He owns the only harmonica manufacturing business in the nation, based at Rockford’s EIGERlab, and even celebrities must wait their turn for the back-ordered instruments. But Brad Harrison’s dreams don’t stop there. Some day he’d like to reach out to high school kids who are long on potential but short on direction, as he once was.
Brad Harrison wasn’t your typical teenager. Take the time he built a car engine from scratch – from the confines of his basement bedroom in his parents’ Schaumburg, Ill. home. “I’m the biggest nerd,” says Harrison, whose mother questioned the smell of oil permeating the house. “I’ve always been mechanically inclined, so I went to the junkyard and bought a 455 cubic inch engine that I put into a 1970 Cutlass. I painted every part of it, put it all together and put it in a car.”
While building a car engine is impressive, it’s nothing compared to what Harrison has done with the harmonica. At age 40, he’s the founder of Harrison Harmonicas, the only U.S. manufacturing company of this musical instrument. Not bad for a guy who didn’t even attend college.
“Brad has passion and drive for what he does,” says Dan Cataldi, executive director of EIGERlab, the Rockford incubator where Harrison Harmonicas was hatched. “Most entrepreneurs have that in common. Making money and being highly successful are secondary. It’s not his purpose. Brad wants to change the world of music and the harmonica.”
Indeed, Harrison has the harmonic world buzzing since opening his doors earlier this year. He’s riding a wave of national attention, having been interviewed by major print and broadcast media from across the country. He’s taken orders from rock stars like Mick Jagger and actors like Bruce Willis.
Tall and lanky, with salt and pepper hair, Harrison looks a bit like a mad scientist when he’s wearing his white lab coat. He’s extremely witty, with a wicked and self-deprecating sense of humor, and he’s immensely proud of his accomplishments. “We can do it in America. We can compete with overseas companies, and we can still make the best,” he says. “That is such a cool thing. We can take people off of unemployment, and have this crazy demand for what we do. Six months ago I had no employees. Now I have eight. I have no idea how big this can be, but the potential is there.”
From Here to There
Harrison’s journey started 15 years ago, when he picked up a harmonica at a house party and started playing. He went on to study under Joe Filisko, a well-known harmonica customizer and historian, who teaches at the exclusive Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, where his classes are always in demand. But Harrison didn’t want to just learn how to play; he wanted to know what made the harmonica tick. So he talked his instructor into showing him the inner workings of the instrument. “He thought I was crazy,” recalls Harrison. The next day, he could bend a note, which is a technique used to change pitch and reach other notes. “I can shape the note better and more accurately because I understand the mechanics of it.”
The harmonica first appeared in Vienna, Austria, where harmonicas with chambers were sold before 1824. In 1857, Matthias Hohner, a clockmaker from Trossingen, Germany, started producing harmonicas, eventually becoming the first to mass-produce them. By 1868, he began supplying them to the United States. By the late 19th century, harmonica production was a big business. New designs were still being developed in the 20th century, including the chromatic harmonica, the bass harmonica and the chord harmonica. In the 21st century, radical new designs are still being produced.
“A gift from God” is what Harrison calls the harmonica. “What goes on inside a harmonica – most people have no clue,” he says. “The coolest thing about the harmonica is that it’s the closest musical instrument to the human voice. That’s why most people, who know nothing about the instrument, connect so much to it when they finally hear it.”
Harrison spent 14 years customizing harmonicas for other players. During that time, he held many jobs to help pay bills. He was a restaurant manager, Army mechanic, ditch digger – you name it. “I used to feel like a loser,” he says of his unusual career path. “But I was grooming myself for today and didn’t even know it. My experiences taught me how to run a business.”
At Home in EIGERlab
Harrison traveled a rocky road to get to where he is today. He was battling both health and personal issues while trying to get his business off the ground. A curvature of the spine required a 14-hour surgery and he had 24 screws inserted into his spine. At the same time, he was going through a divorce. “I was moving out of the house, wearing a full-body cast, unable to lift a pound, trying to figure out how I was going to take care of myself,” Harrison says. That’s when he learned about EIGERlab. “I could barely walk, and here I was, driving two hours to Rockford,” he says. “I had never been to Rockford before.”
EIGERlab is a research and development center created in 2004 to nurture new manufacturing technologies and then turn them into new companies offering jobs. EIGERlab officials encouraged Harrison to enter a contest for entrepreneurs, called the Stateline Fastpitch Competition. He did, and beat out 63 other participants for the first-place prize of $5,000.
He entered and won another contest called Innovate Illinois, topping 235 other companies, much to his surprise. “It’s a harmonica, for crying out loud,” he says. “There are people out there trying to cure cancer. It’s a silly instrument that most people look at as a toy.” Harrison, who previously failed to find investors, used the $45,000 in prize money to start his company.
In the early days, Harrison worked long hours, often spending the night in a sleeping bag in his office. “He is the poster child of what can happen at EIGERlab,” says Cataldi. “He utilized the services of the prototype lab and the Entrepreneurship Center, which introduced him to connections and mentors along the way. It’s a story of how someone can use the services and talents in the community to grow a business. It’s a pretty cool story.”
In addition to EIGERlab, Harrison turned to Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, for help. Some people there were interested in Harrison’s idea, and helped him to design and engineer a machine that mills a harmonica reed lengthwise – an important element to Harrison’s design. It’s called The B-Radical, named after Harrison, who is called B-Rad by his friends.
When Harrison opened up his shop in the spring, he was busy taking orders, consulting with customers, running the machine and assembling each harmonica by hand. He needed help, which can be hard to find when you’re the only harmonica manufacturing company in the country. Harrison says that it takes three months to fully train employees to assemble a harmonica. He found the help he needed, and plans to hire more in the near future.
“I drive to work every day and think about the lives I can change,” says Harrison, who commutes 182 miles round trip every day to Rockford from his downtown Chicago home. “I have seven people working for me and they get a paycheck. That is so cool.”
Harrison works on the assembly line along with the rest of his staff, bouncing from station to station, making sure everything runs smoothly. It’s not an easy process to build a harmonica, and there are plenty of challenges along the way.
“If Station One passes on something that is questionable, by the time it gets to Station Eight, 48 minutes have gone by, and now I have to go fix it,” he says. “We have 20 reeds per instrument, and if one reed is off, the whole instrument doesn’t work. It’s not like a car. If the door handle is broken, you can still drive the car.”
Harrison won’t divulge how many harmonicas his company produces; he’ll only say that it’s not enough. The typical wait for a harmonica is eight months. The price is $180.
Harrison inspects every single harmonica before it goes out the door. They’re like his children, he says, and saying goodbye isn’t always easy. He fine-tunes them to the point where his employees will take them out of his hands when it’s time to go. Sometimes he becomes so attached to one that he decides he doesn’t want to sell it. “There’s a connection and I worry about them,” says Harrison, who owns just one harmonica. “I worry that the postman is going to drop one or kick it. We put so much care into it.”
When a story about Harrison aired on “CBS Sunday Morning,” his business went through the roof. Harrison says thousands of orders came in the next day, and in a matter of two hours, the wait time to have a harmonica made went from four months to eight. The media attention for Harrison and his business remains constant, which amuses him. “It’s cool, but it’s funny,” he says. “I’m such a silly guy, and I’m so easygoing, that’s how I look at myself. Everyone else looks at me completely different. It cracks me up.”
Although he fulfills orders for some major celebrities, you won’t see Jagger or Willis on Harrison’s Web site. Gracing its pages instead are a young breed of harmonica players, up-and-coming talents, like 16-year-old Jay Gaunt or 18-year-old Brandon Bailey. Gaunt and Harrison met at the annual Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica convention a few years ago. Gaunt, who started playing when he was 12, was short a harmonica, so Harrison let him use one of his. The two talk often – sometime one to two hours by phone – about the harmonica, of course. “I’m the biggest harmonica nerd, but so is Brad,” says Gaunt, who lives in New Jersey. “Brad is obsessed with creating the perfect reeds. He wants to truly revolutionize the harmonica. He wants to make the harmonica become what the guitar is. Brad wants the harmonica to be cool again.”
Robbert Trice started playing the harmonica when he was young and picked it up again 10 years ago. Now, the northern California postal worker plays in three bands. After trying a couple of modified instruments, as well as some higher-end stock harmonicas, he found Harrison Harmonicas.
“I want an instrument that is responsive, sounds great, is a joy to play and will last,” says Trice. “That’s the B-Radical. Not only is the instrument of great quality, but so is the service. They stand 100 percent behind their product. This gives me great confidence in the instrument, and the company. I guess you could say that I am a very satisfied customer.” And that’s music to Harrison’s ears.
Harrison, who used his entire life savings to start his business, plans to one day open a “big manufacturing plant.” Meanwhile, he says he’ll never outsource any work outside of the United States. He does send some highly-skilled work to Richard Sleigh and Joe Spiers, two of the country’s most well-known harmonica customizers.
It’s hard for a new business to know just what to expect, but those which survive must learn how to adapt to change. “Every business that grows runs into stair steps that have to be overcome,” says Cataldi. “Sooner or later he will get to the point where he either grows too quickly and runs out of cash, or he will get to the next stage to meet the demand. He will be faced with ‘Do I get investors and share equity?’ or ‘Do I pay my own way and grow slowly and disappoint customers?’ It’s going to depend on his ability to manage cash flow, form a management team and buy infrastructure. Having said all that, he’s already a success. He’s hired seven employees who didn’t have jobs.”
Harrison is open to the possibilities. His ultimate dream is to open a high school to help young people, like his five-year-old son, achieve their educational goals. He’s confident that his business can help him get there.
“I would hire teachers like me,” he says. “I always felt that if I’d had the right teachers and the right attention, I could have soared. I always felt smarter than the smart kids, but I didn’t know how to think, and I had no confidence. If I had met someone along the way who had instilled confidence in me, who knows what I would have been doing? When I’m dead, it would be cool for someone to say, ‘He changed the lives of hundreds of kids through education.’ I know I didn’t go to college, and I’m going to be successful, but I got lucky.”