By Jennifer Saltsman
Kevin Cranley had a moment of panic in the middle of his junior year. He wasn’t sure if he wanted a future in the music business, which is like a Kennedy not wanting to get into politics or a Rockefeller not wanting to get into business. Music was the family’s legacy. His father, after all, was the president of Willis Music, the largest music store in Greater Cincinnati. Before that, his grandfather ran the company after acquiring it from Mr. Willis in the 1950s.
“I was wondering what I was being called to do from a spiritual aspect,” says Cranley. “So I went to Fr. Bill King (S.J.) and I spoke to him about it. He said, ‘Kevin, there are very few people that can be involved in a business that leads to a more fulfilling life for your customers. You’re going to sell music. You’re going to sell something that really leads to a more enriching life.’ ”
The spiritual—and family—crisis was averted, and today the 1980 marketing graduate approaches every day as an opportunity for him and his employees to give people the gift of music. Since its early days in downtown Cincinnati, Willis Music has sold instruments, sheet music and music lessons. It’s expanded to include seven stores located throughout Southern Ohio and Northern Kentucky. And this summer, under Cranley’s direction, it acquired a Steinway & Sons piano dealership, making it the exclusive Steinway representative in the region.
Today, Cranley walks around one of the locations and greets all of the employees by name.
With his tall stance and uncanny knack for face-name recognition, Cranley makes the job seem effortless, even expanding his duties to serve as a chairman for the National Association of Music Merchants and as a part-time instructor for Dale Carnegie Training. He parallels his leadership-training work at Dale Carnegie to his work at Willis, saying that he’s glad to have jobs that help people lead better, more fulfilling lives.
“It’s about being able to help people achieve something they’ve always wanted to do,” he says. We conduct a yearly Gallup poll, and 85 percent of Americans who do not play a musical instrument wish they did. Our challenge is to reach those people and show them that they can make music.”