Tom Bedell is not the stereotypical image of a serial entrepreneur. In fact, he embodies the look of a modern-day hippie, equipped most days with a navy headband and blue jeans. But don’t be fooled. Bedell owns Bend-based Two Old Hippies Stringed Instruments, one of the largest acoustic guitar and mandolin designers and manufacturers in the country.
“Deep in my heart I wanted to have a workshop here in the United States of America where we could design and build our own instruments. And that was my dream,” he said.
On Nov. 30, 2010, that dream became a reality when he purchased Breedlove Guitars in Bend.
“What’s my favorite thing about coming to work every day? I get to design [guitars],” he said. “ I get to go into the wood stacks and pick out pieces of wood and dream about what they might sound like.”
Bedell started his entrepreneurial journey at the age of fourteen in 1964, the same year The Beatles made their first live American television appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
“The whole world changed in terms of music and Rock and Roll,” Bedell said. “In every town across America there was a garage band on every block. We all had guitars, we had these little amplifiers. Most of us weren’t any good, but it was the lifestyle … It became the beginning of a whole social-change movement … and music was the vehicle to express all of that. It was the way that poetry came to life in everybody’s life.”
Filled with passion for guitars and music, Bedell wanted to become a part of the industry and started importing guitars from Japan.
He turned to his father, who owned a fishing tackle company called Pure Fishing that Bedell would later go on to inherit, for resources. Bedell sent a telex to Pure Fishing’s purchasing agent in Japan. He asked him to go to Hiroshima, the epicenter of musical instruments, and find a source for guitars. The agent obliged, which birthed the start of Bedell Guitars.
“I just went through (the catalogues) and picked the instruments that looked of interest and ordered some samples,” Bedell said. “I didn’t know much about how to price them. So, I just doubled the prices, which meant that I was at half the price of the main businesses that were around then.”
An ever-changing tune
Bedell’s first workplace looked nothing like Two Old Hippies’ headquarters does today.
His sister helped put his brand name on his guitars and he hired a friend with a driver’s license to take him to different music stores to start wholesaling guitars.
“My parents’ basement was my warehouse. My sister was my quality production person. My friend was my driver and delivery guy. And I was the salesman,” he said.
Today, Bedell employs 135 people and leases three different buildings, totaling 50,000 square feet on the east side of Bend off American Loop. He expects his 2014 payroll to reach about $5.35 million and estimates his company will produce about 5,000 instruments next year.
The company sells three brands: Breedlove, an acoustic guitar label that strives to be innovative and has been manufactured in Bend since 1990; Bedell Guitars, 1960s classic-model guitars built using sustainably-sourced woods; and Weber Fine Acoustic Instruments, one of the top mandolin companies in the country, which Two Old Hippies acquired in November 2012.
The acoustic guitar market has been strong for several years, Erin Block, research analyst for the National Association of Music Merchants, wrote in an email.
“Sales increased by 13.3 percent and the number of units sold increased by 2.7 percent from 2012 to 2013,” Block wrote. “When you look at the 5-year trend, sales have increased 54.1 percent.”
In nearly four years, Bedell grew Breedlove from 50 to 135 employees. And this year, he said the company grew by 40 percent.
Bedell attributes his success to following his father’s rules of operating a business:
“The whole reason that we’re in business is to create opportunities for the people that make up the company,” he said. “It’s not about the company, it’s about the people. The reason we are here is to create a culture and lifestyle and opportunities for the people that are our company. It’s not for shareholders. It’s not for money. It’s not for profit.”
If the employees of Two Old Hippies Stringed Instruments come first, Bedell said the company will succeed because everybody will have an investment in the success of the company.
“It’s their life. It’s their lifestyle. It’s how they support their families. It’s how they live,” he said.
When Bedell first took over Breedlove, he said one of his biggest challenges was shifting the company’s culture.
“The culture was very much a hierarchical. It was very much a power culture,” Bedell said. “I wanted to create an entrepreneurial culture where people were empowered, where people felt they could do their best work and be themselves, but yet had a set of values that they shared that had a commitment to one another.”
Like many entrepreneurs today, Bedell started with humble beginnings. In 1966, two years after Bedell ordered his first guitar samples from Japan, he opened his first retail store in Iowa.
“Some of the stores I was selling to weren’t paying their bills, so I would pick up equipment at their store to get a credit,” he said. “I had all of this equipment and then, later that fall, I opened my second store.”
Bedell started going to school half days and running his business in the afternoons and evenings.
“It was a glorious life,” he said. “So, in my golden years, I wanted to return to that wonderful life and become a teenager again,” he said, referring to operating Two Old Hippies Stringed Instruments.
In February of 2009, Bedell and his wife, Molly, acquired a local music store in Aspen, Colorado, and named it Two Old Hippies.
“We just thought it would be fun to run a music store,” he said. “But Molly and I both have a terminal illness that we have to work. We’re going to work until we die.”
While his wife operated the Two Old Hippies boutique that still sells accessories, clothing, as well as guitars, Bedell went to Asia to design and build his own line of Bedell Guitars. By fall, he had developed a wholesale business and started selling Bedell Guitars throughout the country.
But that wasn’t enough. Bedell wanted to make guitars in the U.S.
“I had my eyes and ears network open to where might and opportunity come along and one of the companies I got to know were the folks here at Breedlove,” he said. “Unfortunately Breedlove had fallen on tough times and so the owner had no choice but to sell it and came to me with an opportunity. I was just thrilled to death. This is a dream come true.”
Bedell has earned a reputation for always following his dreams.
“I think I always followed them. I don’t know that I always got them,” he said. “Life is real, right? You have your ups and you have your downs and you have reality that you don’t want to deal with, but you have to.”
“Everybody has reasons to quit. There are 10,000 reasons to stop; why you’re going to fail, why you shouldn’t pursue it, versus a handful of dreams about how you can succeed,” he said. “The people that succeed are the ones that persevere through all the reasons to not win, and win.”
In the next five years, Bedell said his goal is to make Bend the number-one place in the world for a consumer to buy the finest guitar available.
“I would love to have a showcase place where musicians from all over the world can come and they could really study their play style and their music and we could design guitars specific for them, that are custom for their style of music and their play,” he said.
Bedell said he and the co-hippies, his employees, are going to bring that dream to life.
“Every barrier and every challenge that gets in the way of that, we’re going to find a way around it, over it, through it, past it and it’s not an option,” he said. “You have to have this sense of future, this sense of hope, this sense of knowledge that you know it’s up to you, whether you succeed or whether you don’t. It’s not up to all the other people or things, or excuses, or barriers of frustrations that pop their head up.”
“Life is like a whack-a-mole,” he said. “And you have to keep whacking at it.”