Yamaha calls the tune in fight for pianos
Japanese group is poised to win control of Bosendorfer, one of the great names in musical manufacturing
Leo Lewis, Asia Business Correspondent
A fiery East v West bidding battle for Bösendorfer – the Austrian company that crafted the favourite pianos of legends from Franz Liszt to Oscar Peterson – is set to end this week with a victory for Yamaha.
For weeks, the advantage in the bidding for Bösendorfer has rocked back and forth between Yamaha, the world’s largest maker of pianos, and Joseph Brodmann, the Viennese piano-making powerhouse that has promised a supposedly more attractive “all-Austrian” future for the loss-making Bösendorfer.
Last week, Brodmann, with a bid thought to have come in at about €11 million (£7.9 million), seemed to have won the day, but sources close to Yamaha have told The Times that the Japanese group had, at the last minute, come in late on Friday with a substantially raised offer of around €14 million.
Over the weekend, a Bösendorfer workers’ council was understood to have said that the bidding battle was “unnerving” employees at the company and that the “games and haggling” should stop immediately. Sources close to the bidding believe that a winner could be chosen as early as today.
However, the battle for control of Bösendorfer, among the oldest and most celebrated piano makers in the world, has been complicated by the fact that it has become an intensely political affair. Austrians are unwilling to let what they see as a national champion fall into foreign hands for a second time – for about 36 years Bösendorfer was owned by Kimball, of the United States, before it returned to Austrian hands in 2002. Moreover, Bösendorfer and Brodmann have very close historical links: Ignaz Bösendorfer, the firm’s founder, trained under Josef Brodmann as an organ and piano builder in the 1820s before going into business himself in Brodmann’s workshops.
Bösendorfer was bought by a Viennese bank when, five years ago, it appeared that Bösendorfer would be sold to the American guitar specialist Gibson. Now, Bawag, the Austrian bank, is keen to dispose of the loss-making business, which sells only 200 pianos a year. Bawag itself was embroiled in a scandal several years ago and is owned by Cerberus, the private equity group, an American fund with few emotional attachments to Bösendorfer. Brodmann’s bid has been backed by EK Fin, itself a private equity vehicle under the umbrella of Bank Austria Creditanstalt and ultimately of UniCredit, the Italian financial giant.
Heeding the growing nationalism surrounding the auction, Yamaha is understood to have added a last-minute sweetener to its bid by assuring Bösendorfer staff that production would remain in Austria and that the 179-year old brand would remain untouched.
Yamaha is principally interested in transferring Bösendorfer’s crafting techniques back to Japan to enhance the quality and reputation of its own brand. Yamaha has recently undertaken a series of bold corporate moves in an effort to protect the future of its piano business, which, like other big players in the traditional piano manufacturing centres, has come under pressure from new cheaper models being made in emerging economies, such as China.
The company has vowed to increase piano production in China by 40 per cent in the current financial year to 25,000 and has established a sales subsidiary in Russia. In an effort to create a future market for its products, Yamaha also has plans to expand its network of music schools in China to 40 and hopes to be giving music lessons to 10,000 children in the population hubs of Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou.
Ignaz Bösendorfer, the founder of the Austrian piano maker, was born in 1794, into a family of craftsmen. At 19 he went to work for Joesph Brodmann, the leading piano maker in Vienna. In 1828 Bösendorfer, considered to be Brodmann’s most talented apprentice, took control of his mentor’s piano workshops. If Brodmann taught the son of a master cabinet maker his skills, then it was the brilliant Franz Liszt who made his name: Liszt, heir apparent to geniuses such as Beethoven and Schubert, was breaking pianos purely by the vigour of his playing, but when he tried a Bösendorfer the unhappy accidents stopped and the Bösendorfer concert grand became highly sought after. In 1830 its designer and manufacturer was named as a supplier to the Austrian emperor. Ignaz Bösendorfer died in 1859 and his son Ludwig took over the business. Ludwig helped to create the Bösendorfer Hall, the most celebrated chamber music concert hall of the period, which played host to Grieg, Strauss, and Brahms. Family control ended in 1913, as Ludwig had no descendents, and the business passed into another family, before passing into American ownership between 1966 and 2002. Still manufacturing in Vienna, the company makes 450 pianos a year, of which 90 per cent are exported.