October 30, 2017

SJC Custom Drums grows its punk rock business

Patrick Burns, a worker at SJC Custom Drums' Soutbridge faciility, applies a decorative finish of skulls and alien heads to a drum.
PHOTOS/EDD Cote
Mike Ciprari is the co-founder of SJC Custom Drums. Since bringing on a partner, his company has reduced its drum kit manufacturing time from one year to eight weeks.

Located inside a small, unassuming, cramped brick building in the heart of one of Central Massachusetts' manufacturing hotbeds is a drummer's Mecca.

If a drummer has ever played hard-and-fast music, chances are they've been there or at least browsed SJC Custom Drums' website and portfolio of well-known drummers that rep its logo.

The Southbridge drum makers have equipped some of today's biggest punk and metal bands: Green Day, Slipknot, Twenty One Pilots, Descendents, New Found Glory, Lady Gaga's band and Dropkick Murphys – a lineup to make a punk rock fan melt.

Through word of mouth and relentless marketing, SJC is now a huge name in the drum-making business.

Behind that success, however, was a company on the verge of bankruptcy run by punk rockers with no knowledge of how to operate a business.

"We were just bootstrappin' it," Co-founder Mike Ciprarpi said. "We didn't know how much money we had in the bank, and we were working other jobs to buy parts for drums."

Now, after coming up with a solid business plan – with a little help from a TV show – the company is moving to a 60,000-square-foot building just down the street in Southbridge to finally give the company room to breathe and showcase their work.

A punk beginning

The company was founded where most hardcore and punk music starts: a basement.

The 17-year-old company started in Co-founder Mike Ciprarpi's grandmother's basement in Douglas. Now, it's in a 13,000-square foot facility in Southbridge.

For years, the company has been a staple among punk rock drummers, said Matt Kelly, who plays drums for the Dropkick Murphys.

It's the company's custom details putting SJC over the edge, Kelly said in an email. His first custom kit from SJC made 10 years ago had photos of the band's actual 7-inch records out of their sleeves.

"It really looks amazing, and it was the first kit I really got compliments on," Kelly said.

The Dropkick Murphy's first shirts were all hand-screened by the band, and it ran its own record label in its early days, so it has an appreciation for the do-it-yourself nature of SJC's business.

SJC is "a case-in-point of doing DIY right," Kelly said.

Jake Massucco of Worcester band Four Year Strong was one of the first drummers to grab a set from the company when it was still doing business out of Ciprari's grandmother's basement.

"I'll never forget going to their grandmothers house to pick up my first kit and going around back and down the bulkhead and seeing their set up back then," Massucco wrote in an email. "Now they have warehouses that aren't enough room for them."

The company, he said, has been a household name amongst drummers for years. Despite the credibility, expanding to a larger facility was out of the question just a few years ago.

Finding “The Profit”

For about a dozen years, the company had no direction, Ciprari said.

With little business knowledge, the company was selling product under cost.

"I just loved drums and wanted to make people happy," Ciprari said. "I never wanted to make money – clearly."

Banks routinely denied the company small business loans. Financial advisors implored the company to declare bankruptcy.

"Literally every bank around here said no," he said.

In 2013, Ciprari reconnected with an old high school friend, Chris Nikopoulos, who with a background in business and manufacturing, helped stabilize the company after coming on board.

Still, the company's problems ran deeper than what Nikopoulos' knowledge could solve. SJC needed money.

With no help from local institutions, the company turned to TV networks. It considered "Shark Tank," but opted against it because of how poorly the company had been run.

On a whim, Ciprari applied to be on CNBC's "The Profit," a reality show in which investor Marcus Lemonis invests in and resurrects struggling businesses. It worked.

"He came in and showed us the reality of what was going on," he said.

Lemonis' $400,000 investment and restructuring helped turn the company around: It was able to buy more parts, hire more employees, reduce the turnaround time from a year to eight weeks and introduce new inexpensive product lines to help cater to all budgets.

Now Ciprari, Nikopoulos and Lemonis own equal thirds of the company. Ciprari's brother, Scott, who helped found the business, is no longer with the company. But, as portrayed in the show, now has a relationship with his brother again.

Three years after the show, the company is growing at 50-percent clip year over year, Nikopoulos said.

The company has begun manufacturing hardware (cymbal stands, pedals, etc.) in Taiwan.

Creating a punk Mecca

As Ciprari gave a tour of the current 13,000-square-foot facility to WBJ, he casually pointed out snares or bass drums that were part of kits made for some of the best drummers in punk rock, like a snare drum made for Green Day drummer Tre Cool on the 20th anniversary of their first album, Dookie.

Due to a lack of space, it was stuffed on a shelf in a very cramped stock room.

Another rather dark bass drum belonging to metal band Slipknot's drummer Jay Weinberg was stuck in a corner of an office.

The colorful and impressive equipment needs to be showcased, Ciprari said. Planned for the new facility will be a showroom and museum of sorts to highlight the high-profile artists SJC has worked with.

Ciprari and his employees still aren't rolling in the dough, but everyone is comfortable, he said.

"We're well on our way," he added.

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