HARTFORD, Conn. – A Connecticut factory that produced Ovation guitars for nearly a half century before closing last year will resume making the renowned instruments, thanks to the efforts of factory employees.
Four workers remained on the payroll after the New Hartford plant closed, and one of them, Darren Wallace, spent hundreds of hours of his own time setting up what equipment was left so it would be ready if production ever began again.
After Ovation was sold in December, the new owner planned to move the remaining operations to California but decided to keep them in New Hartford after seeing what Wallace had done. The factory had earned a reputation for turning out high-quality acoustic guitars praised for their tone and craftsmanship. Music legends who have played Ovations include Paul Simon, Cat Stevens, Glen Campbell, John Lennon, Mick Jagger and Eddie Van Halen.
“I knew that ultimately it (Ovation) would be sold, and I wanted to make sure we made a good impression on the new buyer,” Wallace said.
Fender Musical Instruments Corp. closed the plant in June 2014, saying it was ceasing domestic production because of market conditions and insufficient volume levels while continuing to make less expensive versions in Asia. More than 40 workers lost their jobs, and most of the factory equipment was sold at auction.
But Wallace and others did not give up hope that the factory would reopen, and they successfully pushed to keep repair and servicing operations in New Hartford. Wallace became brand manager for Ovation in Bloomfield at Fender subsidiary KMC Music while the three others retained after the closing repaired and restored guitars sent in by customers.
The repair workers moved into a separate building on the property and set up shop, while most of the main factory building was leased to others. Wallace spent his own time arranging what Ovation equipment was left in the same building as the repair workers, so that it would be ready to go if needed.
When Oxnard, California-based Drum Workshop bought Ovation from KMC Music, the new owner planned to move the remaining equipment to Oxnard and resume U.S. production of the guitars there. But chief executive Chris Lombardi changed his mind after meeting the workers and seeing the production space, Wallace said.
“I’m really happy Chris Lombardi was willing to take a chance on the place,” Wallace said. “That wasn’t their original intention certainly.”
Wallace will run the plant. Two workers who had been laid off were rehired to build new guitars, and they may get help from time to time from the three repair workers.
The factory has the basic machines and tools needed for production, but the workers will have to build some special equipment to replace machinery and tooling that was removed from the factory after it closed.
Employees have started building prototypes and intend to ramp up production this month. They’re also getting ready to produce 50th anniversary editions for next year’s Ovation milestone.
While the cheapest Ovation models made in Asian factories generally cost the consumer between $300 and $400, Ovations made in New Hartford will run between $3,000 and $5,000 because of the quality difference, Wallace said.