Sunday, July 02, 2000

Mission for Mars: music dominance

Retiree returns to business

By Eileen Stilwell
The (Camden, N.J.) Courier-Post

        Suppose you reinvented the small-town stationery store, sold your business model five years later for $250 million, then stayed on as president of the merged company — Office Depot Inc. — while turning it into the nation's largest office-supply retailer.

(Paris L. Gray photo)
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        What do you do next?

        At 48, with money to burn, Mark Begelman tried to retire. He failed.

        Instead, he turned his passion for music into a second career, applying many of the same principles he used to build an office supply empire into a network of big-box music stores with 2,700 employees, including 600 music teachers.

        The transition from staples and printer paper to saxophones and sheet music, he said, was a lot easier than one might think.

        Last month, the Boca Raton, Fla., resident opened his 36th music store — complete with 200,000 instruments and accessories — in Cherry Hill, N.J., called Mars Music, which stands for Music and Recording Superstore.

        The company has had a Cincinnati-area store in Springdale since October 1998.

        “I was very uncomfortable telling people I did nothing,” said Mr. Begelman, now 52, of his brief retirement after quitting Office Depot in 1995.

        “I used to wait for my kids to come home from school to play, then they'd tell me they were too busy. I was crushed. I knew I had to do something. So instead of being a corporate president by day and rocker at night, I decided to flip it.”

        A part-time musician for 30 years, he changed the name of his rock group from Eraserheads to Men from Mars at about the same time.

        Dressed in faded bluejeans, Mr. Begelman looks more like a music store employee than the major stockholder in a chain with $300 million in revenues. By year's end, he expects his 3-year-old, privately held venture to turn a profit.

        “I started out with four mom-and-pop music stores in Florida, and I thought I'd take it easy and open one new store a year,” he said. “A friend warned me I'd never be content with that pace, and he was right. The plan now is 12 to 14 new stores a year for the next 15 to 20 years. So far, none have been closed, though a couple are not as active as I would like.”

        The typical Mars store has 40 musically trained employees in a 25,000-square-foot space that mixes commerce with theater ambience.

        Tuned instruments hang on walls at eye level, teasing shoppers to give them a try. Wooden chairs or upholstered banquettes beckon them to sit down and play a tune. Small demo rooms also are available. An equipped concert stage where bands may perform is a focal point.

        Mr. Begelman said Mars does not sell CDs or tapes because other superstores have saturated that market. But it offers just about everything else for the musician, including its own recording label, Martian.

        “E-commerce talks about B2C and B2B — in my stores it's B2D,” he said. “All my customers are dreamers. They dream about playing better, performing in front of a large audience. Doesn't mean they have to quit their day job to dream. It's just another part of them. It's what music is for.”

        As the second-largest music store chain (behind Guitar Center and ahead of Sam Ash) in the nation, Mars competes aggressively for every aspect of the business, from a Babies Make Music program for children under 4 to the lucrative school band market. In addition to selling instruments and accessories for all levels of musicianship, it offers repairs, rentals, lessons, concerts and an interactive Web site that, in time, will offer a list of concerts in venues small and large.

        Combining all of Mars' tentacles — instrument sales, recorded music, sound enhancement and education — Mr. Begelman is pushing hard to be the lead player in what domestically amounts to a $35 billion market, according to industry sources.

        The goal of creating new musicians must be working, he said, since 51 percent of his customers are first-time buyers.



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- Mission for Mars: music dominance
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