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Member Profile: Elderly Instruments

June 18, 2024

The Power of Music: Lansing’s Own Elderly Instruments Triumphs, Winning America’s Top Small Business for 2023

At the helm of Elderly Instruments, Lillian Werbin, CEO and Co-Owner, steers her team toward daily success. These daily triumphs—through the leadership of first her father, then her own— have made Elderly Instruments “a beacon of global fellowship, drawn together by the strings of musical tradition.” This clearly shines through because the business is now the proud recipient of America’s Top Small Business award for 2023 from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Werbin asserts, though, that it’s the entire Elderly team that makes the online and brick and mortar store thrive. Fostering an environment where “mutual respect and passion drive us,” Werbin and her employees embrace local involvement, creating a “com- munity hub,” not just a place to buy musical instruments.

Despite never anticipating she would take over the family business, it’s apparent that Werbin has found her calling. Her dedication to her staff and customers, plus her service to multiple boards, makes Elderly Instruments the perfect small business to model.

We connected with Werbin to discuss the big win, the company’s dedication to customer service, how she’s grown as an entrepreneur and the secret to keeping employees for so long:

Focus: The story of Elderly Instruments is full of family and history. Please tell our readers all about it.

Werbin: Elderly Instruments’ story began in a modest 10 x 8 basement in East Lansing in 1972. There, my father, Stan Werbin, and Sharon McInturff (now Burton) cultivated the idea of merging community and the timeless charm of vintage and used musical instruments. Three years later, in 1975, they launched their renowned catalog and began shipping worldwide.

As the 1980s dawned, Elderly Instruments experienced a growth spurt, propelling us to seek a more expansive haven in Old Town Lansing. This move wasn’t just a change in location—it was where the heart of Elderly Instruments found its permanent rhythm.

Shortly after Sharon’s departure from the business, the digital boom of the ’90s was upon us. We embraced the internet, broadening our reach while staying anchored to our foundational value—a knowledgeable, community driven, authentic, enthusiastic, resilient and results-oriented approach.

My journey with Elderly began in 2014, working part-time in the warehouse department. I moved home and split my time working in the warehouse and sales departments, and then marketing. I dove into management in 2018, and I now guide our talented team as a second-generation business owner, I am proud to say.

Over the last ten years, we’ve completed a total technological transformation, striving to enhance every aspect of our work. We also sought to foster a deeper connection with our online audience by delivering our unique showroom experience virtually with a website makeover.

Our journey is more than a recount of business milestones; it’s a rich tapestry woven from devotion to music and its transformative effect within our communities. Elderly Instruments strives to be a beacon of global fellowship, drawn together by the strings of musical tradition. Ours is a continually evolving tune, appealing to everyone drawn by music’s unmatched ability to stir the soul.

Focus: Last year, Elderly Instruments received a notable award— America’s Top Small Business for 2023 by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Congratulations! Share with us the sense of accomplishment you must feel.

Werbin: I’m honored (and still stunned) by our recognition as America’s Top Small Business for 2023. This distinction highlights the collective efforts of our dedicated team and the wider community’s unwavering support. Although I’m at the helm of Elderly Instruments, our triumph stems from our communal spirit. This award reflects our shared vision and determination. Moving forward, I’m committed to fostering more collaboration and building upon this achievement to make a lasting positive impact.

Focus: How has your “unwavering passion for assisting musicians at every stage of their journey” made you the best in the business?

Werbin: At Elderly Instruments, our passion for music and supporting musicians is at every stage of their journey. From the first-time player picking out their initial instrument to the seasoned professional seeking a rare vintage piece, we’re here to guide, educate and support. Our expertise in fretted instruments, coupled with the care we give our customers, sets us apart. We believe in the power of music to connect and enrich lives, and this belief helps drive us. It’s not just about selling instruments—it’s about being a trusted partner in every musician’s journey, a principle we’ve stood by since 1972.

Focus: Over the years, how have you grown as an entrepreneur?

Werbin: Starting out, I never had big dreams of running the show. My love for this business came naturally, growing up around my Dad’s store and the staff. When I called him, looking for a job as I was finishing at university, I was looking for one I could believe in. I’m grateful he gave me the opportunity. I quickly found myself wanting to bring new energy to this place that means so much to my family.

Becoming CEO wasn’t planned; it was a journey we took together, figuring out how to keep this place thriving and pass the torch smoothly. Through it all, I’ve learned a ton, like the importance of listening, giving folks the freedom to grow and when to step back. I have an amazing team who I trust, and leaving room for autonomy has been important for us.

While I acknowledge there’ll always be more to learn, the journey thus far has been enlightening. I take every new day with gratitude and intention.

Focus: In what ways has service and dedication to your community elevated your reputation?

Werbin: Service and dedication to our community are foundational to Elderly Instruments. Since 1972, our mission has been to not only provide quality instruments but also to enrich the lives of those who interact with us. By actively participating in the revival of Old Town Lansing, facilitating events and sponsoring local and national music communities, we’ve become more than a store; we’re a community hub.

It’s through these efforts that we’ve maintained patron trust and respect, fostering a sense of belonging among musicians and music lovers alike. Our commitment to the community reflects our belief in the power of music; our core values have cemented our standing as a trusted name in music retail. We reach beyond commerce to cultivate a deeper connection with the greater music community.

Focus: Some of your employees have been with you for over 45 years. What’s your secret?

Werbin: Being an employer is a daily balancing act, but one way to retain employees is to prioritize the human aspect over business metrics. At Elderly Instruments, I’m responsible for over 40 individuals, whose families and well-being rely on our sound decision-making, empathy and patience. I learned that from my Dad, who always put his staff first, discussing their well-being every night when I was growing up.

I genuinely think about them and encourage them to pursue their passions, especially when it intersects with the joy of music. This philosophy fosters a workplace where mutual respect and passion drive us, leading to long-term dedication and genuine happiness in their roles. This is a mutual relationship, where I work for my staff, even though they “work for me.” It’s with this mindset that we have built a loyal and passionate team, some of whom have been with us for over 45 years.

Focus: What are the keys to running a successful small business, and how can other owners implement them?

Werbin: There are so many factors to consider when running a small business, and they all must be done well. Balancing the overarching vision and larger goals with incremental improvements and attention to the day-to-day process is key.

For example, over the past six years, for larger goals we’ve focused on leveraging technology to enhance our customer service, opting for third-party solutions for operations and shipping to streamline our internal processes. Our customers trust us to be the experts in fretted instruments and we trust our partners to be the best in their fields. We carefully worked through presenting the values from our 50-year legacy in a more modern fashion, while maintaining our expertise in stringed and fretted instruments.

Through this process, we tried to listen attentively to our team— their experiences, needs and feedback. Their insights are invaluable, guiding us through challenges and keeping us aligned with our goals. Their on-the-ground perspective is crucial for continuous improvement and sustaining success. Implementing this approach of mutual trust and open communication can be transformational.


By Bona Van Dis, Editor of Focus magazine; originally published in SBAM’s May/June 2024 issue of FOCUS magazine

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