$25,000 Manning Award of Distinction Sponsored by CanWest Global Communications Corp. Chris Griffiths, Griffiths Active Bracing System,™.
For more than 170 years, the world's guitar makers have been building their instruments essentially the same way. Chris Griffiths, a guitar player and bold young entrepreneur from St. John's, Newfoundland, was ready to strike a new chord - and rewrite guitar-making history.
Griffiths started playing guitar at age 12. "I was always a tinkerer and always was taking apart clock radios and anything that I could get away with, to find out how it worked," he says. "I got my first electric guitar for Christmas that year and by Boxing Day had it completely disassembled."
Griffiths fell in love with the instrument - not only with its outward beauty but its inner workings. Giffiths apprenticed at the Galloup Guitar Hospital in Big Rapids, Michigan. At
After high school, Gr18, he started his first company - Griffiths Guitar Works in St. John's.
In 1995, his company experienced delays from suppliers of lower-priced, imported acoustic guitars. Manufacturers weren't producing enough guitars in this price range to meet a growing demand. Griffiths saw an opportunity in the international market.
"But the last thing I wanted to do was be a 'me, too' type of company," he says. "The only reason I was going to start a factory was if I thought I had a sustainable competitive advantage."
With funding from the National Research Council of Canada, Griffiths hired two engineers and he travelled across North America to see how companies mass-produced their acoustic guitars.
On a flight home to Newfoundland from a guitar factory in California, Griffiths turned to one of his engineers, Andy Fisher, and asked why nobody had ever built the acoustic guitar from one piece that integrated the binding, kerfing, bridge plate and all the internal braces.
"It just sort of took off from there," recalls Griffiths, who sketched the idea on an airline napkin.
Griffiths' vision, to mass-produce a high-quality yet affordable guitar from one internal core piece, was a truly radical departure. For almost two centuries, guitar makers had built each instrument using more than 30 individually machined and individually installed wooden components.
Griffiths needed a material that would be at least as strong as the conventional wood frame of a guitar, to counteract the 150 pounds of pressure applied to the top of an acoustic guitar from the tuned strings. But the material also had to resonate like wood. "An acoustic guitar top is a mechanism for pushing air and creating sound waves," he explains. "So we need that top to vibrate as freely as possible in order to generate a good tone."
For seven months, Griffiths and his engineers tested different materials that would have the structural and acoustic qualities of guitars constructed using traditional wood braces. They chose a composite material made of long-glass fibres that could be injected into a custom-made steel mold.
If his idea worked, it would automatically produce a one-unit internal frame having the same traditional bracing pattern used in guitars built with many wooden components. If his vision failed, however, Griffiths would have to throw out the $150,000-mold and start anew.
And the young entrepreneur was already struggling under a mountain of debt.
By 2000, Griffiths had stopped working half-time at his company, Griffiths Guitar Works, to devote all his time and energy to his vision.
Except Griffiths Guitar Works was on the verge of bankruptcy. Griffiths had continually borrowed money against the company, which was then his only source of funding for crucial research and development.
He went to ACF Equity, a venture capital firm in Halifax, and two private investors to convince them to contribute some seed money. "I said, 'Look, if you guys don't put money in now, I'm going to lose my first business and this project is going to die on the vine.'"
Thanks to the commercial potential of his idea, he secured a total of $250,000 in seed capital to make the final payment on his injection molds, prototypes and patent applications.
"I considered quitting a thousand times," Griffiths confides. "Six years is a long time."
Lots of people told him his idea was crazy. But he wanted proof that his concept either was or was not technically possible. "And I never got proof. As many doors as I had slammed in my face, nobody ever gave me real logical evidence to prove that what I was trying to achieve wouldn't work." Griffiths cites David Gill, plant manager of Terra Nova Shoes, as being both a friend and business mentor. He also credits the GENESIS Centre, an incubator established by Memorial University for high-tech companies, for providing help that included an office, consulting and administrative support.
Griffiths produced five prototype guitars with the Griffiths Active Bracing System.™ All received an enthusiastic welcome at the world's largest musical instrument trade show in Los Angeles.
Buoyed by the trade show success, he raised $2.5 million in investment to start a new company, Garrison Guitars, to market his technology "as a more intelligent way to build guitars."
In February 2001, Griffiths walked into an empty 20,000-square-foot factory in St. John's and set up his manufacturing line. By July, he had shipped his first guitars to a distributor in Australia.
Garrison Guitars now has over 60 employees in a state-of-the art manufacturing facility. Its unique internal braces are made in 45 seconds, compared with 2Â½ hours for the conventional piece-by-piece wood-assembly method. Production has expanded to 12,000 guitars a year.
Griffiths, who has received three U.S. patents for his innovations, has won dozens of awards, including a Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters' Canadian Innovation Award in 2001. Garrison Guitars have been featured in numerous trade magazines and on television's The Discovery Channel. The guitars are played by artists such as Alanis Morisette, The Bare Naked Ladies, Blue Rodeo, Stompin' Tom Connors, The Tragically Hip, Nils Lofgren, Kim Mitchell, Great Big Sea and others.
Griffiths, 30, has balanced his entrepreneurial successes with volunteerism averaging 650 hours a year, for organizations such as the Canadian Youth Business Foundation, Young Entrepreneurs Association, the Music Industry Association, Heart and Stroke Foundation, and Kinsmen Club.
Griffiths continues to innovate. Garrison Guitars has launched a redesigned bracing system that reduces the guitar's overall weight and enhances the sound. Griffiths is also proud that, along with their unique frame, 80 per cent of his guitars feature Newfoundland birch as their primary tone wood. He chose 'Garrison' for his company from Garrison Hill, a prominent old street name in St. John's.
"There's no real reason why this business is in Newfoundland, except for the fact that I'm a passionate Newfoundlander and this is my home," Griffiths notes. "I wanted to prove that you don't need to be in Nashville and California to compete on the global stage."
The Ernest C. Manning Awards Foundation
This year, Manning Innovation Awards presents $145,000 in prize money distributed among four leading Canadian innovators, as well as $20,000 among eight Canada-Wide Science Fair winners. Since 1982, the Foundation has awarded over $3 million to recognize Canadian innovators.
Media contacts (photos available):
Cara Evelly, Communications Specialist
Donald Park, Executive Director
Ernest C. Manning Awards Foundation