It all started with the Kingston Trio.
One day in 1963, a San Diego kid and his friends got their hands on an album by the popular folk group. Greg Deering, 12 at the time, recalls studying the musicians on the cover and thinking, “I’ve got to get a banjo” — not out of love for the twangy instrument but mainly because his pal already had a guitar.
Fifty years later, Greg, his wife, Janet, and daughter Jamie preside over the best-selling banjo-making business in the U.S.
From a small Spring Valley, Calif., factory, the Deering Banjo Co. is having its best year ever, defying the U.S. skills gap and California’s manufacturing doldrums. It has expanded and trained its own work force and expects to top $4 million in sales for the year ending June 30.
Greg Deering, 62, is the creative force behind the banjo design and the machinery used to build them. Janet Deering, 58, handles operations. Daughter Jamie Deering, 34, might have the most fun job: liaison with the company’s big-name roster of professional musician customers.
Over the company’s 38-year history, it has developed a loyal following from the likes of Taylor Swift, Keith Urban, the Dixie Chicks, Steve Martin and Mumford & Sons. Artists who play Deering banjos rolled up 13 Grammy nominations this year.
Scotty Morris, lead vocalist of the contemporary swing revival band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, called Deering Banjo “the quintessential American instrument builder.”
“When I call Deering, I talk to a Deering, and I like that almost as much as I love the instruments they build,” Morris said.
That kind of reputation combined with specially crafted manufacturing tools and a skilled, veteran work force has helped the company weather the recession and cheap competition from China. Deering has been able to expand its work force in a way that other companies have not, growing to 42 workers from 30 a year ago.
If you ask the Deerings what their greatest challenge has been, the answer has been running the business in California, particularly during a run-up in workers’ compensation insurance premiums that began under Gov. Gray Davis.
“That nearly put us out of business. We’re still paying off some of those debts,” Greg Deering said, adding that the company has remained in California mostly because the family considers it home.
“And because we are stubborn. We are so stubborn,” Janet Deering said.
Mostly, Greg Deering credits his work force for the quality of the finished product. Some of Deering Banjo’s employees have been at the company for 30 years or more and came with considerable skills.
But he said skills aren’t necessary for the newest employees, trained through an apprenticeship-style program.
“What really matters is that they are conscientious and responsible people,” he said. “That is really the most important thing. The rest can be taught.”