© New York Times
By ANNA BAHNEY
Published: February 24, 2004
IF Timothy Fink has a pet peeve about running a pipe organ company, it is spending tens of thousands of dollars to train employees only to have them leave. That, and being greeted by church secretaries with, "the piano man is here."
Mr. Fink, 39, who started Timothy Fink & Company in Port Chester, N.Y., in 1997 after working in the organ building field for 19 years, views labor turnover as an anticipated cost. "I think everyone finds out when you start to run a business," he said, "it's hard to find people with a work ethic."
With a staff of six, Mr. Fink set up his company in the expensive and, he feels, underserved New York market. The company makes organs with electro-pneumatic action — a process in which an electric signal from the keyboard is used to move a leather pouch or bellow to make a sound. It also restores and rebuilds organs mostly in the Northeast (including the organ at Harvard Divinity School). Its largest project to date is a new $350,000 organ for Grace Lutheran Church in Naples, Fla.
Doug Keilitz and Stephan Drexler make house (of worship) calls for sick organs. They also assist Mr. Fink with what they call research and development of organ design — a task that can only absorb so much technological improvement because organs are expected to handle a historical body of musical literature.
Mr. Keilitz, 46, has been an organist and repair technician for about 30 years. He works in Port Chester four days a week, splitting his time between another part-time job as a choir director and organist. On a recent day he was assembling a bellow out of wood and rubber cloth. "It is part of a whole big larger assembly," he explained. "It looks like a silly little thing, but it is actually a very important part."
Mr. Drexler, 38, has only been with the company since January, but has worked with organs for 20 years. "If there isn't something that presents itself for you to learn, you can find something to learn," he said. "This instrument is never done evolving."
Bruce Lockhart, the office manager, commutes from Teaneck, N.J., for a 6:30 a.m. to noon shift four days a week (he starts early to ease his drive). Retired from Chase bank, the 60-year-old Mr. Lockhart has played the organ since he was 11.
"At least I understand the lingo when people call from a church and say there's a funny noise in the organ," he said.
ERIC MAYER, 28, a pipe maker who also plays bass and guitar, was listening to rock music in the windowed shop that fronts Pearl Street. He had been doing heating and air-conditioning installation when he started looking for a career change five years ago. After he saw a notice that said, "Organ builders wanted," Mr. Mayer applied out of curiosity. While he has yet to learn the tuning of pipes, he wants to continue. "I had a couple friends come and check out the shop, to see what I do," he said. "No one can really believe it. It's a lost trade."
Ramón Alvarez, 31, and Gustavo Méndez, 25, work in the high-ceilinged wood shop measuring, drilling and fitting the toe-boards, a panel used to hold the pipes in place. Mr. Alvarez, who said his father was a carpenter in Peru, was a cabinetmaker when he came to the United States until he began working on organs three years ago.
"I was born into the wood," he said. But organs, he said, are more complicated. "I'm still learning. So many pieces, so many details. A little mistake on the end is going to be a big problem and you're going to have to take the whole thing apart and fix it."
Mr. Méndez, who was an electrician, is boring holes into the toe-board. Following measurements on a sheet of paper, he explained that the holes "all have different diameters depending on the pipe and how high you want it to sit. It is like following blueprints."
Mr. Fink's largest cost is payroll for his employees, which last year was about $277,000 out of $483,000 in fixed expenses (that included materials, rent and machinery leases). The employees have workers' compensation and are offered health insurance (the company pays two-thirds; the employee is expected to pay a third), which "is a huge price to pay," he said. "It is one of the most amazing costs. It goes up constantly."
This investment makes labor the greatest asset for Mr. Fink — in addition to his tone-attuned ears that he covers quickly when a siren goes by or a power saw starts up.
"I have to give them timely raises, to keep them interested," he said of his employees. "Because they are valuable. I'm competing with other builders that are out in the Midwest and other places where you can buy a house for $70,000, and pay someone $12 an hour. The highest-paid guy here is almost $25 an hour, and that is still not enough to buy a house."
But for woodworkers and electric work, Mr. Fink said his competition is not as much with other organ builders as it is with "people running a business in an expensive area" and "competing for employees and trying to keep them."
While he has large cash volume because of the cost of organs, the flow is not always easy. It took a year to sell the company's idea to the church in Naples, six months to design the organ and a year to build it. The organ is to be delivered in July, followed by a month of installation and six weeks of regulating the tone.
"Building an organ is like building a building," Mr. Fink said. "The whole institution has to decide that this is what they want. It is not a whimsical purchase."
So how do you ever sell an organ?
"You preach to the choir," Mr. Fink said without flinching. "Literally. And you talk to the organist."