Oldest Family Business In U.S. Profits Without Layoffs Or Outsourcing

Zildjian cymbals businessIn a time when American manufacturing is outsourcing, automating, and downsizing, the story of the Avedis Zildjian Company sounds like an urban legend: a 390-year-old manufacturer of cymbals that has never laid off a worker, at least in recent memory.

Rather than lay off employees when their jobs are automated, the company retrains them for new positions, and it offers incentive pay for increasing productivity. "It comes down to trust doesn't it?" CEO Craigie Zildjian told NBC about the company's relationship to its workers. "You take care of us, and we take care of you."

The Zildjian Company -- believed to be the oldest family-owned business in the U.S. -- began making cymbals in Turkey during the Ottoman Empire, and then in Massachusetts, during the Great Depression. The company traces its history to Avedis Zildjian, an Armenian alchemist whose secret formula for metals created cymbals of such entrancing sound that the sultan invited him to live at his palace.

Today, the cymbal-maker has his own palace, or rather, factory, in Norwell, Mass., run by 14th-generation members of the Zildjian family, and the Zildjian cymbals have been used by everyone from 19th century composer Richard Wagner to legendary big band drummer Gene Krupa and Ringo Starr.

The company -- run by Craigie Zildjian, CEO -- currently controls 65 percent of the cymbal market, reports the BBC. Her sister Debbie Zildjian is vice president of human resources.

"The notion of sending your quality, outsourcing your quality halfway around the world is unthinkable," Craigie told NBC in a "Today Show" special on Friday.

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The company's commitment to retraining employees for new jobs at the same pay is nothing short of remarkable. Employers have been cutting back on training for decades, but during the recession, that trend intensified. Only 1 in 5 workers, according to a recent survey, have acquired new skills from employer-provided training in the past five years.

For the last 15 years, the company has also offered its 125 employees incentive pay for greater productivity, as well as for getting jobs done right the first time. Debbie Zildjian told NBC that there have only been two months in the 15 years when employees haven't earned a bonus.

This may help explain why so many of the factory line workers have been with the company for decades. After all, when other companies are getting squeezed, Zildjian has always seen opportunity. The Great Depression may have seemed like a terrible time to set up an American factory, for example, but that also happened to be the beginning of the jazz era.

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Zildjian's relationship with customers is equally unusual. For decades, Zildjian has been inviting music legends to test their products and help them innovate, even developing the now-ubiquitous thin cymbal because drumming icon Gene Krupa asked for it.

To this day, Zildjian sends good tidings and birthday wishes to "Zildjian artists" on its Twitter feed, which has almost 50,000 followers.

Zildjian never loses sight of its history -- the company's lobby is decorated in a traditional Turkish style -- but it also merrily evolves with the times. Craigie and Debbie Zildjian, for example, are the first women to run the show.

"He continuously told me and my sister Debbie that there was no reason that women couldn't be just as successful in business as men," Craigie says about her grandfather. And Debbie's 4-year-old granddaughter, reports NBC, is slated to carry on the tradition.

The company's success may also come down, in part, to the special rules it has for the family management. As the BBC reported, no family member can report to another; everyone must have job experience somewhere else first; college degrees are required; and no spouses allowed.

"We've always encouraged our daughter not to get involved with musicians," Debbie added, "especially drummers."

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