(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The sounds of fingers tickling the ivories of the Steinway piano. Now it seems the legendary 160 year old piano maker is set to change hands. Last month, a private equity firm emerged as the likely buyer.
But as Ilya Marritz from member station WNYC reports, a mystery bidder - rumored to be hedge fund manager John Paulson - swooped in at the last minute, and now looks likely to take control of one of the oldest manufacturers in the United States.
ILYA MARRITZ, BYLINE: Outside the gates of the Steinway factory in Queens, there's a breakfast cart manned by a guy people call Johnny Pancakes. Every morning, before their shift begins, tuners and technicians show up here for coffee.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Johnny. Good morning. How we doing?
MARRITZ: At first blush, what's going on with Steinway may sound familiar. There's a devoted factory workforce. The new guy has been on the job 16 years. Meanwhile, in an office far from here, the wizards of finance, are concocting a takeover.
But here's where this story veers off script: Steinway isn't struggling. It actually paid off its debts last month. And these workers aren't particularly worried about their jobs.
Bruce Campbell has worked at Steinway 25 years, he's what's called a final voicer.
BRUCE CAMPBELL: I make the piano sound the way it's supposed to sound.
MARRITZ: So you sound pretty sanguine about this thing.
CAMPBELL: Well, I'm - I'm confident that, you know, things will be the same, maybe even get better. We're it. So, you know, finest piano in the world.
ARNIE URSANER: This is not wood shop in high school.
MARRITZ: Arnie Ursaner with CJS Securities says workers are right to be confident. Ursaner is the only stock analyst writing reports on Steinway. He says the land Steinway sits on, in a dense urban neighborhood, is tremendously valuable. But so is the workforce. If you want to make top notch pianos, you have to be here.
URSANER: The skills involved in building a custom made, hand made piano are unique. I've been to the factory, if you try to match up the two veneers in a piano, the person that does that has been trained for 10 years.
MARRITZ: So here's an example of an industrial business in a major American city that's actually doing well.
So why is Steinway going private? Ursaner says it all began around two years ago, with an activist investor, David Lockwood, who thought the company should consider splitting the band instruments business - like trombones and tubas - from the piano business. That set in motion a strategic review, and in the end, a healthy company decided to sell itself.
URSANER: It has strong cash flow, had an excellent balance sheet, has a very stable business. This was an opportunistic review of processes rather than a defensive one.
MARRITZ: If the mystery bidder's offer of $38 a share is accepted, the company will be valued at close to a half billion dollars.
Like many workers, Bruce Campbell owns stock.
Could you get rich?
CAMPBELL: No. Off of my shares? No, I don't think anyone is going to get rich off their shares. Just the big guys.
MARRITZ: Still, he could more than double his money.
As the start of shift at 7:30 draws near, people leave Johnny Pancake's and head into the complex of low red brick factory buildings. With a few changes, this has been the rhythm of life at Steinway since it was founded by a German immigrant before the Civil War.
Joseph Dimambro, a piano polisher, counts himself lucky.
JOSEPH DIMAMBRO: This is it. Tomorrow, you'll see the same people here every day. Talking, hanging out. I can't see it. It's too good. Everybody here. We're happy. We are.
MARRITZ: The sale of Steinway isn't yet a done deal. There's a deadline of midnight tonight for another bidder to make a higher offer on a piece of living history.
For NPR News, I'm Ilya Marritz, in New York.
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