Jennifer Moore always assumed going into business was a simple thing.
“I thought it was just a matter of making something, selling it and putting the money in the bank.”
Now 25 years into the business of making steelpan cases and covers, her assessment is that it’s not so cut and dry.
“I started Sarah’s Custom Design Pan Cases in 1995 knowing nothing about business. But in 2011, I went back to the beginning. I did a business plan, money management and marketing courses. I developed a vision for my business because having raw talent is good but understanding how business works is important. Imagine we used to make things and not brand them,” she told Business Day. Sarah was a name of endearment that her grandfather called her when she was younger.
Moore, 46, learned to sew from very young and worked with an upholsterer from age 17 to 21. There, they made furniture covers and seasonally, steelpan cases.
“When he (her former employer) migrated, I continued doing upholstery work. But I hated it.” Instead, she channelled her creativity into the part she did love – making steelpan cases. She went into business with her partner, Winston Johnson. At a small factory on the Eastern Main Road in Petit Bourg, Moore and Johnson make cases and covers for any type and size of steelpan, including the G pan, as well as other steelband accoutrements, including small drums and iron rings.
“It takes me about three hours to make a case, from start to finish. I love what I do, so that makes it easy.”
The company caters to professional pannists and music students at secondary schools and universities.
“It is a sustainable business. I mean, we don’t make enough to save a lot, but we can take care of ourselves. We take on additional people on contract when we have a lot of work.”
Moore said when the business started, pan cases were seasonal and the income from it was small. “I thought the key to making it more successful was education. Getting people to understand the importance of protecting the pan – that exposure to moisture and the elements equals rust.”
She started a campaign with music teachers and pan tuners and took her message to stakeholders – schools, music stores, et cetera.
“The purpose of the case is to protect the pan. Its job is to protect the national instrument.”
Things started to pick up and eventually Sarah’s Pan Cases became a thriving business.
“Prime ministers and presidents normally buy our cases to give as gifts to diplomats and heads of state. Former US presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, Will and Kate (the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge) have been gifted with steelpans in our cases. We also have a lot of Japanese customers.”
In 2009, however, with the downturn of the economy, Moore said the business took a hit.
“Eighty per cent of our market was in the US. Now, it’s like 50 to 60 per cent because we were never able to recapture that part of the market.”
Moore said she currently uses social media, brochures and word-of-mouth to market the business. She has found, though, that word-of-mouth has been the most helpful.
“Because we give our customers exactly what they want, they tend to recommend the product to other people.”
The price of the cases start at $850 and the final cost depends on the custom design requested by the customer.
“We do names, flags, pets, photos, anything they want can be placed on their case or covers.”
The cases are generally made from leatherette, but Moore said they still use plastic underneath the material to reinforce the water-resistant quality.
“We also experiment with other materials from time to time,” she added, all of which are sourced locally.
“Ideally, I’d prefer to import because that would give me more options as regards colour, texture and durability.”
Ironically, the downside to the durability of the cases is that because they last so long, repeat customers are unlikely.
“I am always looking for new customers because once a customer buys a case, if they take care of it, it can last forever.”
In as much as she loves making pan cases, Moore wants to see her business grow and she has plans to expand her product line.
“I want to see it expand. I want longevity for my business. We have some ideas in the pipeline.”
And she wants the same for the national instrument, which she believes, if properly marketed, has the potential to be a financially viable and channel a large amount of foreign exchange into TT.
“My vision is to go to the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) trade show (in Anaheim, California) and re-introduce the steelpan to the world. Show people how to incorporate pan into any orchestra, into any type of music.”