For a man who doesn't give many interviews, Lyndon Laney seems remarkably good at them, which makes his customary silence curious. There are precious few in the UK's MI industry who have been around as long (since the 1960s) and even fewer who have had such consistent success, but when did you last read an interview? Habitually, he avoids the sort of publicity that some others would walk barefoot across hot coals to acquire. It's all the stranger because he talks about the business easily, engagingly and with real insight.
Whether this self-effacement is born of natural modesty or marketing strategy, it doesn't appear to have done the company any harm as he has deftly transformed it, first from a predominantly traditional West Midlands metal-bashing and wire-wrangling manufacturing business into an offshore manufacturer and, more recently, into a fully-fledged distributor in its own right, under the Headstock banner, representing the Japanese Hoshino-owned brands, Ibanez and Tama.
So just how far back does Laney Amplification go? The answer often surprises people - especially if they have just come face to face with the man for the first time. Too frequently for coincidence, you hear it said that he looks far too young to have been responsible for a product range that has been around since the 1960s. But he has. And what he has learned as he charted a course through the MI industry's booms and recessions, not to mention a complete sea-change in the state of British manufacturing industry, is fascinating.
The story started when Lyndon Laney was still at school, as he recounts. 'I was playing in bands in and around the West Midlands. One outfit, the Capitals, was a pretty average sort of band, in which I was the mediocre bass player, but I also played in a band with John Bonham and Robert Plant - The Band of Joy - and Robert was one of my first customers. I've still got the ledger with the manual entry for it,' he laughs. 'In fact Robert and I have stayed friends since - he's been my next door neighbour for about the past ten years.
'While I was doing that, still at school, I also had an interest in electronics and amplifiers and I started to make one or two, first for myself, then a friend asked me to make him one, so I did, then there were a few more and suddenly it started to gain a bit of momentum. I'd just finished my A Levels and was due to go to university - and this is a terrible thing to admit - two days before I was due to go, I thought "I must have a go at trying to make a business out of this." It was a case of doing it then or never, I felt. So I didn't go to university, I literally started making amplifiers in my parents' garden shed and to this very day I never got to university.
'Of course, the garden shed soon ran out of space, so we rented some premises in Digbeth, darkest Birmingham, started making amplifiers there and before long, Boosey and Hawkes become our distributor.'
If this sounds an unusual story - a schoolboy amp manufacturer picked up by the likes of Boosey and Hawkes - clearly, it is. But it needs to be put into context by saying that this was an extraordinary era for British valve amps. While Marshall, Laney, Hi Watt, Carlsbro and Orange are still around from that era (in one form or another), there were many others who sprung up all over the UK, catering for a new demand for guitar power that existing manufacturers weren't able to satisfy. When Rock music (as distinct from Pop) became a force, so a new breed of amp manufacturer arrived to cater for it. Only a few survived - which makes Laney's achievement even more impressive.
'I think it was around 1969, or '70 that we got involved with Boosey and Hawkes and they remained our distributor till around 1974-5. At that time, as you can imagine, we were focused on tube amplifiers and I have to say that's still very much what I enjoy. Which isn't to say I don't enjoy anything else, but I'm not a digital person. I still like the smell and the sound of a tube amp.
'It was a chequered period, I'd have to say that - we had some good years and some bad years (golly, did we have some bad years!) but we developed during that period and then, in 1981, we moved to Cradley Heath. It was an important change, because it came about as the lease ran out on our previous factory and it was the first time we actually purchased our own - be it ever so humble.'
This was to be an important decade for Laney. Not only did it make a lot of headway with semi and pro-specification valve amps but it also had great success in the mid-market internationally, initially with its solid state Linebacker range.
'During that decade we put a lot of investment into manufacturing. We spent a lot of money developing the property - ending-up with five sites here. Not unlike Jim (Marshall), though a lot less than Jim spent I'd imagine, we really went into manufacturing in a big way. In fact the two companies, while we are different sizes and with different perspectives, there are a lot of similarities between us. I have massive respect for guys like Jim Marshall - and Hartley Peavey for that matter. To make things requires a certain determination and a certain vision - it's hard, and I take my hat off to anyone who has managed to do it.'
Back in the 1970s and '80s the business buzzword was "vertical integration": you sought to make as much of your product as you could. It was a philosophy embraced and propounded by no less than Hartley Peavey and it was equally espoused by Lyndon Laney, across this side of the Atlantic.
'At one stage we had problems getting steel chassis made, so we went out and bought a machine to do it. We got the CNC punch press and the automated plant and put it all in. The same with transformer manufacturing. We bought HH and as a result made our own speakers and I have to say that making things has always been our real passion. All that suited me - I loved it - I absolutely loved it. When we'd bought a new machine and the wagon arrived with a big crate on the back, I was first man on the top with a crowbar!
'It might sound silly, but when you bring an automated machine in and start to commission it, it's like watching it come to life - it's wonderful! This made the early '90s a great time for me, personally.'
It's hard to convey Lyndon Laney's enthusiasm as he speaks about the sheer joy of building things. It's like listening to someone who restores steam locomotives or builds cars from scratch. Model numbers and their individual histories tumble out in his conversation: when it was designed, how they built it, how difficult it was to get right - clearly, he is still in love with the whole process and no less enthusiastic about it now than he must have been as a schoolboy. Which makes it all the more interesting that, when the time came, he knew when it had to stop.
'By the mid-90's we had really grown and we were still heavily involved in manufacturing. At the peak we employed 215 people and about 80-85% of what we made was going for export, to Europe, Australasia, South America, the USA - so, yes it was pretty good. So why did the wheels fall off?
'Round about that time, we could start to see a change in the industry - a radical and dramatic change. We were in a situation where manufacturing was getting ever-harder, costs escalating and, above all, legislation was starting to get out of hand. So what do you do? Roll over and die, or do you change?
'I first went out to China in 1995 or '96 and really I didn't come back too impressed, but we started looking at the whole question of producing offshore, starting at the bottom end, because we knew we had to. We weren't making 15 Watt transistor amps at that time, so we started to make the move with the HCM15.
'When you start to look at costs, what needed doing from an amplifier manufacturer's point of view was pretty clear. You can't just go to China and buy an amplifier. You have to put an awful lot into it and you have to bear in mind that the competition - Jim and Hartley Peavey, for example - are doing it, too, and doing it very well, so I can't claim any originality in this. But, all the same, we had to produce an amplifier that was competitive for the world market, so that was where the investment went, starting at the bottom and working up from there.
'Around 1996 or '97, I had absolutely no idea how far we would go with the transfer to offshore production, but now it involves more or less everything in the bottom to mid-range products. But to get the right amplifier with the right tone, you have to be involved, you have to go to the factory and you have to have your own engineers in the factory. In other words, you have to control it and that is what we did, so that we now have control over the main factory that we use in China - and it's become massive in our terms. If you look at the numbers we were doing in say '95 or '96, we're probably selling three times as many amplifiers today.
'Part of the secret of manufacturing offshore, I'm convinced, is working out what you can do and do well and what they can do well and, importantly what they can't do so well. For example, the top-end products, the tube amps, are still very much made here. You can never say never, but it would be a huge transition for us to take our tube products over there for manufacture.'
He gives an interesting insight into the way problems can develop if you're not on hand.
'At one stage we were just going into production on a new PA cabinet, the line had started moving and Alan, an Australian who handles that area for us and also looks after the factory, turned to me and said, "Can you hear that? It's awful!". And it was - so we hared over to the test area, stopped the line and tried to work out what was wrong. In a situation like that you always assume the worst - the crossover's wrong or the driver's wrong: we were there till about eight o'clock that night. Ultimately, what it came down to was that all the CD test sets in the factory were worn out. We went down to the local shopping centre, bought some more CD players and were in early the next morning at seven o'clock. We set up a good rig, set up a bad rig and called the test engineers over. We said "OK, listen to this." We played a bad one, they all looked thoughtful and nodded. So then we said, "Right, now listen to this" and played the good one and, again, they all looked thoughtful and nodded. So then we said, "OK, can you hear the difference?" - the same again. But then we asked which was the bad one, they didn't know. They couldn't tell. They had no conception of what was a grossly distorted, horrible, nasty sound to our ears and what was a clean, crisp tone. So what we had to do was establish exactly what it was we wanted - and now everyone comes out like that. But if you don't pay attention to these things, if you aren't on hand, that's the sort of thing that can go wrong. You have to go right back to basics.
'Of course, meanwhile, all these wonderful machines we'd bought for back here were becoming more and more obsolescent. We couldn't maintain manufacturing efficiency or profitability making products in the UK and, for me, it was... well, it was mixed. I like manufacturing and I like factories. On the one hand, I was going to China and encountering this tremendous "can do" attitude, finding that what takes six months in the UK, you can do in six days over there. So, for me, self-indulgently, that was great - to be able to regenerate and rekindle the manufacturing process.
'But on the other hand, there was also the incredible sadness of watching, over the past two years, while we've sold-off all this plant and machinery and lost jobs in manufacturing - exporting jobs, because of the political and legislative situation here and our lack of efficiency as a producer. I've had tremendous sadness over this. When the machines arrived, I was the first man in, but when the machines went out I had to get people to do it for me. I would not go to the factory when this was happening. That sounds silly, but it's how I felt. We lost jobs, too - also with great sadness. It's not a pleasant task, losing over 150 jobs and yes, ok, there are 350 people now working in the China factory, but that's a different country.
'We did it professionally and I think we did it well: we didn't have a single claim against us. But when people have worked for you for 20 or 30 years and you're laying them off - well, when you go home on a Friday night, you don't feel good about yourself, I can tell you. But if we hadn't done it, we wouldn't have survived - it's as simple as that. As it happens, the Laney side of the business is growing worldwide, so it seems to me that we had two simple choices: roll over and die, or adapt - and that's what we did.'
While it is, clearly, good news for Lyndon Laney, his workers, distributors around the world and, not least, the many guitarists who cherish his amplifiers, that the company has survived and prospered, it's hard not to feel sadness at the decline of yet another British manufacturing business - and it's a sadness he obviously shares. Does he feel that anyone can still earn a living in the UK by bashing metal?
'For the foreseeable future, manufacturing is dead in this part of the world for our kind of products,' he says. 'It's not only a question of making the designs and doing it, but also the sourcing of the components you require. Ten years ago, if you wanted to buy steel, you'd just go and buy it. This was a heavy engineering area and you could take your choice from umpteen steel stockholders. Now it's almost impossible. At times we have found it cheaper and faster to buy something from China, UPS it here and get working with it, than wait the six weeks or longer that it would have taken to get it from the UK - and for twice as much money. I can't see any resurgence of volume manufacturing here because of that: the political, the logistical, the price, the efficiency - we cannot compete.
'There is a side aspect to this that's worth thinking about. Most of the UK manufacturers who've done this have been successful because they've come from a manufacturing base themselves and understand making things. This means you can talk the same language as the people who are doing the actual production. But in ten years will those people still be there? Are we selling off the crown jewels to China? Will we still have the people coming through with the skills and the knowledge to get the offshore factory to produce what they want? I don't know about that.'
So what was the genesis of Headstock and the other side of the enormous switch from manufacturing to distribution?
'Around 1996 we had quite an involvement with Hoshino USA, which is a subsidiary company of Hoshino Gakki in Japan and the holding company for Ibanez and Tama. I'd had very good relations with them for a number of years. I'm a lucky guy, you know. I get to travel all over the world and I really enjoy it. I'm also a home bird, so my wife comes with me and assists me and that fits well because distributors around the world are family orientated, it's a very close relationship. So you'd go around the world and everywhere you went, you'd see Ibanez or Tama rocketing ahead - but in the UK it was just not happening. I'd heard there were changes in the offing so I rang Hoshino in the USA and said, if there was something coming, would they please talk to us about it?
'There had been a lot of changes in the company around then, beside the move offshore. Bob Thomas, who had been my partner for a long while, had left about six months before, to go into retirement, so I'd bought back Bob's shares and now felt in a position to take the company in a different direction. I was 47 or 48 at the time and I realised there was a lot I still wanted to do and the separation had allowed me the space to do it.
'To cut the story short, we started with Ibanez and shortly after took on Tama. It needed a lot of commitment and a lot of money to do it. My philosophy about the industry is that it has four basic ingredients: manufacturer, distributor, retailer and consumer and each one of these is absolutely different in what they require. So, if you set yourself up as a manufacturer and you want to become a distributor, don't ever approach it from the standpoint of a manufacturer. The way we did it was to keep things completely separate. Laney is a manufacturer and does things the way a manufacturer does them. But a distributor has to reflect different requirements, so Headstock Distribution is a separate distribution company, that distributes Ibanez, Tama and Laney and though there's a relationship between the two companies, the distributor role is seriously recognised. If you try to be a manufacturer that also distributes, you'll do it badly.
'As a result of all this, I have to say that I have achieved one or two ambitions recently. The company in this interim period of the last seven years has reached a maturity and financial stability that probably is on a par with any of the big names in the business. We have no borrowings, we have substantial cash reserves - in part because we've released capital we had in investments made over the years as a manufacturer - and this means we're financially very sound. This has enabled us to open new offices and warehouses, which have cost just over £2 million, providing 30,000 ft of purpose-built warehousing, which is all brand new, totally owned and is there for us to use as a distributor.
'The thinking behind this new warehouse, eight metres high with lots of racking, is because we want to increase our stock levels. The job of a distributor is to buy effectively and to keep the stock for the retailer. You have to fund it, serve it and support it. A manufacturer's ideal is to make one amplifier type and make 1,000 at a time, but a distributor wants to take 1,000 different types and sell one of each.
'So though there is still a small manufacturing component in the group, because we still make tube amplifiers, it means Headstock now has it its own offices, sales team and a purpose built property and it's secure for the future. So on my watch, the company has gone from being an average manufacturer, with all the problems manufacturers have, to being a very sound financial company with a good underpinning of property. And image - we probably don't have the image of some, but we're respected in most areas, we have a history and a heritage and we thoroughly enjoy doing what we do.'
And in case you were wondering, the group will turn over around £12 million this year, Mr Laney reveals, while his remark about 'my watch' refers to James Laney, Lyndon's son, who, after university and a stint at Canary Wharf, has joined the company and is now Headstock's sales manager.
But, however aware he is of the clear and significant difference between manufacturing and distribution, what about the smaller, but no less sharp, divide between the guitar and drum worlds? Had Headstock found it difficult to serve drum shops?
'The percussion world, in my view, is very different and I think in the first six months we made a mistake in that we thought our sales people could sell all musical products, including percussion. But percussion products need their own enthusiasts with their own specialised enthusiasm and product knowledge and once we recognised that and started to employ people who were drum and percussion based, it became a lot simpler.'
So where does he see the company's future? Will Headstock expand to take on other lines?
'It could do, but we don't see ourselves as a general distributor, doing everything. If we're going to do a distribution job for anyone, we want to do it well and that means you have to focus on the products you're selling - not just taking an enormous catalogue that you just work your way through. From my experience selling Laney overseas, very often when a rep from a distributor with a big catalogue from A-Z goes into a shop, by the time he's got to B the retailer is pretty bored. I've always thought this doesn't work well for our products so, now we're a distributor, do I want to do it that way? If T, L and I are in our catalogue and we can focus on that, great. If an A or a Z comes up later and fits-in, I'll be happy to think about it as long as it's non-conflicting.'
So where to from here? Is he still 'up for it', as they say these days?
'Oh, yes! I'm 56, still got most of my hair, for all that I'm a bit grey on top, and I'm full of beans. I've never been so happy with what I've been doing. I've got the investment in place, I've got the company in place, the management hierarchy in place - if I walked out of this factory tomorrow and fell under a bus, this company carries on with a team I'm very confident in. And you have a personal responsibility - this matters. When you're employing people and they've got mortgages, you have to make sure for them that it can and will carry on. For me personally, there's still so much pleasure in it - and particularly making the valve amps. Business in that area alone is up 50 per cent and I really do like building them - is that a silly thing to say?'
And the answer, of course, is far from it. Few people you talk to in this industry so clearly enjoy what they do as much as Lyndon Laney does - a man who has managed to achieve things that have defeated most of his MI contemporaries - not least establishing a major UK MI brand and keeping it alive for over 30 years. A British Hartley Peavey? Not really. More, a very British Lyndon Laney.