B.C.’s Venerable Empire Music Playing New Tune

Alan Roadburg

Empire Music's Alan Roadburg with Halilit's Turtle Xylophone

In 1979, George Roadburg, a British Columbia businessman, purchased Empire Music, an all-purpose retailer of music merchandise — sheet music to trumpets — that had been a Vancouver-area mainstay with consumers and music teachers since the late 40s.

While Mr. Roadburg may not have been a musician, he did know a thing or two about building a business. Not only did he move Empire Music from its long-time location to a more modern facility with a warehouse, but he breathed new life into the venerable company’s sales by restructuring and retargeting its product lines toward the needs of the up-and-coming educational market.

Over the next 27 years, Mr. Roadburg built Empire Music into one of Canada’s leading suppliers to music educators, focusing specifically on those teaching in daycares and elementary schools. Along with a wide selection of several thousand generic SKUs aimed at introducing music skills to young minds and bodies, Empire was the exclusive go-to vendor of Aulos recorders — purchased by every province’s school boards by the thousands — as well as Suzuki’s Orff line of Japanese-made instruments.

Each year, Empire Music’s entire inventory, which included its own affordable EMUS house-brand of music products, was presented to customers via an annual catalogue. (Today, 20,000 copies of the catalogue are mailed across Canada to a list that includes everyone from music-store owners and teachers to recreational professionals at seniors’ residences.)

By the time Mr. Roadburg passed away in 2006, Empire Music had an enviable reputation and a hefty share of both Canada’s and the U.S.’s elementary educational markets. Although mindful of Empire’s primary focus, when Mr. Roadburg’s two sons, Alan and Eliot, assumed the company helm they began looking at broadening Empire’s scope. Perhaps because Empire was already supplying product that straddled the line between toys and bona fide instruments, the brothers decided it would take little to spin off a division focusing solely on marketing musical toys for the retail trade.

By early 2010, the new “branch” was ready to roll. To launch the company’s entry into the business of selling toys to the retail market, Empire’s management team, which included long-time general manager Gwenda Williams, chose around 30 items from their regular music product lineup and repackaged them under their own newly created house-brand, Musical Fun. Wanting to keep packaging to a minimum, each product came in a reusable, eco-friendly drawstring bag featuring a peggable header-card for easy display.

Halilit's Rainboshaker

Halilit's Rainboshaker

Empire’s foray into toy-store retailing got an additional boost later in 2010 when it acquired the exclusive nation-wide rights to distribute Halilit Musical Toys. The award-winning Halilit line includes over 70 uniquely designed, kid-sized instruments and music makers, all tooled and manufactured to high standards in Israel. Including everything from maracas to xylophones, its wide range means there’s product that both retailers and educators can use. (Halilit is distributed in the U.S. market by an American supplier.)

Several months later, Empire was ready to debut its new toy lineup at the 2011 Canadian Toy & Hobby Fair, held each January in Mississaugua, Ontario at the Toronto International Centre. Since a trade fair geared for toy retailers was a whole new experience for the Empire team, they weren’t quite sure what to expect, says Alan Roadburg, company spokesman. “But generally we were very pleased with the response. While there were some retailers who already knew about us, we also met many toy, gift and baby product retailers who were not aware of our new toy lines and subsequently are now carrying our products. Musical toys are a perfect fit for the kind of customers, like grandparents, who shop at specialty stores. Between 25 and 30 percent of toys are bought by grandparents who are probably more interested in traditional developmental products like musical toys and less in electronics,” says Alan.

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