G. Leblanc Corporation
G. Leblanc Corporation
G. Leblanc Corporation
Incorporated: 1946 as Leblanc USA
Sales: $65 million (2001 est.)
NAIC: 339992 Musical Instrument Manufacturing
The G. Leblanc Corporation is one of the world’s leading makers of woodwind and brass instruments. The company manufactures instruments under the brand names Leblanc, Noblet, Normandy, Vito, Holton, Martin, and Courtois. Leblanc’s Holton subsidiary is the world’s largest maker of French horns, and makes other brass instruments as well. Leblanc’s Martin subsidiary is known for an esteemed line of trumpets, and specializes in smaller brasses. Leblanc also manufactures instrument cases and woodwind mouthpieces. Leblanc operates three factories in the United States, in Kenosha and Elkhorn, Wisconsin, and one plant in La Couture Boussey, France. The company was originally set up as a joint venture with a French company, Leblanc S.A. Leblanc S.A. was one of the oldest corporations in France, tracing its roots back to 1750. Leblanc USA purchased a majority interest in the French company in 1989, then acquired the entire firm in 1993. Leblanc has been a key promoter of school music programs in the United States from the 1950s onward. The company manufactured an improved line of instruments for beginning students and helped establish the type of instrument rental practice that is now an industry standard. The company helped organize the school musical instrument sales industry, and its efforts led to the founding of the National Association of School Music Dealers.
18th-Century French Antecedents
The G. Leblanc Corporation harks back to the reign of Louis XV in France. The king promoted music at his court, leading to a new French musical instrument industry. The firm of Ets. D. Noblet was founded in 1750 in La Couture-Boussey to make woodwind instruments. Noblet was known for its clarinets and helped make France a European center for woodwind manufacturing. Members of the Noblet family operated the company until 1904. In that year, the last Noblet died without an heir, so the firm passed to Georges Leblanc. Leblanc was also a member of an illustrious family of woodwind makers, thought to be the best at his craft in all France. His firm, G. Leblanc Cie., was centered in Paris. Leblanc continued to manufacture the Noblet line of clarinets at La Couture-Boussey, while making improvements to Leblanc instruments in his Paris workshop. The business was a family affair. While Georges fought in World War I, his wife Clémence managed the factory. Later his son Leon greatly expanded and improved the business. The Leblanc family also worked with Charles Houvenaghel, a famed acoustic scientist. Houvenaghel and Leblanc set up an acoustical research laboratory, the first of its kind, and applied their research to instrument manufacture. Leblanc and Houvenaghel designed new clarinets in unusual ranges. They eventually made a line of clarinets ranging from the piccolo-like sopranino to the extremely low octo-contrabass—a whole clarinet choir, with a greater pitch spread than a string orchestra.
Leon Leblanc took his company’s scientific principles even farther. Leon was a gifted clarinetist who took the top prize at the Paris Conservetoire as a young man. Although he could have had a great career as a performer, Leon chose to stay with the family business and apply his musical insight to instrument manufacture. He dedicated his life to bringing acoustical, mechanical, and musical improvements to woodwind instruments. Although Leblanc’s instruments were almost entirely handmade, Leon Leblanc insisted that the craftsmen follow careful measurements. “Music is an art, but it is still governed by the laws of science,” he declared (Music Trades, July 1996). As a result, Leblanc instruments were more consistent than those that had come before. The company continued to strive for consistent quality, ease of playability, and mechanical innovation, throughout its history.
Postwar Beginnings of the American Firm
G. Leblanc Cie. had worked with an American distributor since 1921. It gave exclusive rights to U.S. distribution to Walter Gretsch, who ran the large musical instrument company Gretsch & Brenner. Although the Leblanc family had strong personal ties to Walter Gretsch, the arrangement had many problems. The Leblanc instruments came from France by sea, and arrived in New York in terrible shape, out of tune and sticky from two weeks of exposure to damp and cold. Gretsch sold the instruments in this condition, much to the distress of the French manufacturer. But because Gretsch handled many product lines, he did not devote particular care to the Leblanc clarinets, and he did not have the time to acclimate and recondition the imports. Thus, the Leblancs were already thinking of an alternative to this distributorship when they met a young U.S. soldier in 1945. This was Vito Pascucci.
Pascucci grew up in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the son of Italian immigrants of modest means. His family had a musical bent, and Vito began playing the trumpet as a young boy. By the time he was 12, he was traveling to Chicago on weekends for lessons. After his lesson, he used to stop in at the Chicago Musical Instrument Company and watch the repairmen. When he was a teenager, he began repairing instruments in the back of a music store run by his older brother, Ben. In 1943, Pascucci was drafted into the army. He applied to join the army band, and was given a spot as the band repairman. Pascucci’s band included three former members of the Cleveland Symphony, and with this kind of competition, he could not make it as a trumpet player. But later the famed swing band leader Glenn Miller began putting together his own army band. He snagged the symphony players, and they recommended he take Vito Pascucci as well. When Pascucci got a letter ordering him to report to the Glenn Miller band, he thought it was a hoax. Pascucci spent days trying to get the letter authenticated. He had no idea how Miller would have heard of him. When they finally met, Pascucci recalled that Miller treated him like a nonentity. But Pascucci had a chance to show his skills when a bandmate came to him with a smashed trumpet that he needed to be able to play the next morning. Pascucci worked all night and repaired the damaged trumpet with only a broomstick. Miller was impressed, and they began having lunch together every day. They became good friends, and came up with a plan to launch a chain of Glenn Miller Music Stores when the war was over. They planned to import European instruments, which were of better quality than U.S.-made ones.
Glenn Miller’s plane disappeared over the English Channel on December 15, 1944. Pascucci was crushed at the loss of his friend. Nevertheless, he went on with plans he and Miller had made, and arranged to visit musical instrument factories in France. He wanted to meet the maker of Noblet clarinets, because he had seen those instruments at the Chicago Musical Instruments store he used to haunt as a child. Someone directed him to the Leblanc factory in La Couture-Boussey, where he met Georges and Leon Leblanc. The family had suffered during the German occupation. The Leblancs had had to trade clarinets for food in order to survive. The factory was down to only 20 workers, and raw materials were virtually non-existent. But the family instantly took to the young American repairman, showing him the workshop and teaching him some new skills. When he told the Leblancs about the Glenn Miller Music Stores idea, they instead asked him to distribute their instruments in the United States. Pascucci was taken aback. He felt that he did not know enough about business to take on such a responsibility. But the Leblancs liked him and trusted him. He left the factory with a duffel bag full of clarinets, and Leon Leblanc promised to meet him in the United States when the war was over.
Leblanc kept his promise and wired Pascucci to come to New York in 1946. The first order of business was to sever the firm’s relationship with Gretsch & Brenner. Walter Gretsch had died, and the Leblanc business contract had passed to his daughter Gertrude. Gertrude happened to be married to John Jacob Astor, one of the wealthiest men in the country. Pascucci could not believe Leblanc would choose him, a poor Wisconsin boy, to run the U.S. distributorship, rather than the Astors. But all this worked out, and Pascucci entered a 50-50 partnership with G. Leblanc Cie., forming Leblanc USA in May 1946. Although Leblanc had wanted Pascucci to work in New York, where the musical instruments import business was centered, Pascucci insisted on returning to his hometown. So he signed a lease for a tiny storefront in Kenosha. He began by taking in the Leblanc instruments and making them playable, something Walter Gretsch had never bothered to do. Demand for musical instruments was on the rise, with the war over and a return to peacetime activities. With the baby boom that followed the war, school music programs also grew quickly, and Leblanc USA began supplying inexpensive instruments for beginners.
No other manufacturer can offer as wide a selection of brass and woodwind instruments crafted with the same integrity and dedication to excellence as does Leblanc. Through all stages of the company’s growth, advancement and acquisitions, it has never lost sight of the principles on which it was founded. Long ago, Georges Leblanc established the basic tenets of integrity, musicianship and creativity for his firms to live by. At G. Leblanc Corporation, these principles still live on, propelling the company into the 21st century.
Expansion in the 1960s
The school market was the best opportunity for the young company, as the country’s school-age population swelled. The company began importing inexpensive, durable instruments that were easy to play. It began in the 1950s with a line of metal clarinets. But plastic clarinets were already popular, so the firm abandoned metal and began making plastic student instruments. Demand was so great that the French factory could not supply enough. So Leblanc USA began manufacturing its own instruments for the first time, forming the plastic bodies and fitting them with French-made keys. This new line was given the name “Vito.” Eventually the entire “Vito” clarinet line was made in Kenosha, including the keys. The small factory expanded in 1953, and then again several times in the 1960s.
Leblanc worked to tame the school music industry, which had been a highly fractured market. In 1950 the company hired a music educator, Ernest Moore, to work on educational programs and materials for music teachers. Leblanc was the first wind instrument manufacturer to hire a music educator, and it continued to keep the post filled with distinguished pedagogues up to the present time. Leblanc also began organizing monthly meetings for musical instrument dealers, giving them a chance to compare notes and discuss ways to improve the business. The dealers who met under Leblanc’s auspices adopted a rent-to-own policy, whereby students rented an instrument for a year and the payments could be put toward an eventual purchase. This became the standard way the student music industry worked, and it made sense for both the students and the instrument dealers. Some of the dealers who had met at the Leblanc meetings later organized the professional group the National Association of School Music Dealers.
By the late 1950s, Leblanc had become a major player in the school music industry. But its product line was limited to woodwinds. In 1964 the company acquired the Frank Holton Company, a maker of brass instruments. Holton was founded in Chicago in 1898 by a former trombonist with the John Philip Sousa band. In 1917 Holton moved to Elkhorn, Wisconsin. Leblanc bought the company, gaining its dominant Collegiate brand of student brass instruments. Under Leblanc’s management, the Holton company began improving its French horn manufacturing. The firm developed a prized line of French horns, valued by professional players around the world. Holton eventually became the world’s largest manufacturer of French horns. It also makes trombones, euphoniums, and other large horns.
Leblanc diversified further in 1968, when it bought The Woodwind Company. This was a small company that specialized in making woodwind mouthpieces. Around the same time it also bought an instrument case manufacturer, the Bublitz Case Company. Bublitz was based in Elkhart, Indiana. In 1971 Leblanc bought another Elkhart company, the Martin Band Instrument Company. Martin was the oldest band instrument manufacturer in the country, excepting the time it had been closed down for the Great Chicago Fire. It made a line of brass instruments, including the Martin Committee trumpet, an instrument still prized by jazz players today. Leblanc closed down Martin’s Elkhart plant and moved manufacturing to a new facility in Kenosha. Leblanc also cut the overlap between its two brass subsidiaries by concentrating the making of trumpets and other small horns at Martin and letting Holton specialize in the larger instruments.
Leblanc expanded its facilities to make room for the new product lines and updated the Elkhorn and Kenosha factories. Leblanc constantly improved the technology it used to build instruments, following Leon Leblanc’s dictum that science governed music. The firm designed and built much of the machinery it needed to automate the manufacturing process. Pascucci also insisted that the factory be a pleasant place to work, despite the prevalence of machines. Workers looked through glass walls into a garden, and quiet hallways were hung with paintings. Pascucci himself continued to innovate, developing new manufacturing methods as well as new models and new instruments. The company prepared for five years before it began making a new instrument, the descant horn, in the 1970s. By 1980, Leblanc had become the third largest manufacturer of wind instruments in the United States.
Buying the French Firm in the 1980s
In 1975 Pascucci’s son Leon (named for Leon Leblanc) joined the company, beginning as vice-president for advertising. The younger Pascucci contributed to the striking interior design of the Leblanc headquarters, and became known for staging beautiful exhibits at industry trade shows. He seemed to have the artistry and flair that was vital to the firm’s image. In the 1980s, Vito Pascucci began thinking of buying out the French firm. Leon Leblanc, born in 1900, was an elderly man with no heirs. It seemed natural that Pascucci would take over. He and his son would continue to run the company along the lines Leblanc had established. Pascucci began seriously negotiating the sale in 1986. Leblanc himself was all for giving Pascucci control. But the transaction involved selling one of the oldest businesses in France to an American, and this was difficult for the French government to abide. When Pascucci made his first inquiries, the French Ministry of Trade told him that odds were 100 to one against his ever buying Leblanc.
- Noblet is established in France.
- Noblet passes the business to the Leblanc family.
- Leblanc begins distribution of clarinets in the United States.
- Pascucci founds Leblanc USA in Kenosha.
- The company acquires the Frank Holton Company.
- The company acquires the Martin Band Instrument Company.
- A 65 percent interest in the French parent is acquired.
- A U.S. firm completes the acquisition of Leblanc S.A.
- Leon Leblanc dies; the U.S. plants are expanded and upgraded.
Over the next three years Pascucci made more than 20 trips to Paris to meet with French government officials. Because of the age of its Noblet subsidiary, Leblanc was considered a national treasure. Pascucci finally won approval to buy 65 percent of Leblanc S.A., as the French company was then known. But the deal was so sensitive that the French prime minister, Francois Mitterand, had to okay it. After the purchase, the Leblanc company sent a survey to clarinetists all over the world, asking their input for future clarinet models. The company then brought out a new line of improved instruments, which were made at the French factory in La Couture-Boussey. In 1991, Leon Pascucci became president of G. Leblanc Corporation. In 1993, the U.S. firm completed its acquisition of Leblanc S.A., acquiring the remaining 35 percent of the company. The new legal arrangements made little difference to how the company operated. The French factory employed about 100 workers, and the U.S. factories about 400. Overall sales were estimated at $37.5 million.
New Technology in the 2000s
Leon Pascucci was credited with continuing the drive toward automation at the company. This meant not only in the factory areas but in accounting and sales. Pascucci also served as president of the National Association of Band Instrument Manufacturers, an industry group that helped raise money for school music programs. He also helped the city of Kenosha raise funds for a bandshell on the Lake Michigan shore, and sustained the community band and orchestra. In 2000, the company began a multimillion dollar expansion. The main Kenosha plant doubled in size, and the company brought in scores of new machines. The firm stopped using toxic materials, such as brass cleaners, in favor of environmentally sound and efficient processes like sonic buffers. Leon Leblanc died that year, at the age of 99. The company was still operating on the principles he had laid out, with mechanical efficiency wedded to artistic production. In 2001 the G. Leblanc Corporation was given an “Industry World Leadership” award by the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce association, the state’s largest business group. The award noted the bold steps the company had taken in implementing new technology.
In 2003 the company’s French factory was damaged by a suspicious fire. The ancient La Couture-Boussey plant suffered more than $3 million of damage, but volunteer fire fighters put out the flames before the building was destroyed. Although some inventory was lost, the factory’s valuable stock of antique hardwood was not harmed. The factory was back in production about two months after the fire.
Frank Holton Company; Martin Band Instrument Company; Woodwind Company; Bublitz Case Company.
Conn-Selmer, Inc.; Yamaha Corporation.
Bednarek, David L., “G. Leblanc Strives for Perfect Pitch,” Milwaukee Journal, June 20, 1993, p. B1.
Dunn, Michael J., Ill, “The Musical World of G. Leblanc,” Wisconsin Trails, Summer 1980, p. 35.
“Improving Productivity and Quality, Pursuing the Perfect Clarinet,” Music Trades, July 2000, p. 162.
“Leblanc Turns 50,” Music Trades, July 1996, p. 134.
“Leblanc U.S. Buys Leblanc Paris,” Music Trades, June 1989, p. 34.
“Leon Pascucci Named Leblanc CEO,” Music Trades, December 2001, p. 145.
“U.S./French Collaboration at Leblanc Yields New Pro Clarinets,” Music Trades, January 1991, p. 53.