It’s been 40 years since Mike Soffa opened his first music store at Division and Brooke Street’s in Fond du Lac. Since then, he’s sold the business, and turned the reins over to Dan Gilgenbach. I sat down with them both to learn the history, and the musical growth they’ve contributed to this corner of Wisconsin.
MC: How did it all start…you didn’t just wake up one day and decide to open a music store, did you?
Mike: I played guitar as a kid, with my buddies. Had my first band in 7th or 8th grade. We were “Michael and Mutha’s,” named by my brother. We got a “gig” in the neighborhood, a street party on Mohawk Avenue in Fond du Lac. It was a pretty happening gig (laugh). We even had our own sign!
MC: You eventually started teaching music.
Mike: At Wenzlaff’s Music, teaching guitar there, tinkering around, fixing guitars. It must have been about 1971, and Jack Wenzlaff was hinting that he didn’t know how long he’d still want to run the store. About the same time I was thinking how cool it would be to have my own store. Then in 1974 I found the building over on Brooke and Division, right next to the railroad tracks. In the beginning, I used to sleep there too! I had left Wenzlaff Music with Jack’s blessing, and he’d let me take about 24 guitar students over to the new place, which I named Mike’s Guitar Clinic.
MC: Sometimes you would buy used guitars for no particular reason?
Mike: Yeah, back then I was buying them and fixing them up, and really teaching myself how to repair…along with teaching, selling guitar strings, and accessories. The students kept coming, so I hired Guy Rice as my first teacher. Mr. Wenzlaff then retired in 1974 so there weren’t many other music store options. Stan Kocos’ The Young Adult School of music on 6th and Park, and Melody Music, which then became Barth Music.
MC: You stayed in that location for a little over a year.
Mike: About 14 months, then moved over to 191 N. Main, which is now a Boost Mobile Store. By that time I was selling Yamaha acoustic guitars, which was my first line, and it mushroomed from there. More students, teachers, more lines of guitars and amps.
MC: Then in 1989 you moved to Mike’s current location.
Mike: We just needed more music. My idea in moving was to begin selling pianos, expand the lines we carried, get into more sales of band instruments. In 1990 we brought in Phil Hinn to help grow that. We added lesson booths, more shop space, I bought a dozen pianos from Kimball, and then started to rent band instruments. That’s also about the time we brought in Bill Ziebell from Oshkosh for repairs.
MC: By then, Dan, you were working for Mike part-time?
Dan: Francis Kempfer got me interested in instrument repair when I was in college at UWFDL. I had an instrument that I bought that was not working, so I ended up taking it over to Francis’ house, and he took me down to his repair shop where all the magic happened.
MC: You were studying music with aspirations of performing.Dan: My dad was pretty honest, and told me I didn’t have the chops to make it as a professional musician. His advice to me was to get out of the music business saying, ‘You don’t have enough talent and you won’t make enough money,’ he said. And that was really what I needed to hear. It fired me up. I graduated from UW-Oshkosh in 1995 with a music degree, and doing gigs, I was doing okay. My girlfriend (now wife), Julie told me then, “You’re really good at fixing things. Why don’t you learn how to fix instruments?” So I went to Red Wing, Minnesota to repair school and got my degree there. And then to Cedar Rapids, then to Melk Music in Milwaukee where I really had some great mentors and gained a lot of experience. I was working, and doing gigs at night, making $10 an hour, and really felt like I had the world by the tail.
MC: Then Mike called with a job offer.
Dan: At the time I was really in a great place and wasn’t very interested. Mike then called my dad and told him about what the position was, and that he’d like to get me back to Fond du Lac, and head up the band instrument repair part of the business.
Mike: I knew Dan had gone to school for the repairs, had what it took to help take our repair division to the next level. I had a gut feeling it could be a good fit.
Dan: Mike actually offered me more money than I was making at Melk, but it was about coming back to Fond du Lac, back to my hometown. And that could be a blessing or a curse. In the interview, Mike asked me where I saw myself in 5 to 10 years. I gave him the stock answer for the first five years, “I look to grow your business, grow the brand, and become THE place to come for music,” but I think my 10 year answer was a little brash? Maybe even cocky? I told him I wanted to be in his chair. Running the company.
Mike: Yup, that was a bit cocky (laugh). But I still wanted him as an employee. So I told him “you have the job if you want it.”
MC: Fast forward several years, and…
Dan: I had worked with Mike for about 8 years. At that time, my dad was living in Sydney, Ohio working as the CEO for a tool company. He was going to retire, and then the recession hit. And all his stocks and everything were going to be lost. On a visit to Fond du Lac he asked what I thought about him buying into Mike’s Music. This was the end of 2001.
Mike: Dan’s dad had started talking to me back in March of that year. He didn’t want to invest in it all himself. He and his brother Ed, was also looking to be part of it…we talked, crunched numbers. About June or July, we all agreed upon a price.
Dan: We closed on December 31, 2001, and took over Jan 1st, 2002. So it was me, my dad and my Uncle Ed. We kept the name Mike’s Music, then we added the “Sound” because my Uncle Ed was into the sound install business.
MC: Eventually you bought out Uncle Ed.
Dan: And it’s been my Dad and I for the last 12 years. Folks always said we should have changed the name of the shop to “Gilgenbach’s.” But I just felt that Mike had invested so much time and effort into building the business, creating the goodwill, building the reputation. And if you change the name, you’re throwing that all out the window. To this day, Mike is the best boss I’ve ever had. It’s funny. My dad was the one who told me not to go into the music business, that I wouldn’t make money. And now we’re partners.
Mike: I know where Dan gets his determination. I remember telling his dad that, ‘I know you’ve been in business, and successful, but this is the music business. There’s a lot you have to learn. I’m being honest with you, I just don’t think it’s the right fit for you.’ That made him want it even more. It challenged him.
MC: And the Mike’s Music staff?
Mike: Two of the guys I hired are still here. Andrew Johnson and Jeremy Helbling.
Dan: They know their stuff. One of the things Mike taught me is, with the music business, it’s as much about the relationships as it is about the dollars and cents. When you talk to customers, you have to listen to what they need, not just what you think they want. That way, you’ll create a life-long customer.
MC: Has the internet affected the “music” business?
Dan: People can go online and find “an instrument.” The purchase of a guitar is a personal decision. For some, one of the most personal at that time in their life. In a town this size, if you get a reputation for being dishonest or ripping people off, you won’t be around long. You have to remember that when you buy local, you are buying more than just a price, no matter if it’s higher or lower. We had some people come in to look at drum kit, and they ended up driving out of town to get the same kit for $20 less. But it was in a box, and they had to assemble it, tune it. They ended up come to us with that same drum kit, and had us assemble it, tune it. If they would have just started with us, they would have saved time, money, gas, headaches. We are here. We’ve been here. When you buy an instrument from Mike’s Music, you get expert care, maintenance, local service, the expert advice.
Mike: The store looks better than ever. People talk to me about the store, and they are happy with Dan, his team, and it’s worked out better than I even envisioned. They’ve tweaked, expanded, things I would have never thought of or would have gone into.
MC: Since you’ve sold the business, what have you been doing?
Mike: I had 3 kids in school at the time this all started, so I became a stay at home dad. Now, Stephanie is 31, living in Maryland. And my triplet boys are 26. Jonathan, Jacob, and Jobe.
MC: And you’re still in a band?
Mike: Andy and Automatics. It’s been fun getting back to my musical roots. I’m convinced that if I wouldn’t have sold the business, I don’t know that I would have gone back to playing in a band. The timing was perfect. I can still stay in the music, playing 3 times a month, and I ski and ice skate during the winter, ride my bike during the warm months.
MC: What’s the future here, Dan?
Dan: There are always plans to get better. That can take on many facets. We get bigger. Or we help more people. As Mike always taught me, if you put the customer and their ideas first, we’ll be fine. We have weekly meetings about this, and everyone has input. There are no bad ideas. We’re thinking expansion. Always. We like what we have here. We take a lot of personal pride in what we do. Music is one of those rare things, it’s the only form of communication that does not lie. When you place an instrument into the hands of a customer, it’s personal.