There’s a niche but star-stud­ded heavy­weight based in Tosa, and its leader has a killer hand­ball serve.

Milwaukee Magazine - - DEPARTMENTS - By MATT HRODEY

Keith Mar­dak is the man be­hind Hal Leonard Corp., a mu­sic em­pire based in Wauwatosa.

Be­yond the lobby of green mar­ble, pur­ple fur­ni­ture and neon lights in a sleek but unas­sum­ing of­fice build­ing on Blue­mound Road in Wauwatosa lies the cor­po­rate head­quar­ters of a busi­ness em­pire built on, of all things, sheet mu­sic.

Hal Leonard Corp. is the world’s lead­ing pub­lisher of sheet mu­sic and mu­sic-ed­u­ca­tional books (think Hal Leonard Gui­tar Method), churn­ing out 50,000 new pages of sheet mu­sic each year through deals cov­er­ing a dizzy­ing col­lec­tion of artists, from Hen­drix to Gersh­win to all things Dis­ney. Mu­sic from Frozen sells so well that Hal Leonard has sliced and diced it many dif­fer­ent ways, as choral, solo and string ar­range­ments.

The of­fice is a cu­bi­cle maze filled with in­stru­ments and key­boards played by ed­i­tors who ar­range mu­sic, later laid out and given a mem­o­rable cover by graphic de­sign­ers. It all hap­pens within the same build­ing, of­ten within the same day.

Un­der the lead of chair­man and CEO Keith Mar­dak, who has helmed the com­pany for decades, Hal Leonard has grown into a con­glom­er­ate with a print­ing fa­cil­ity in Wi­nona, Min­nesota, about 650 em­ploy­ees world­wide and $300 mil­lion in an­nual sales. Mar­dak, now 78, joined the com­pany in 1970 as part of a new di­vi­sion called Learn­ing Un­lim­ited that he and a few friends cooked up to de­velop cas­sette-based cour­ses for band and pi­ano. A nat­u­ral sales­man (if not a nat­u­ral mu­si­cian), Mar­dak has rev­eled in coax­ing big-name artists and their li­censes to the Hal Leonard fam­ily, one phone call or din­ner meet­ing at a time. His of­fice is dec­o­rated with signed pho­tos of Paul Mc­Cart­ney, Fred Rogers and Mr. Rogers’ de­liv­ery­man, Mr. McFeely.

In 1985, Mar­dak and sev­eral other man­agers bought Hal Leonard from the three orig­i­nal founders. Thus be­gan a ca­reer in both con­sol­i­dat­ing the sheet mu­sic busi­ness and col­lect­ing cool sto­ries.

“We’re ba­si­cally the ar­chiv­ists for the mu­sic in­dus­try.” - BRAD SMITH, HAL LEONARD CORP. VICE PRES­I­DENT OF MU­SI­CAL IN­STRU­MENT


One of them: Turns out, not all stars can read mu­sic. When Hal Leonard first pre­sented U2 with their own sheet mu­sic, the leg­endary Ir­ish rock­ers were taken aback, Mar­dak says. “They looked at it, and they said, ‘This is what I play right here?’” Other artists, how­ever, want to re­view and ap­prove ev­ery note.

Just now be­gin­ning to wind down his ca­reer, Mar­dak sold the com­pany in 2016 to a pri­vate eq­uity firm, Sei­dler Eq­uity Part­ners, for an undis­closed amount. He re­mains chair­man and CEO, de­scrib­ing Sei­dler as a “holder” out­fit, not a flip­per look­ing to turn a quick buck.

Per­sonal strug­gles have also en­cour­aged Mar­dak to slow down: In 2014, he tripped and fell into a burn­ing fire­place at his win­ter house in Phoenix, suf­fer­ing third- and fourth-de­gree burns to his neck and face. He has un­der­gone more than 30 re­con­struc­tive op­er­a­tions and could yet have an­other. In more re­cent days, knee and shoul­der surg­eries have side­lined him from what had been a ded­i­cated am­a­teur hand­ball ca­reer. He was known for his dev­as­tat­ing “Mar­dak serve,” a de­cep­tively lazy lob that bog­gled op­po­nents used to more ag­gres­sive strikes.

But in busi­ness, the beat goes on. In April, Hal Leonard bought its largest coun­ter­part in Europe, The Mu­sic Sales Group, in a $50-some mil­lion deal that in­cluded 11 mu­sic shops it now hopes to spin off. “We’re not overly thrilled about be­ing in the re­tail busi­ness,” says Mar­dak. “We’re look­ing for some­one who would be in­ter­ested in them.”

Hal Leonard is, at its core, a pub­lisher. “We’re ba­si­cally the ar­chiv­ists for the mu­sic in­dus­try,” says Brad Smith, vice pres­i­dent of mu­si­cal in­stru­ment prod­ucts and brother of Red Hot Chili Pep­pers drum­mer Chad Smith. (He in­sists he taught his fa­mous brother to play.) He pulls out a slick Hal Leonard hard­cover book on Fender gui­tar amps, with an in­tro­duc­tion by Keith Richards. “It’s re­ally cool,” he says.

Hal Leonard CEO Keith Mar­dak


Signed pho­tos of celebri­ties, such as this one of Paul and Linda Mc­Cart­ney, adorn the walls of Mar­dak’s of­fice.

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