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Saturday, Sep 23, 2023

Long, Strange Trip

Lance S. Lerman’s career has taken him from Berkeley in Northern California, to Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley; from a large furniture factory in Dongguan, China to a small woodworking operation in Van Nuys that makes hand-built guitars. LSL Instruments, which Lerman operates with wife, Lisa, and a staff of six, combines his two passions – wood and guitars. The Valley shop produces one and a half guitars a day. Since opening in 2008, Lerman estimates that LSL has made 2,000 guitars and sold them to customers around the world. “Our brand name has become internationally known,” said the Valley native, who turns 58 on Aug. 5. “We are rising in the boutique guitar market.” LSL – which are Lerman’s initials – grew out of Lerman’s eight years in China. There, in the expatriate community, Lerman and bandmates played American rock ’n roll and blues in bars packed with appreciative ears. After returning to the United States in 2007 to find a more lucrative job, Lerman made his own guitar, a replica 1952 Telecaster. When a salesman at a Sherman Oaks guitar shop tested the instrument, he was “blown away,” Lerman recounted. He asked if Lerman could make another. A business was born. Lerman took some time out from guitar building to talk with the Business Journal about his time in China, his musical influences, and why he is not star struck by the famous musicians he has met. Question: Did you ever want to play music professionally? Answer: I did, and I was making money doing it in China. I don’t think I was ever that good. I could probably do it but not in L.A. In L.A. you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a great guitar player. Do you still play often? I play every day. I have to play every guitar that we make. Then once a year at our party I’ll get up on stage and do my thing. Even though some of the best musicians in the world are up there in front of me and behind, I’ll still get up and embarrass myself. How did you get into woodworking? For my first woodworking project I made a hash pipe that looked like a guitar in Berkeley. It came out really nice. I started my woodworking career as a repairman in northern California. Then I ended up with my own guitar building and repair shop. One morning I show up for work and see a trail of stuff coming out the door. Over the night I had been burglarized; they took all my customers’ guitars, machinery, everything. I got put out of business by that burglary. How do you look back on that experience now? In retrospect it’s probably a good thing because I knew zero about running a business. I was living in Berkeley. Let’s say me and my friends were not the most businesslike people at the time. I knew nothing and had no business being in business. What did you do after the robbery? I came down here (in 1983) and started a one-man shop doing woodworking. I was catering to the RV business at that time in the early 1980s. My parents had been making draperies for RVs and God knows I didn’t want to do that. I took my woodworking skills and started making snack trays and cup holders. That business eventually became Sequoia Wood Products and we employed 200 people in Pacoima. We ended up making loudspeakers and slot machines and displays. But you couldn’t compete against China and Mexico so I eventually closed that business (in 1998) when one of my big customers took me down. After closing Sequoia Wood Products, you went to China in 1999 and ran a factory there. How was it being an American in China? In the beginning it was tough. I would walk down the street and draw a crowd. There were not that many foreigners back then, and I was still unique and different. It was unnerving at first. As my Chinese became better and better, it was easier, especially when I was ordering food on my own. Did you learn Chinese on your own? I seem to have a facility for language. I learned on my own – enough Chinese where I could get around. After eight years I could speak it. Do you know any other languages? I know Spanish. I used to know Hebrew because I lived in Israel for a few years. But if you don’t use it, you lose it. That’s why I am worried about the Chinese. I take every opportunity to go into a restaurant and freak them out by speaking Chinese. What was your experience like in China? I had tons of weird experiences in China — learning moments, as they say. Can you give an example or two? I was in a car one night. And if you had a car in China at that time you were the man. Traffic laws were suggestive. There was one rule – don’t hit anybody. Everything else was cool. One night we barreled through a red light without even as much as a glance left or right. I almost went through the ceiling. Everyone else in the car starts laughing. You continued playing music while living in China? I was a lot better there than I am here. The bar was not nearly as high. I could learn with some great guys, Filipinos mostly. I got back into it there because I had friends who put up with my (bad) playing. You were playing American music in these bars in China? We were playing American Top 40 stuff. I had a blues band of mostly Americans, and that was cool. We were in a magazine article, the best band in Dongguan. Dongguan is 9 million people. That is like L.A. I was burning the candle at both ends. Running a factory during the day and playing at night. You could only do that for so long. Were Chinese audiences receptive to that music? Yeah, it was great. We had such an eclectic audience. Americans were a tiny percentage. You had Germans, Australians, English – people from all over the world sitting in the bars drinking together. You never knew who was going to show up. Was your family living in China with you? No, they were living here. I’d come back and they would come over. We did a lot of juggling and a lot of plane rides. It was tough. It was a long time and the money was not worth it. We should have been making a lot more. The problem is I don’t love money enough. Why did you come back to the United States? All my friends were working for big American furniture companies. They were pulling down some big numbers, $250,000 or $200,000 a year, plus expense accounts. I was doing $70,000. I spoke Chinese, I knew how to run all the material, design the furniture. There was something wrong with that picture. I figured I am going to get me one of those big American furniture company jobs and do half the work and get three times the money. So I came back to the U.S. Do you have any regrets? I miss the laissez-faire and freedom I had in China, and having a really good time. Bars don’t close at 2 a.m. I only went back once. I had a lot of really good friends. The expat community is small but tight. That was good having a set of friends that were from all over. So how did moving back to the U.S. lead to your starting LSL Instruments? I figured as long as I’m here looking for a job, I’ll get myself a new guitar to bring back to China. I got ripped off on eBay, and lost my guitar money. I figured me and my wife both are woodworkers. We had a decent woodshop in our garage. So I said I’ll make my own. What was the first guitar you made? I went down to a local guitar store here (in Sherman Oaks), California Vintage, they had a 1952 Telecaster. I was there for hours measuring it. I had calipers and micrometers. And they said “Listen, sonny, if you ever finish it, bring it back and we’ll take a look at it.” How long did it take to make that first guitar? It took me months because I wanted to make the whole thing. I didn’t want to buy parts and screw it together. I wanted to make it right. I brought that guitar back to that store. A guitar player there, Tommy Kay, was the salesman. He started playing it. He looks up, and said, “You made this?” “Yeah.” You made the body?” “Yeah, Tommy, I made everything.” He was blown away and asked if I could make another one. That was almost 2,000 guitars ago. Who are your musical influences? I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s. All of those classic rock (groups). I had family in the Grateful Dead. I started out playing the banjo, so I love country music, too. Were there any musicians you tried to emulate? Not just one. It is conglomeration of lots of people. I have never been a great guitar player. I was okay and could hold my own. Now I sell guitars and on occasion hang out with some of the best guitar players on the planet. Who are some the players who play an LSL guitar? There’s Walter Becker from Steely Dan, Carl Verheyen from Supertramp. We are in tons of bands. How does this small company compete against big guitar makers like Fender and Gibson? The only way to compete for us is to be significantly better and cheaper. Otherwise there is no place for us in the market. It’s a classic example of “if you build it they will come.” Who are your customers? We sell to two segments: People who make a living playing, which is a very small number, and people who would like to play guitar more. Every now and then they play a gig but mostly they do it for their own satisfaction. They have to be fairly well-heeled to spend $2,000 for a guitar. That is the going price for one your guitars? Yeah, somewhere in there. That is more money than I’ve ever spent on a guitar. I never forget how much we are asking people to pay. So we’ve got to make them great. That’s the secret to success – make a great product and sell it at a great price. Although then you don’t make any profit. Are competitor also making hand-crafted models? Very, very few. I don’t know of any boutique guitar company, which we are, that does as many of the parts as we do, and does so much hand work. We have to differentiate ourselves from guys sitting in their bedroom building guitars, quote unquote, but they are not doing any of the real work. We do everything. I personally select the wood. What advantages are there to making guitars in Los Angeles? L.A. does have access to musicians. Everybody comes through L.A. at some point. L.A. still has a great labor force. There are guitar academies that teach guys how to make guitar. We have access to employees. The weather is great for woodworking. And the wood supply is great. Do you still play the banjo? No, I don’t own a banjo. It got stolen in China. Why on earth would someone steal a banjo in China? They don’t know which end to hold. You mentioned that your wife Lisa is also a woodworker. How did the two of you meet? She was the design director for (loudspeaker manufacturer) Cerwin Vega in Simi Valley. They were one of my biggest customers forever. I met Lisa for the first time at a woodworking show. For a while I was doing side work selling CNC routers. She came up with the owner of Cerwin Vega and I was in the booth selling (routers). I was still married at that point but I guess about a year later I wasn’t married anymore. She’s a woodworker, I’m a woodworker and we were both in the speaker business at the time. That worked out really well. Does Lisa work at LSL Instruments? She does all the graphic work, all the design of the graphics, the logo, the T-shirts, and the what- have-you’s, and does all the accounting work, which she hates with a passion. She can’t stand doing that, but she does it. You have guitar players who stop by your shop? Always; really, really great ones. And regular guys, too. There is a deep well of great musicians here in L.A. and a lot of them hang out here. Once a year we put on the LSL Guitar party. We put up a giant stage and giant lights and feed everybody and give them drinks and watch what happens. Meeting these famous musicians, do you ever get star struck? I have immunity to that star-struck thing. I treat them like normal, regular everyday people. Most of the guys in this business at that level are really nice guys. Ray Parker Jr. was one. I never knew he was that great of a guitar player. Very nice guy, really friendly, personable. That was cool meeting him. What do you do outside of work? Mostly dinner and sleep. I don’t do a lot of anything else. It’s hard; it is not easy making a living doing this. We don’t have a lot of liquid capital; most of it is in here. I would tell anybody who was going into business to be prepared to dedicate your entire effort to that. It’s going to be hard. Do you have ways to relieve stress? Not anymore. I used to drink. In China I would do a lot of that. Here I cannot handle it anymore. So there is not a lot. There is no time for thinking about that. But you still get a personal and professional satisfaction from what you do? Of course, absolutely. That’s what it’s about. We built something from nothing. We built a brand name from nothing, and that’s an amazingly satisfying thing to do. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. If you set a goal and even if you make tiny steps in the right direction sooner or later you’ll get there or get closer to it every day. Just remain focused on what you are doing. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and space reasons.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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