Personal Finance > Millionaire in the Making
From passion to profit
Who says you can't play the cello and make $1 million, too?
October 22, 2002: 10:16 AM EDT
Leslie Haggin Geary, staff writer

New York (CNN/Money) There are struggling musicians. Then there's Todd French, a cellist for the Los Angeles Opera.

At 31, French and his wife, Heidi, 30, are already well on their way to becoming millionaires. All totaled, they've amassed $740,000 in personal assets - including equity in their home and condominium in southern California, retirement funds, personal savings and investments and a collection of antique instruments valued at $120,000. Their combined earnings totals $240,000.

No, the opera didn't suddenly decide to pay French vast sums of money. And Heidi, a human resources specialist at Wells Fargo, isn't the only one accounting for the couple's six-figure income.

French has been able to contribute to the family wealth through Stringworks, Inc., which manufactures and sells violins, violas and cellos that French designs himself. In fact, French says, if it weren't for the company: "I'd probably be a starving musician."

But before he continues, French wants to pass along a request from Heidi, whom he calls his ultimate "boss."

"She doesn't want us to sound boastful," says French then adds by way of explanation: "She's a preacher's daughter."

Fair enough. In fact, the couple's success hasn't been motivated by dollar signs.

"We don't focus our lives around financial goals," says French who says he never would have become an entrepreneur if it hadn't been for the day he needed to repair his cello and didn't have the cash to do it. At the time, French was a 20-year-old student at Illinois Wesleyan University.

"Repairing a good stringed instrument is expensive. So I called the guy who sold it to me and he said, 'Do it yourself' and he showed me how. That was it. I was hooked."

Soon he was restoring stringed instruments for the collection at Wesleyan and then at University of Southern California where he did graduate work in cello performance. French later worked at an auction house, appraising instruments that came in for sale.

Those opportunities put French into contact with some "really fine instruments." But he also handled enough clunkers to know that if he could design and manufacture reasonably priced stringed instruments with lovely tones then he'd fill a big need. His dream: to create a company that would make and lease, high-quality, low-priced cellos, violins and violas to cash-strapped public schools.

"Most of the instruments kids use are horrible and they give up because of it," says French. So, in 1998, he took the plunge, taking out a $14,000 home equity loan on the couple's condo so he could manufacture his "Crescendo" and "Artist" lines of stringed instruments.

While French worked to get the company off and running during its first year, it was Heidi who kept the family in groceries.

"She allowed me to do this by having a more stable job," says French. "She was the one carrying the load."

Still, it wasn't long before music teachers, students and other musicians started hearing about Stringworks, a quirky company that incongruously sold and rented directly to musicians over the Internet. The entire concept of online sales was a thoroughly novel, and risky, approach. Traditionally, instruments are sold through middlemen (distributors and stores) and musicians insist on playing and touching any instrument before they plunk down cash to buy it. But by selling directly to clients, French says he can keep costs relatively low. (Sales prices range from $350 for a Crescendo violin to $8,500 for the Giuseppe Francesco cellos; rental fees begin at $18 a month.)

Meanwhile the company addresses his clients' desire to buy a "tactile" product by hiring musicians who act as personal shoppers for clients. When buyers call Stringworks, which is based in Appleton, Wisc., they describe what they're looking for - say, a "bright" or "mature" sound or something deeply resonant - and one of the sales staff will choose an appropriate instrument on their behalf. All instruments can be returned up to 14 days, and clients who do buy something then qualify for a 100-percent trade-in credit if they later decide to "upgrade" to another instrument in one of the company's other lines.

Bottom line

The "personal shopper" approach to customer service and the cost inducements seems to work judging from the luminous reviews on the company Web site and from its sales. (Last year, Stringworks grossed $530,000 and French estimates this year's total will be as much as $1.3 million.) Just about 1 percent of company revenues come from leases; most clients opt to buy. Meanwhile French has slowly added five more lines of stringed instruments each progressively more expensive - that are manufactured in Sri Lanka, Wisconsin and Germany.

Stringwork's success means French can start stashing part of his $160,000 salary from the company into retirement savings instead of using all his cash to build his business. The company just started offering a 401(k) and a profit-sharing plan to its full-time employees, and French hopes to max out both himself, to save roughly $16,000 this year. Heidi has been saving in a 401(k) all along. As for their investment choices?

"She's more conservative, which counteracts my style," says French.

In fact, the couple has been able to amass a healthy chunk of personal savings, too, including $20,000 in a money market fund, $4,000 in stocks and $14,000 in mutual funds. Heidi sticks to diversified index funds and financial stocks, but French opts for tech and health care plays, including Dreyfus Premier Technology Growth, American Growth Fund and Vanguard Health Care.

Meanwhile, the couple recently became landlords when they decided to rent their condo and buy a home. And French admits he'd like his family to amass "seven figures" in liquid wealth by the time he's 40. He's also looking into another kind of investment - college savings funds like 529 plans.

"Heidi's pregnant," he announces with pride.

As for his work playing the cello?

"I don't want to quit playing," he says firmly. After all, there are some things - like the satisfaction of making beautiful music with a world-class orchestra - that even money can't buy.  Top of page

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