The company began selling musical instruments from a horse-drawn cart. Nearly a century later, it has grown into the North-East's biggest musical instrument retailer. Business Correspondent Paul Willis looks at the harmonious rise of Willimas Music Group.

IN the world of music, there are few things more coveted than a grand piano. With its classical elegance, the grand is the undisputed king of musical instruments and no technological advances can replicate its unique sound.

So it seems fitting that the prized asset in Williams Music Group's UK stores is a Bechstein Grand Piano, retailing at £60,000.

Williams Music Group is among the oldest musical instrument retailers in the UK

Today, the Darlington-based group has 12 outlets throughout the UK and has announced the opening of three more stores this week.

The company employs about 100 staff and recorded group sales of about £10m last year.

It has two outlets in the North-East - at Darlington and at the Gateshead MetroCentre - and has stores from Bradford to Brighton.

It is not bad going for a business that began from the back of a horse and cart nearly a century ago.

George Williams was selling pianos for a dealer in Consett, County Durham, when he decided to strike out on his own.

A keen musician and amateur conductor, what George lacked in financial capital he more than made up for with enthusiasm.

He moved with his family to Darlington in 1910 and began selling the pianos from the back of his horse and cart.

He is reputed to have once sold a piano to a miner while the hapless pitman sat in a tin bath.

George's son and daughter, Fred and Margaret Williams, joined the company in 1928 and after George died, Fred took over the day-to-day running of the company.

Since George founded the business, it has passed through four generations to the present owners.

Today, it is run by joint managing directors Ken Campling and Philip Stanley, both great-grandsons of the founder.

The group, which has kept its home in Darlington, has spread its net considerably from the early days and sells everything from penny whistles to finely-crafted replica harpsichords.

Mr Campling said one of the secrets of the company's longevity was attention to detail.

He said: "We have never compromised on quality. Most of the people who work in our stores are themselves competent musicians and that gives confidence to customers that you know what you are talking about.

"The same goes for the instruments we stock. We have never been tempted to sell low quality items because they are cheap - even though that can certainly make a big difference to sales."

As if to emphasise a natural aversion to the latest fad, one of the new stores, which opened in London this week, is devoted entirely to selling harpsichords.

Replicas of the classical instruments are made by craftsmen all over Europe and imported for sale in the store.

And with the harpsichords fetching thousands of pounds, Mr Campling insists the new store, called the London Harpsichord Centre, makes good business sense.

He said: "In many ways, this seems like a very romantic business to be in and I think, in the past, maybe we have allowed our love of music to cloud our business sense.

"But at the end of the day, this is a business, and we wouldn't be opening the store in London if we didn't know there was a market our there for these goods.

"We cater for the musical enthusiast and the harpsichords we sell - though they are beautiful items to have in your home - are designed to be played."

Mr Campling admits his own musical talents are limited, being the least musically-inclined of the family.

"Both my sisters are qualified piano teachers and I have a cousin in the recording business."

But even though he has not been blessed with musical greatness, his position in the family business has led to one or two star encounters.

During the 1960s, the Darlington stored loaned a colour TV to the Beatles when the band played on Teesside.

And as a toddler, Mr Campling had an encounter with the young Kim Wilde.

"Marty Wilde was performing at Darlington and while he was on stage I was left to play with Kim. I was just four at the time and she was only two, so she probably doesn't remember it."

Since then the company has rented a piano to Terry Venables while he was manager at Middlesbrough and, before his fame took him to London, pop star Gareth Gates was a regular at the Bradford store.

However, star encounters aside, the company's most lucrative encounter in recent years was with John Capaldi.

Mr Capaldi started as a salesman at Williams and went on to develop the Big Rock concept.

The Big Rock section specialises in equipment for rock groups and now accounts for half of the company's turnover.

Mr Capaldi, who lives in Guisborough, east Cleveland, has just been made a director of the company.

"We have had a good few years recently," said Mr Campling. "But the music industry is notoriously fickle.

"When Oasis made it big a few years ago, then we had kids coming in here all the time wanting to form rock'n'roll bands. The worst thing for us is when boybands and girlbands do well."

But after nearly a century in business, it is hard to imagine Williams will be too concerned about the success of a Pop Idol or two - not as long as there are harpsichords around.