Cortez, Colorado

Founded: 2004

Privately owned

Employees: 10

Founder and owner Curt Mangan is bringing a small-batch, craft mindset to guitar strings, and the concept is catching on worldwide.

Long before he got into manufacturing, Mangan experienced the music business from both the stage and the cash register. “I started out playing guitar and did the whole artist/musician thing, but I also had a retail background,” he says. He worked at a music store growing up in Longmont, and got his first record deal before turning 18.

In the late 1960s, he hit the road and played gig after gig after gig. “One year, I spent 34 of 52 weeks on the road,” Mangan remembers. He’s had enough of the blacktop by the mid-1970s and started writing more, then joined a jingle and soundtrack studio in California in 1985.

When the seismic shift of digital hit the recording industry, that business model fell apart, and Mangan became director of sales of marketing for San Luis Obispo-based Ernie Ball, one of the biggest guitar string manufacturer around, in the mid-1980s and stayed on in that role for nearly 20 years. “I had a good run,” he says. “It was time for me to move on. . . . I saw an opportunity to become a smaller, hands-on, boutique string company.”

While he’d worked at Ernie Ball for the better part of two decades, Mangan says he was “really ignorant” on the manufacturing side when he launched Curt Mangan Guitar Strings in Paso Robles, California, in 2004. “Now I’m very thankful that I was,” he laughs. “Otherwise, I would have done what everybody else did.”

Mangan moved the company to Cortez in 2006. “California is not a friendly place to do business and Colorado is,” he says. “And they needed some jobs here.”

There are only a handful of companies that manufacture string-making equipment for about 35 string-makers worldwide. “There’s a lot of variables,” says Mangan. “There’s a lot of critical adjustments and pressure you need to make a good string. It’s still a very labor-intensive industry.”

And that puts Mangan’s emphasis on craft. “We developed our own machines and our own strings,” he explains. “They’re the strings I’d always wanted to play.”

But it’s obviously not just Mangan who wants to play these strings. The company now makes 500 different strings for acoustic, electric, classical, and bass guitars as well as mandolins and other instruments. “We’re very balanced,” he says. “Our bass strings sell well, our acoustic strings sell well, and our mandolin strings sell well.”

“Strings are more alike than they are different,” Mangan adds. “You get your nuances. We have our own flavor. We have our own feel. We tried to come up with the right balance between performance and tone — what I call the sparkle. It’s a solid tone. It doesn’t waver around before it hits the pitch.”

He’s chosen a distribution model that eschews big-box retailers like Guitar Center in favor of independent shops and direct sales, and enforces a low advertised price. Curt Mangan Guitar Strings are now available at 600 locations in the U.S. as well as stores in Europe by way of a warehouse in Vienna.

The company grew quickly from the start, then hit a wall in 2010. The recession cut the ability for kids to buy guitars, says Mangan. “There wasn’t enough money,” he says. “We saw upwards of 20 of our dealers go out of business.”

Things have turned around in the past two years. “In 2014, we made up for everything that was lost over the previous three years,” says Mangan.

The comeback has been fueled by existing customers. “It’s still word of mouth that builds brands,” he says. “I don’t think that’s changed since Omar the stone wheel builder.”

And he sees plenty of potential moving forward. “We want to grow but we want to do it smartly,” Mangan says. “In the next four or five years, there’s probably an opportunity to quadruple the size of this company.”

Challenges: Managing a catalog that’s 500 SKUs deep. “That’s a huge amount for a company like us,” says Mangan. “We’ve learned to turn on a dime.

Keeping up with growth also presents issues. “The size of the company right now we really like,” he explains. “We don’t want to be too big. We want to be big enough to make us as efficient as we can be.”

A third: replacing Mangan himself. “I’m 64 years old,” he says. “We built the brand, we built the company, now we have to start thinking about the company beyond me.”

Opportunities: “We see a lot of growth potential, a tremendous amount of growth potential, for not just the U.S. and Europe, but also Asia,” says Mangan. “We pulled back in Asia a couple years ago. I didn’t want to play this roller coaster of having to stock all this inventory waiting for them to place an order — they wanted a lot at the same time.” Today the company is built to better withstand such ups and downs. “We occasionally get stuck with our pants downs, but we can add more hours and we can always add another shift.”

Needs: More machines to make more strings. Mangan says there’s “plenty of room” for expansion in the company’s 6,500-square-foot space just north of city limits.

Another, he adds, would be “being able to tap into the city’s fiberoptic system. We’re on DSL now. [Faster Internet] just opens up a lot of possibilities.”