Adelaide business Joe Leaver & Son began in 2004 after Leaver had spent four years in Tasmania learning the trade under one of Australia’s most experienced piano tuners and restorers, Eric Hawkes.
Leaver and his seven staff now tune, restore and sell vintage pianos around Australia. Last year the small South Australian company tuned more than 400 pianos, sold 125 and restored 28 pianos from places as far flung as Townsville, Broome and New Zealand.
Leaver has also started a mobile service in Melbourne and plans to set up in Hobart by the end of the year.
But next week’s trip to France presents possibly the most exciting opportunity in the company’s 14-year history.
“We want to pick up work in Paris and hopefully set up a piano restoration business there,” Leaver says.
“Whether that morphs into our piano restoration experts going to France and theirs coming here like an exchange, I don’t know, but the whole purpose of this trip is to discover what we can do.
“I’ve got some meetings over there with piano restoration businesses … the sky is the limit with piano restoration, it’s everywhere around the world.”
Leaver is also looking to import old and rundown French pianos to be restored and sold in Australia, and will explore the possibility of sending restored Australian-made pianos to Europe.
While there are still a handful of boutique piano makers in Australia, the major producers of the 20th century, Beale and Wertheim, are long gone. Beale produced an estimated 95,000 pianos in Sydney between 1893 and 1975 while Wertheim made about 18,000 pianos in Melbourne between 1908 and 1935.
“There are a lot of piano brands in Europe that never were imported into Australia and some of the pricing is different because they are more common over there,” Leaver says.
“We’ve looked at the cost involved in packaging up containers of pianos and bringing them back to Australia to be restored and sold, and the flipside is potentially taking some of our Australian pianos that they would never have seen before over to Europe and showcasing some vintage Australian-made pianos.
“There’s a huge market for vintage pianos in Europe.”
Leaver was last year approached by the Entrepreneurship, Commercialisation and Innovation Centre (ECIC) at Adelaide University and has worked with the university’s business incubator ThincLab. As part of his trip to France he will spend some time at ThincLab’s European incubator at Chalons, in the Champagne district.
“We’re getting over there to get exposed to business professionals and mentors in the European market who can advise whether there’s a model there for us,” he says.
Leaver, 38, left Tasmania after completing four years of training to travel around Australia. The then 21-year-old packed his red Ford Falcon with spare parts and piano-tuning gear, registered a business called Mobile Piano Service and took off around Australia on a working holiday.
“I was away for 12 months and went back to Hobart but had fallen in love with Adelaide,” he says.
“I met my wife [Eloise] in Tasmania and then we decided to move to Adelaide and give it a shot.”
The mobile business quickly grew from 22 tunings around Adelaide and regional South Australia in its first year and before long established a workshop. It is now in its fourth premises – each bigger than the previous – a 300sqm workshop and shopfront in Norwood.
In 2016, Leaver also started Mobile Piano Service Melbourne, which is now tuning and repairing more than 100 pianos a year out of its Thornbury workshop.
He is also looking to establish a base back in Hobart with his brother Matthew and is in talks with his old Restored Pianos boss Hawkes, who is considering retirement.
Piano restoration requires a mix of skills including furniture-making, French polishing, mechanics and musicianship.
Leaver says part of the reason for the success of his business is the way it blends old-fashioned service and restoration techniques with modern marketing methods such as social media and the internet.
He says the establishment of the business at a time when many people were rediscovering the value of quality, vintage products was also a factor.
“The vintage industry was growing with cars, furniture and it was the same for pianos,” he says.
“By the start of the 2000s, people started to realise that there was some value in the older pianos that had stood the test of time, and a lot of times it was younger people who wanted a unique restored piano to put in their modern house.
“Also, a big part of the market was people who had inherited old and often run-down pianos from their parents and wanted to restore them to their former glory.”
Leaver & Son sources the pianos it restores and sells from previous customers who no longer require a piano or from online marketplaces such as Gumtree.
Leaver says Adelaide’s central location make it a good base to “feed Australia” with restored pianos.
He says most interstate sales have led to an ongoing business and further inquiries to the point where he now goes on “tuning trips” each year.
“We don’t just sell a piano and say, ‘Thanks very much, see you later’; we develop an ongoing relationship with people because a piano needs ongoing tuning,” Leaver says.
“Adelaide is still a place where you can run a business relatively affordably.
“We’re in a good location in Adelaide and we can still afford to have a presence in the eastern suburbs, whereas I’ve investigated premises in Melbourne and Sydney and it’s just not affordable at the moment.
“Adelaide’s also a vey musical place – there are a lot of festivals, there’s a lot of culture and there’s a lot of European influence here.”
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