As a shining beacon of light, industry trailblazer and Queen matriarch, Dinah Gretsch has had an incredible journey leading Gretsch to rise from the ashes back to greatness, endure in turbulent times, and prosper in ways few achieve.
The gracious, world-traveling maverick CFO, along with her protégé, daughter Lena Thomas, are celebrated milestone anniversaries this year at Gretsch. Dinah has been working alongside husband Fred for 40 years. Lena joined the family business 25 years ago.
Dinah and Lena sat down with us in their Pooler, Ga. Office to share their perspectives and insights on where Dinah and Fred have been with the company, where it is now, and what lies ahead for the future generation. The magnitude of Dinah’s words is undeniable. She casually mentions some of the biggest artists ever in passing as they’re on a first-name basis as longtime friends. She moves to connect with people, empower them, and make lasting changes. Her presence is ubiquitous as she serves on boards, has her own foundation, and is a devoted advocate for music programs for kids. Her advice to others is sincere and inspiring.
I was watching a YouTube video back from 2008 where you and Fred were at a music store doing a Q&A and Fred introduced you and gave you all the credit for growing the business after it was bought back from Baldwin. You’ve had a huge role in the growth of Gretsch. Can you shed some light on the history and where Gretsch is today?
Dinah: Well, we bought the business back together in 1984 after it had been out of our hands for what — 17 years — and that had always been his dream to buy the family business back. At the time we bought it back, we got a drum business that was poorly run in Arkansas and a dying brand. Gretsch guitars had not been made in eight years because the factory had burned down and Baldwin decided not to build it back.
So when we got it back, we wanted to make Gretsch guitars again, but didn’t know if anyone would buy them. We had to search for all the tools and dies, a factory to build them in, and everything you need to go forward. Duke Kramer, who was involved with Gretsch and had gone to work for Fred’s father in 1936, worked also on the project with us. We showed the new guitars for the first time in 1989 at the Japanese music show.
And here we are now in 2019 and we sell multi-million dollars’ worth of Gretsch guitars a year. So when you talk about taking a dying brand and rebuilding it, and to think that it’s in demand again — both the drums and the guitars — we’re very proud of what we’ve done. The drums are very well respected, and the factory is in Ridgeland, South Carolina, which we set up in 1985, and it’s been there ever since. We’ve had people retire since we brought it there and many, many who have been there 20 plus years.
Fred, Lena and I have worked very hard to keep the brand going. I’m more of your operations type person, and I’m the CFO of the company. We had to get all the Ps and Qs together. We signed a deal with Fender 17 years ago for them to handle the manufacturing, distribution, and marketing of Gretsch Guitars, and it’s been a wonderful joint relationship. The drums are being distributed and marketed by DW.
So, yes, Fred gives me a lot of credit, but I give him a lot of credit back.
There are some big anniversaries at Gretsch this year! You’re celebrating 40 years and Lena is celebrating 25 years. Happy Anniversary to you both. How did Lena become involved in the business?
Dinah: Lena started part-time when she was in high school, and now she’s been here full-time for 25 years. When she came in part-time, we were putting in a new computer system and we started her off in data input. After high school, she went to college and then worked outside of the business for a couple of years before returning to Gretsch. We were very, very happy to have her back.
How would you describe yourself as a business leader?
Dinah: You know, it’s different being a business leader in your own business versus being a business leader in the industry. I think I am looked at more of a leader in the industry because I am a woman, and we are far and few between. I’m also really pro “get music back in school” and have the Mrs. G’s Foundation. I get involved in a lot of charitable events. Also, this summer I spoke at the Little Kids Rock music teacher forum on being a woman in a male-dominated industry and how I succeeded.
Tell us more about Mrs. G’s Foundation.
Dinah: I started it in 2010. I’ve worked a long time, saved a lot of money, and decided to put it back into the foundation to support music programs for kids. I do a lot of scholarships for drum camps and guitar camps. I have two schools that have full line music programs — I pay for the music teacher and all the instruments. We bring artists in to talk to the students called artist in residence day, and we’ve had the Command Sisters and other artists come in for that. Same thing with the Georgia Music Foundation. At the Georgia Music On My Mind annual benefit held in Nashville, we give $5,000 grants across the state of Georgia to increase music in schools.
So that’s where my heart is because I love kids. I love to assist underprivileged children that would never be able to touch an instrument. I put a ukulele program in a school this year, and I’m putting in two more next year thinking that it would be the nine and ten-year-olds that really enjoy the program, but it’s the high school students. Now they have an after-school ukulele club.
We’ve had the Command Sisters, Steve Ferrone, the drummer for Heartbreakers, and Mark Schulman, drummer for Pink. Joe Robinson goes a lot of places for me. Joe won Australia’s Got Talent when he was 17 and now, he’s 28. He’s from Australia but he moved to Nashville. He’s really good with kids, and I’ve also sponsored him to do the Little Kids Rock program where he goes into schools. So as he travels around, he will also visit a school.
My outreach is to bring young artists in and to try to place them in different schools. They will be there for the day with all of the different music classes, and then the last hour of the day we will do a concert. Sometimes, the kids don’t even know how famous and gifted these artists are. They’re playing with these top name artists.
That brings me to my next question. I read an interview you did with WiMN back in 2014 about gender inequality in the music industry. At that time, you mentioned that you hadn’t seen any improvements. Do you still feel the same way or have you seen any improvement?
Dinah: Well, Martin hired a female president, Jackie Renner. And now at Gibson since the takeover, they have a female CFO and a female CPO, which is the Chief Production Officer. Being on the WiMN board, I would like to see more of a focus on female business leaders, since it focuses a lot on the singer-songwriters.
When I first started going to Japan many, many years ago with Fred to go to the factory, there would be 12 men and me meeting, and my husband was the only other English person. I had always heard that Japan didn’t have women in business. The men were very respectful towards me when they realized that I did have a say-so, and I wasn’t there as Fred’s secretary.
How about at the NAMM show? Have you seen a shift in the overall marketing and showcases?
Dinah: I’m gonna say it’s better now because we don’t have those 85-year-old men there anymore, and even though they would talk to you and be polite to you, you could tell that they really didn’t value what you could do. You’ve got a new breed that you can just fit right in.
You work closely with your endorsed artists. What do you look for when you’re looking for an artist to represent the Gretsch brand? And, obviously, since we’re a female-focused publication and our goal is to encourage, inspire, and empower female musicians, might we see more female artists on your roster?
Dinah: Really, Fender and DW are the ones that handle those artists. I know that we’ve got a lot more female artists than we’ve ever had before. Of course, Cindy Blackman is Gretsch’s premiere artist on drums. She promotes a lot of clinics with women drummers. I know there will be more. And we really do a lot for our artists. They can work with a family, and they’re part of our family. I think if you interviewed any of our artists, or a lot of the stores that carry Gretsch, you’ll find that they feel like they’re part of the family.
Yes, I read where Cindy taught you how to play African reeds.
Dinah: Yes, she did. She spent several hours with me and my grandson teaching us. She gave us our own African reeds and I have them at my house.
Lena: We even played them at a Christmas party.
Lena, you’re a fifth-generation Gretsch family member. How does that feel to carry on the family legacy?
Lena: I’ve enjoyed being in the family business, and to be able to be here 25 years and to know that we can carry on the legacy of the Gretsch name is an honor. I came in as a college trainee and had to work from the ground up and prove myself. I’ve worked in different areas in the company so I can get the whole picture of the business. I’ve worked in the computer department, drum production, purchasing, quality control, import/export, and logistics. A little bit of everything.
Yes, I read in an article where you said that you’d better look good in a hat because you’re going to be wearing a lot of them.
Lena: Yes, from soup to nuts!
Lena, what do you think is the most challenging part of your roll?
Learning the business has been challenging. I used to do a lot of the trade shows and outside things but took some time off from those types of events once I became a mom since I couldn’t travel as much. I now run Gretsch Gear which is the online store — from the website, products, pricing, and operations. Since my son is older, I have gotten back into traveling and went to NAMM in Nashville last year. I also went to the show in January which was different. I had to put myself out there more responsibilities and meetings which was kind of a throwback —trying to re-establish relationships from the past.
Dinah: I have so many. I’ll tell you one of my memories, and you’ve probably read it someplace, was when George Harrison came out with the Cloud Nine album. I wrote him a thank you note and sent it to his address in England. Then one day the man who was answering the phone for us came to my desk and said George Harrison’s on the phone. You know, the George Harrison of the Beatles, and he’s asking for you. So, of course, how would you know a thank you note would bring that around.
That’s when we started with the Traveling Wilburys because of that note. When George called, he wanted to know if Fred and I could come to California that weekend. They were going to be recording at Dave Stewart’s house. So we went up there for the recording. That’s when we decided to make the Traveling Wilbury guitar. He also invited us to his house in England when they were releasing their second album.
When I was a teenager, my father was in the Air Force and he was stationed in England for a couple of years. I actually met all of them [the Beatles] when I was 13. So when I was at Dave Stewart’s house, George and I were cooking together; and while we were in the kitchen, I told him I had met him when I was 13, and asked did he remember me? (laughs) And then the Stones say that I’m their oldest fan because I also met them before they ever came to the United States. It was great back then because there were these big one-day festivals and everyone would hang out. I met Herman and the Hermits, Petula Clark, the Dave Clark Five Band, and the list goes on and on and on. At the time, who would have known I would end up in the music industry! I worked with Bono on the Irish Falcon, and that was a really fun project. Working with Vinnie Colauita or Steve Ferrone in designing different things. So, yes, lots of fun memories.
Lena: Mine would have to be with Vinnie Colauita before he became a Gretsch endorser. We’ve worked with him for ten years now, but I had met him a few years prior to that. He was in New York and I was here in the office, and the receptionist came up to me and said there’s a Vinnie Colauita on the phone, and he really wants to get in touch with Dinah or Fred. I took the call and he told me that he’s in New York, and he had made the decision to be a Gretsch drummer. He was going to be on the Saturday Night Live show that night playing Gretsch drums. He wanted to know where my mom was and as it turned out, she was in New York. So there were a lot of phone calls back and forth to hook them up that night.
Dinah: He was playing his Gretsch drums that night but didn’t have a drum bass. Lena tracked us down, so we went with him to one of our dealers to get one. We went to the early taping of the show, and that’s when he decided to be a Gretsch artist.
Also, earlier this year, I had a 40th anniversary party at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville and there were about ten guitar players that came with their guitars and performed for me in my honor. There were no paid performers. It was so wonderful to hear what nice things that they had to say, and I’m sitting there thinking, you know, I met you when you were 20. We did it in Nashville because we have friends in Nashville, and we had friends come from New York and Florida and Atlanta. I was just so surprised to see all those people.
Dinah: To be in the business for 40 years! (laughs)
Lena: Yeah, I’m here! You know, working with family can be difficult. It can be good and bad. You have to learn to work together and compromise and separate.
Dinah: Nobody can believe that Fred and I have worked together for 40 years. He does his thing, and I do my thing. We’re just a good team. Then Lena’s with us too, and she’s a good team member. We all have our own strengths and that’s the areas that we’re working in, and we don’t step on each other’s toes.
Lena: And we have the trust in each other.
With all the knowledge you have now, what would you tell your younger self when first starting out?
Dinah: To chill more, not be as intense. Maybe learn not to be so hard on myself.
Lena: I’m laughing because I’m the opposite. I would want to be stronger, so we need to meet in the middle.
Dinah: I’m a really take-charge person.
Yes, I read where you are the oldest of four siblings with three younger brothers —
And that you have no fear of men in the business because of your upbringing.
You’ve lived a full life —you’re a wife, a mother, a sister, a grandmother, a great-grandmother, a businesswoman, an entrepreneur, a philanthropist, met the Beatles, traveled the world —
I have. I’ve been to the North Pole, South Pole, everywhere. I have six kids, 16 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
You bought your first business when you were 20. What kind of business?
It was a credit and a collection agency.
What else would you like to add to that list?
I think what I would really like to add to the list is I would like to be able to see that I, and not just me by lots of people, have made an impact on helping children. Leave your legacy where every child could be given an opportunity, and not just in the music industry. I would love to see how many more children’s lives I could really touch because that is our future. And being in business and dealing with companies all over the world in places like Japan, Korea, Germany, and France, teach children how to negotiate, because that’s important and I feel like we’re losing that today.
Lena, what about you? What are your plans?
I would like to continue to learn and to grow in the leadership here for generation six. To be here for them — to lead and guide and mentor the next generation who will have a different skillset. It will modernize us more, and we have to learn and adapt and grow with each other.
Any words of wisdom for women wanting to become strong women in business, particularly male-dominated industries?
Lena: Believe in yourself, have confidence, and stand strong.