always looking to improve our workflows and processes to benefit our customers. My goal is to create an environment where the store’s daily operations can be managed without our intervention, so that my dad and I can spend more time planning the future of the business. – Chris Ruggero
What is your hope for the future of Ruggero Piano?
Richard: We often talk about it from a business standpoint, but both of us recognise that there are other things at play. We believe in supporting and giving back to our community. We want to maintain the growth we’ve enjoyed so far.
Chris: I’m always looking to improve our workflows and processes to benefit our customers. My goal is to create an environment where the store’s daily operations can be managed without our intervention, so that my dad and I can spend more time planning the future of the business.
Richard: Growing and maintaining a business requires sufficient time for planning and willingness to adapt. As with most positive changes, the rewards are worth the efforts, but there are always some bumps along the way. It’s easy to get discouraged at times, but we always reflect on our blessings and keep moving forward.
Looking into the future, I’m undoubtedly in favour of Chris continuing the family business after I’ve retired, but that’s completely up to him. Life is to be enjoyed, and it is more important for me that each of my sons finds that fulfilment in life than it for them to be involved in the piano business.
Chris: That’s my intention. Dad is unique because he’s incredibly talented, knowledgeable and well respected in the industry. After he retires, my goal will be to maintain the high quality he’s brought to every aspect of Ruggero Piano. I’m lucky that my oldest brother runs a piano tuning and service business of his own. He could potentially be a future partner to help sustain the family business.