To the beat of its own drum: Import company reports best year ever

TRAVERSE CITY – When James Henderson Moore became the victim of corporate downsizing, he put his mouth where his money was.

He drew on his Scottish heritage to create a company that supplies bagpipes, drums, uniforms and accessories to customers around the world.

Henderson Imports Ltd. is a family business located at 2584 Garfield Rd. that features a 6,000 square-foot warehouse.

"The global nature of our business is amazing," said James, who works alongside his wife Diane, daughters Meridith and Melissa, an 18-month-old granddaughter and other employees. "Last year we sent product to 30 countries. Of those shipments, a third of them went to Japan.

"Customers in Japan indicate we are a 'most trusted company.' That's a great feeling when they are willing to pay $1,500 to $2,000 for a set of bagpipes and some accessories."

James had been involved in piping for 15 years as a hobby before launching his own business. He also became interested in his family's history, especially that of his great-grandfather Alexander Henderson, the person who provided his "living link" to Scotland.

Beginning in the 1970s, James had worked for several different companies as a salesman, working for both retail and wholesale companies.

"I gained a great deal of information and understanding about small to larger businesses," he said.

But even though his sales career was doing well, the company he was working for lost some major product lines. His income was cut in half. Then the company cut his department.

"So I decided I wanted to try something that would allow me to control my own business destiny," James said. "I have no problems with my former employer. In fact, I recently thanked him for the opportunities he had provided, the strategies that I use in my own business and the way they showed me how to conduct business and manage customers."

He began his business not knowing for sure who his customers would be.

"I originally thought our business would be done mainly through Scottish outdoor events and some mail order," he said. "So we began advertising in Scottish-oriented newspapers and magazines and put together a text-only catalog. Back then, we received checks or phone calls, taking all the customer information over the phone."

Since then, Henderson Ltd. has continually improved its e-commerce systems, providing more information, pictures, vivid descriptions and short videos.

"We also spend a lot of time developing information to enhance our position for product searches," said James. "That's helped a lot. But since our piping and drumming communities are pretty small in some of the countries, I think the old fashioned 'word of mouth' has helped us, too."

Henderson Ltd. shipped about 14,000 packages last year, ranging in size from tiny, padded envelopes to 200 pounds or more.

In addition to mail order, Henderson's also educates.

"As much as we're in the sales business, we're also in the music education business," said James. "We started doing Highland Festivals around the Midwest in 1997.

Eventually, we traveled to New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Kentucky and Colorado and did as many as 15 weekends from May through October. It was a huge effort and made for long hours. This was in addition to events we sponsored here in Traverse City."

But the travel and weather-related issues caused James to take a second look at how to educate.

"Now we have several weekend workshops where we have assembled top pipers and drummers from Canada, Scotland and the U.S. to compete, instruct and perform," he said.

Does he still enjoy piping?

"Well, unfortunately, piping is not my job at work," he said. "I have played very little since starting the business. It's my job to oversee all the business activities, develop systems to improve all aspects of our business, contact suppliers and coordinate all sales and web activities."

But he admits it's far from a one-man show at Henderson's Ltd.

"Fortunately, we have key individuals who are responsible for taking my ideas and strategies forward," he said. "My wife and two daughters play significant roles in the company. And each of our other staff members has specific roles and activities and they are tolerant of the unique family business. Without them, a tough job would be even harder."

Still, the combination of family and trusted employees has paid off – even in a down economy.

"The last three years have been great," said James. "In fact, 2008 was our biggest year ever." BN