Thaddeus Swanek Thaddeus Swanek
Senior Writer and Editor, Strategic Communications, U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Published

February 01, 2024

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It’s late afternoon, and Lillian Werbin, CEO & co-owner of Elderly Instruments, a family-owned music store based in Lansing, Michigan, is in a reflective mood.

In an interview at Chamber headquarters just after this year’s State of American Business event, Werbin says she believes spreadsheets and balances are important, but things like values and community are even more vital.

“We don’t have a business without community,” Werbin said. “Music, in particular, is people-based and group-based. … Our community is growing in that we’re being able to be more interactive and more supportive.”

Late last year, Elderly Instruments won first place in the U.S. Chamber’s 2023 America’s Top Small Business contest, including $25,000 in winnings. Werbin said that some of those winnings are now “being spread through the community.”

Elderly Instruments is well-known for its community involvement. The store played a vital role in the revitalization of Old Town Lansing when they expanded their brick-and-mortar footprint, breathing new life into the downtown business district.

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Founded in 1972, the company moved into its current storefront in Lansing in 1983 and then expanded by connecting neighboring buildings in 1986.

“We first moved our business to Old Town in the 80s, and it wasn’t a neighborhood you would bring your family to spend time, but my dad believed in the area,” Werbin said. “We moved to Lansing with confidence that it would be the right spot—and we’ve never thought about moving since.” 

Today, Elderly Instruments continues to sponsor and participate in numerous community music festivals, camps, and concerts that add to the vibrancy of Old Town Lansing and increase tourism to the state’s capital.

In 2022, during Elderly Instruments’ 50th anniversary celebration, the company threw a block party as a gesture of gratitude to the community that has been instrumental in their success. It also launched exclusive anniversary merchandise and invited employees past and present to play music on the main stage throughout the day, which fostered a sense of staff pride and camaraderie that directly enhanced the customer experience. 

“It’s nice to be part of a community that has the willingness to fight, then pronounce themselves a destination point, and live up to that,” Werbin said.

Building a business from scratch is also about values. Values like determination, persistence, and a deep-rooted desire to serve people and make them happier when they leave a store, than when they entered.

When the company brings on new employees, it tries its best to inculcate these company values, she said.

“We show them, and embrace them into, the way we are,” Werbin said. “It’s easy to become part of a group when that group is actively welcoming, accepting, and wanting to share knowledge.” 

Werbin said she would encourage any American small business to enter America’s Top Small Business contest when it opens later this year.

“If they feel passionate about what they do—they should enter the competition!” Werbin said. “It helped me restate how much I love what I do. It allowed me to highlight how much my staff loves what they do, what my customers love, and what our partners and vendors do. Just the simple act of having to evaluate it—helps you remember why you love what you do and why it’s important to you.”

Asked for any parting advice for other small businesses out there, Werbin is direct.

“Remain unapologetically yourself,” she said. “We are the backbone of America, and we have to hold ourselves to some standard, and as long as we do—those we work with—will follow suit.”

For more on Elderly Instruments, read its in-depth profile on CO—.

About the authors

Thaddeus Swanek

Thaddeus Swanek

Thaddeus is a senior writer and editor with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's strategic communications team.

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