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A 400 YEAR FAMILY SECRET – THE AVEDIS ZILDJIAN COMPANY

In a letter dated 1927, Aram Zildjian (Aram), from Constantinople, wrote to his nephew Avedis III in the United States

"For you, the son of my late brother, Haroutune, I am happy. Except for me, you are the oldest living male member of the Zildjian family. As such you are next in line to become heir to the family’s secret formula and process for making cymbals that has been the pride of the Zildjians over the centuries. It now becomes your responsibility to take over the secret that is your heritage."

With that offer of handing down the traditional manufacturing secret, the 400-year-old company, Avedis Zildjian Company, spread its wings across the Atlantic Ocean and entered America.

Business: Zil (Cymbal) – dj (maker) – ian (Armenian suffix for “son of”) - ZILDJIAN: Cymbal manufacturing (United States); known to be the oldest company in America

Founded: in 1623 by Avedis Zildjian I

Current: 14th Generation - Craigie Zildjian and Debbie Zildjian

The founder Avedis Zildjian (Avedis I) had found a unique way to mix a bronze alloy of Tin and Copper that created a great sound quality and durability. He was appointed at the court of the Ottoman Sultan to manufacture their cymbals. In 1623, Sultan Murad (of Ottoman Empire) gave him permission to start manufacturing the cymbals on his own. Avedis I handed the secret to his son Ahkam, post which the family history has been lost for the next 200 years, up untill Avedis II in the 1800s. Avedis II was a bit of a showman who popularised the product in various shows and won awards in London and Paris World Trade shows. When Avedis II passed away, his children were too young and hence the business went to his brother Kerope II (1829-1909). Kerope II further refined the manufacturing process and brought home another set of international awards. Around this time, the Cymbals started to be called the Zildjian Cymbals instead of Turkish Cymbals.

Kerope II had 12 children, but none of the sons were interested in the business and hence his daughter Victoria was handed the family secret and she ran the business for a period of time, before the business went back to the children of Avedis II. The elder son of Avedis II, Haroutune, a lawyer was not interested in the business, but his brother Aram, known to be a firebrand, took the business to new heights.

In writing the letter to Avedis III, Aram transferred and initiated a new era in the Zildjian Cymbal business in USA. While the Kerope line of the Zildjians continued to manufacture Cymbals well into the 1940’s, they had to sell out owing to financial troubles - perhaps an outcome of the Armenian-Turkish conflict. The Turkish line of the business ended once they were taken over by another company. The American branch however, continues to flourish.

To begin with, Avedis III was not inclined to taking up his uncles’ offer as he was married to an American. He had started a confectionary manufacturing business and was doing very well for himself. However, as an exemplar of the role of women in family business, it was his wife, Sally, who persuaded him to take up the offer. She felt that the family legacy was a very interesting story and it was a good thing for her own sons. She even arranged the initial loan of $35000 to finance the venture, from a distant relative. Avedis III persuaded his uncle that he would take up the offer only if they decide to manufacture in the United States. Aram immigrated and joined Avedis III for a year to train him in the secret process and formula for manufacturing their cymbals.

Avedis III recognised the growing popularity of Jazz during the time and actively solicited the musicians to build customised cymbals for them. Many of his new product ideas – such as the Hi-Hat, Swish, Sizzle, Ping, Ride and Splash cymbals became favourites of the top musicians of the day. He worked very hard and his intensity at work was an example for all. He raised both his sons, Armand and Robert with expectations of joining the business. Both graduated from equally good colleges but were incompatible in temperament. While Arnaud managed operations, Robert managed sales. Robert, the more intense of the two brothers, felt that his father supported the older brother in the traditional European style and resented the same.

The forethought of Avedis III, saved the company by balancing between the sons and planning for succession. He had deeded 48% of the company stock to each of his sons. The remaining was put into a trust, with voting rights vested to the Trustee (a Bank). When disagreements cropped up between the brothers, the Trustee stepped in to help with a compromise. Robert suggests in his interviews that after his father passed away, he was sidelined in the businesses he himself had developed and this led to differences between them. Once the issues were settled, Armand became sole owner and Managing Director of Avedis Zildjian (the company) in USA and Robert took control of their satellite affiliate, Azco in Canada. Robert named his company Sabian based on the first two letters of the names of his children (Sally, Billy and Andy). Zildjian and Sabian became close competitors.

In the late 80’s, Armand decided to bring in non-family professional manager to help with growth. He felt that he did not have the knowledge of modern management practices even if he had expertise in his own product manufacturing. After two failures, they brought in David Bryan, an executive from Sara Lee who was named transitional CEO in 1995. In 1999, when Craigie, Armaud’s daughter who had been executive vice president felt ready to become CEO, David left his position.

“Company, not family comes first”- was the byword at Zidjians. One thing Armand told his children is, “You’ve got to get along, but in order for family business to really work, the business has got to come first.”

Craigie stated: “Actually, I was offered the CEO post and had even served as interim CEO, but felt that I was not ready to take on his responsibility. I had not had a lot of general management experience. Although I might be quite driven, I’m less motivated by personal ambition than ambition for the company to do well, so I’ve always seen myself as part of the company. I want the company to be successful, and I don’t have high ego needs.”

Craigie’s sister Debbie and brother Robert (Rob) followed, but Rob left to find his own calling and the business was managed by the two sisters. They read and learnt a lot of family business dynamics and have set up an advisory board. When, in rare instances the sisters have a difference of opinion, they reach out to the no-family advisors to help them.

The family has some written and unwritten rules. If anyone in the family wants to work in the business, they must obtain a graduation, preferably in business. They must intern while in school and college to get a taste of the company’s culture. But they cannot get a job in the family business right after graduation. They must get some experience elsewhere.

There are also a few quirky rules that the sisters have instituted: "One of the things we've always done is we have never had spouses involved in the business," says Debbie Zildjian. She jokingly adds another rule: "We've always encouraged our daughters not to get involved with musicians, especially drummers."

Armand died in 2002, at the age of 81. The Zildjian alloy recipe (a combination of copper, tin and some silver) passed to his daughters, Craigie and Debbie (14th generation). The two sisters run the family business from their current headquarters in Massachusetts, United States. They have well over 60% of the world market for Cymbals

Lessons and Legacies:

With roots in two continents, the Zildjian family has a particularly rich tradition. The Zildjians are an amazing story of a family achieving success by relocating their company to a new country.
Some elements of the family success include the following:

  • A system of governance – advisory board, family business councils, written and unwritten rules and traditions – to guide the family participation in business.
  • Recognising the value when, at appropriate times in development of the family business, professional management is a viable option.
  • Recognition by the generations that conflict within a family business is inevitable and planning for it by implementing creative ways to cope.
  • Anticipating possible conflict points – for example, precluding spouses from family business involvement
  • A company attitude and aptitude for treating employees as family and having workers believe that they are really a part of the Zildjian extended family.
  • Where there is conflict, there is wisdom in separating siblings and establish each in a separate business.

“In our company, nepotism is not negative. The family is raised to cherish the business. We take better care of the business than anyone else would” – Craigie Zildjian.

Source: Compiled from Published Sources

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