Industry: Consumer & Lifestyle
Products: Pedal steel guitars
Raised on a cattle ranch on Colorado's eastern plains listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio, Del Mullen started playing guitar when he was six years old. In his twenties, he moved from a traditional six-string to the pedal steel guitar -- the horizontal guitar with a stand and pedals favored by many country musicians.
His talents extended from the musical to the mechanical -- he learned to play on a pedal steel guitar that he built himself. "These are mechanical contraptions," he says, "and the mechanics came really easy to me."
In the 1970s, Mullen played with a Denver country-and-western band, the High Country Travelers, opening or backing up big names like Ernest Tubb and Jerry Reed at their Colorado gigs.
"We did a lot of county rodeos and fairs," he says. "I worked a day job in a machine shop and I would make guitars on the weekends."
Mullen later performed as part of Reba McIntyre's band, but was laid off from his machinist job in 1984 and decided to make guitars full-time. He relocated the operation 125 miles east from Denver to Flagler in 1998.
Today -- 40 years and 2,500 guitars after its beginnings -- Mullen Guitars is the largest manufacturer of pedal steel guitars in the world.
"I had the desire to make a guitar that could play as good as it could," says Mullen. "That's what put us over the edge. It's just a better built guitar."
Echoes Mullen Sales Manager Mike Mantey (Mullen's grandson): ”Precision is number one. We're the only company that does everything in-house. We use the best products available and there are no shortcuts."
Some competitors "sacrificed quality for quantity," Mantey adds. "That's just something you don't do."
Because Mullen Guitars does all of the machining internally, there is no supply chain risk. Explains Mullen: "All it takes is one of [your suppliers] going out of business and you're done."
Challenges: "It's probably the same thing I've been doing all along: making them play better and making them sound better," says Mullen.
Opportunities: Supplying a new generation of pedal steel guitarists. "I can see a change taking place," says Mullen. "The steel guitar took a backseat for many years, and now I see it coming back strong." Younger musicians such as Rascal Flatts, Jason Aldean, and Carrie Underwood are among the company's younger customers.
Mullen, 74, says his grandsons, Mantey and his brother, Shaun, are in their thirties and committed to keeping the company going. "I have a good backing team, and most guitar companies don't have that," he says.
Needs: Skilled labor. "We don't just take anybody off the street," says Mullen. "It takes about two years before you can turn [new employees] loose."