BUSINESS MONDAY: The Magic Fluke—Luck being the residue of design

If the Swiss Family Robinson garnered legions of admirers for their eco-forward bamboo-tree-home construction and coconut dishware, not to mention their indefatigable spirit of derring-do, then surely the Webbs of Sheffield deserve no less attention for their achievement: a thoroughly modern success story of locally-oriented manufacturing and family-centered, collaborative production.

Nestled in their Sheffield headquarters—a luminously inviting studio wrought in sandy wood and open beams that recalls a breezier rendition of Leonardo da Vinci’s crepuscular Florentine workshop—the Webbs’ dream factory produces a focused range of products in the musical oeuvre, including violins and banjos. However, the jewel in the crown is their ukulele. The Magic Fluke’s name derives from the shape of the Webbs’ first prototype, which recalled the curvature of a whale’s tail—not to mention the doff of the cap to Mozart and a nod to the fortunate and unusual nature of the business’s origin.   

Dale Webb’s Fluke model is the original design that started it all in 1999 and now comes in a variety of colors and designs. Photo by E.M. Marcus.

The instrument itself has a rich and colorful past. As passionate matriarch Phyllis Webb describes in loving detail, the ukulele originally came to Hawaii on a Portuguese ship bearing famine-stricken refugees from Madeira. “Hawaii invited them and said, ‘Please come, and we’ll take care of you.’ So, it was a big, long voyage and many people did not make it; when they did, legend has it they jumped up on the docks and started playing their braguinhas (a direct precursor to the ukelele). The Hawaiians were  fascinated because their fingers moved so quickly and they thought it looked like jumping fleas, and ‘jumping fleas’ in Hawaiian is ‘uku-lele.’ Then those makers on the ship became the famous makers to the people in Hawaii.”   

The magic uke 

Phyllis’s life in ukuleles began with her brother Jim Beloff’s discovery of the instrument in a Los Angeles flea market and subsequent devotion to its rebirth as a mainstream choice for budding musicians. By the late 1990s, Mr. Beloff, who’d studied under Leonard Bernstein, composed children’s musicals in New York, and worked at Billboard Magazine, had become deeply involved with the universe of ukeleles, or ‘Ukeverse.” His 1997 publication, The Ukulele: A Visual History, was so admired by George Harrison that the former Beatle wrote a public endorsement of Jim’s work and sent out copies to friends at Christmas.

As Phyllis’s husband and business partner Dale Webb, chief materials engineer and manufacturing brains behind the Fluke operation, recalls: “[Jim] became infatuated and started realizing that this instrument had a lot of potential and that there was no support out there. In terms of music, you had to rummage through 50- or 60-year-old sheet music to find when the instrument was last popular. So, he began publishing books, started one book on beginning ukulele and it took off, did another book and it took off, and people started asking for an instrument.”     

That’s where conversations around the family dinner table began to get serious. Dale, who “put in 18 grueling years in corporate life and used to dread Monday mornings,” became aware that his knowledge base and wealth of engineering experience might not be totally irrelevant to his brother-in-law’s burgeoning dream. Indeed, just the opposite: “The timing was right, so I sort of took on the challenge of the instrument, using some tricks of the trade I’d learned as an engineer [and] molded materials and manufactured parts that are all designed for production, knowing we’d have to compete with imports at a real low cost.” Then they made some prototypes, committed to a trade show in California, and took some orders.  

“That was in January 1999,” Phyllis adds. “It just snowballed from there.” The couple’s committed sons, Josh and Ben, witnessed the adventure from the beginning. “Well, the business started out in the basement,” Josh recalls in his endearingly professorial brand of deadpan. “Mom and Dad hired some of our neighbors to come and help build instruments down there, and that became the little production facility. And very early on, I remember that being an exciting space to be in, [seeing] people tinkering and making things. There were little jobs that we could do as kids, like making the tags that hang on the headstock. I don’t know if it was ever a conscious decision to be involved at that stage; it was just organic assimilation into the process.”    

The brothers Webb at work in the spacious studio. Photo by E.M. Marcus.

Josh’s quietly forceful younger brother Ben also vividly recalls this period: “The phone is ringing at three o’clock in the morning from a customer in Japan, and my mom has to get out of bed and go answer it. There are people down in your basement when you go and come back from school. And the conversation at the table, as much as mom and dad really tried to create boundaries, revolved around the business—which is a gift and a curse of owning and working for yourself because it never ends … But as more and more things have become digital and are produced elsewhere, [people] don’t know what it means to make something, even just out of a piece of wood: Where does the tree come from and how is it processed? That’s something we’re so removed from. So being able to see a pile of wood turned into a playable instrument is a really creative stimulant for a child.” 

An instrument for the people, by the people 

Since the halcyon days of Elvis Presley, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones (don’t tell Mick Jagger), the guitar’s relative influence has waned, giving way to the accessibility, affordability, and portability of the ukulele. “Here we are going on 25 years or so, and the use rivals the guitar in terms of the number of sales,” Dale explains. Phyllis is pretty sure she knows why: “It’s small, you can take it anywhere, and the price point crosses the socio-economic gaps and [the instrument] crosses the age gap. As a parent or teacher, you can’t put a guitar in little hands, it’s big, and it’s scary. But a ukulele is a little person’s size; even if they’re five, they may not be proficient but they can sit on your lap and feel empowered by holding it. So, it really opens up music in such a broad sense, which is pretty exciting. Not too many instruments do that.”  

Their ambitious plan to create an affordable, well-made ukulele relied on various strategies, much of them stemming from Dale’s background in developing ultrasound technology. “I did a lot of manufacturing and design, worked with different vendors, using different materials and methods. We were casting urethanes in silicon molds, doing some thermo-forming, and eventually went to injection molding. And so, we ramped up pretty quickly because I had this network of knowledge to make it happen.”  

From the beginning, Phyllis and Dale were adamant that this be a local, family company that also happened to service the international market. “Certain things aren’t made here, but if we can get it here, we will. We’re fabricating here more and more, thanks to our kids, who are working on some new equipment for us. Nobody’s doing what we’re doing, they’re making ukes for thousands or tens of thousands of dollars here in the United States, or it’s all coming over on boats. They start at five or 10 dollars in China and go through the layers of hands that are all taking a cut.” 

After a reasonable amount of trial and error, they managed to pull off Dale’s designs and produce the mid-price-range ukulele you see today on The Magic Fluke’s cheerful website and in the handsome retail showroom of their Sheffield workshop, which welcomes walk-in customers on weekdays.  (Hours are Monday through Friday from 9 am to 4:30 pm at 292 S. Main Street.)

Adding the tuning pegs to an instrument’s headstock. Photo by E.M. Marcus.

However, to some degree, the Webbs are victims of their success. Their provision of a reasonably priced, high-quality ukulele to the marketplace—in concert with Jim Beloff’s increasingly popular run of ukulele literature and sheet music—has spiked demand for the instrument and made the unassuming little strummer an even more enticing target for low-cost manufacturers in Asia.  

Dale explains, “The first few years, we were making a few thousand instruments a year, and we claimed to be the largest US manufacturer. Here we are 20 years later, the market has grown probably a hundred-fold, and we’re making fewer instruments but we’re still the largest manufacturer in the country, which says that nobody has attempted to compete with the imports.”  

He points to pandemic-era supply chain disruptions that continue to ricochet through the economy as having stretched the financial paradigm under which The Magic Fluke set up shop. “It’s gotten to be more and more of a challenge as our costs have gone up and the products coming in from overseas become more and more of a bargain, and people have a tough time comparing. But what we have going for us is our locally-sourced materials, the small business, the service, and the unique designs.”    

Each of The Magic Fluke’s instruments has been mindfully handcrafted, both in form and concept. The “products” are a reflection of artists and makers maintaining a balance between rigorous discipline and liberated whimsy, committing to bold ideas that might never see the light of day in a corporate, mass-production setting. One of their signature ukuleles is emblazoned with a spotted bovine pattern, reflecting the dairy farms that pepper Berkshire County. The Webbs call this particular model a “moo-kulele.”  

As for Dale’s “18 grueling years in corporate,” things today are decidedly different. “It’s just really satisfying to create something the customer requested and see the enjoyment on their end, so I look forward to coming here.”  

The family that lathes together stays together 

Dale recalls hooking up initially with mostly local vendors to supply the parts for their designs. But “over the years, the parts got more and more expensive, and you’d have to commit to 500 or 1000 pieces and bring them in all at once. And there’s a high cost to that, and changes were difficult, so it just made sense for us to have that capability in-house.”  

Ben Webb uses his expertise to monitor the device he brought to the business. Photo by E.M. Marcus.

Ben’s experience prior to rejoining his family’s business involved working with Computer Numerical Control (CNC), a device with multiple applications that, in the case of ukulele construction, is critical to the shaping of wooden parts like the instrument’s neck. He had to make a strong case for bringing the costly and sizable apparatus currently taking up the back wall of their home workshop a half mile up the road, where Ben spends most of his time when working on Fluke projects.

“While I was still in college, I learned how to operate CNC machines and saw that there’s often a lack of conversation between Dad’s engineering drawings for a part and the machine’s reaction to that. I convinced everyone that I knew enough about the machine that we should just try it. So, we invested in a small machine that served as a great learning platform to get us going and realized that we could do this.”  

The “we” Ben refers to consists of his family members—minus younger brother Sam, a student at Massachusetts College of Art and Design—as well as a small staff of non-Webb members who complete The Magic Fluke’s uncommonly dedicated team. With “Help Wanted” signs plastered across the façades of virtually every business in the country, the Webbs find that the flexible, creative nature of their work makes keeping staff a less daunting proposition.  

When asked where they found their employees in the first place, Phyllis laughs as she exclaims, “Shopper’s Guide!” Dale elaborates: “We had one applicant, and he turned out to be nearly perfect and the only one that applied. He loves it here, and so we’ve gotten lucky. And Michael, he’s upstairs practicing. He’s been here for three or four years and splits his time between making products and practicing.” 

Custom details like this engraving are part of the experience. Photo by E.M. Marcus.

The Magic Fluke operates with a kind of modular flexibility and linear hierarchy, allowing every Fluke participant the time and freedom to develop their lives in multiple directions, often bringing back inspiration and always returning refreshed. Phyllis offers one team member as the perfect case study: “Hannah studied music as well as theater, and so she works on the design and production for a small theater during the summer. She’s able to do what she’s passionate about while becoming more invested in what’s going on here.” Dale agrees: “All these people have interesting side gigs, so we have this base that allows them to do other things and not be totally tied to a nine-to-five job.”  

Both Josh and Ben had other jobs elsewhere before the pandemic allowed them to consider reintegrating into the family business. “I took an enormous pay cut when I left my engineering job in Boston and moved back here,” Josh says, adding: “But I don’t need that much to get by, and I favor the opportunity to pursue things that I am truly getting something out of, rather than sitting behind a desk. And that’s what I would have to do if I was to go back to that salary: sit behind a desk.”   

The family bond of trust between Phyllis, Dale, Ben, and Josh extends to others at The Magic Fluke who don’t have a “Webb” on their driver’s licenses. “They are family to us because they’re critical to this team,” Phyllis states with heartfelt conviction. The communal response to the instruments is critically important to daily motivation, as well. “I’ve had customers who’ve shared tragic situations or physical things that prevented them from playing their instruments, and they’re letting us know that without us, they wouldn’t feel like they do. Without overdoing it, we are a fun business that resonates with people, pun intended, and makes their lives better. And boy, oh boy, that’s certainly a reason to get up every morning.” 

The taxman cometh 

Ben urges his parents to talk about one of their most significant challenges in turning a profit given the model they’ve worked hard to keep and come to be proud of. Referring to the current status quo in America regarding imports, Dale explains: “China in particular subsidizes its exports. So, in order to build its economy, they pay businesses a percentage of sales revenue. And then our country does not apply protective tariffs on incoming goods, which is not the norm. That’s why things are a lot cheaper here than in other countries. So, you’ve got that double-hit of subsidized goods in the manufacturing country and then not tariffed coming into this country.”  

This has led to a flood of sub-standard ukuleles cascading into the US, with increasing consumer demand being met by a steady supply of attractively priced goods. As Phyllis points out, “Many small retailers depend on cheap imports to run their business, to stock their shelves.”  

Every instrument bears the “USA Made” tag. Photo by E.M. Marcus.

Ben agrees that this may be the perception but doesn’t have to be the reality, stressing the importance of local economics. Essentially, compared to a cheaper imported product, “your more expensive local item redistributes that extra amount you’ve paid into the community, and you see that as the consumer.” So committed is Team Fluke to these principles that they have terminated longstanding, profitable business partnerships when manufacturing is being relocated overseas. And Ben is cool as a cucumber about it: “Sometimes that’s the end of that relationship. Or they say ‘ok, we’re going to continue making it here for you,’ and that happens. We’ve gone to impossible ends to try and maintain that [local focus] because we understand the importance.”  

For Phyllis, The Magic Fluke’s major US-based competition is playing a game she would rather not join. “We fight, and we lose sales because we’re small. The largest manufacturer of ukuleles is Kala, based in California, and they say “USA” on their t-shirts. We know them personally, they’re really nice people, and they’re physically here, but 95 percent of what they produce is coming in from China.” 

Getting a note in edgewise 

Ben is anything but indifferent on the issue of inequity and power dynamics in the marketplace. “One thing that’s important to me is how ubiquitous and involved in our lives Amazon has become. All of a sudden, everyone has a Prime membership and that’s seemingly ok. [Many] products on Amazon start at a small business like ours. In fact, at my former job, the business was pigeonholed into Amazon deals; they’re taking enormous margins, and the people I was working for were taking serious cuts. But they thought it was better to get the products out there.” His plea? “As a consumer, maybe use Amazon as a database to find a product, but then track it down to its original source. Amazon doesn’t produce anything, all those products come from individuals and families.”   

Fine-tuning the saddle on a Fluke model. Photo by E.M. Marcus.

Meanwhile, the Webbs and folks like them continue to rely on low-cost, grass-roots approaches to spread the gospel. Dale reveals that “as an alternative to Amazon and consumerism, we’re big users of Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, Freecycle … you can do very well with those.”

Josh frequently posts photos of new creations or experiments on social media, finding a more specific, authentic approach to be effective and less demanding on his time. “When you look at a photo of a product online, oftentimes it’s on this perfectly white canvas background. I went through a lot of trouble making a photo booth to achieve that same result, but I’m not a photographer and don’t want to put the time into post-processing images. And the truth is, in the end, what does that perfect image with a white background tell people? Nothing. I would rather take an image of an instrument in the shop, with the shop or some of our natural landscape in the background, so that it conveys that this product didn’t just materialize—there’s something more, literally, behind it.” 

The Magic Fluke’s consumer response is overwhelmingly positive and continues to evolve. Dale counts “thousands and thousands of people playing and reviewing our instruments online that have nothing to do with us.”

Phyllis identifies what may be the most critical aspects of their continued success, an increasingly overlooked factor in this depersonalized era: customer satisfaction and word-of-mouth support. “People write and say what [our ukelele] has done, the change that it’s made, or, ‘I took a leap of faith to order this online without ever playing an instrument, and I received it and the craftsmanship is wonderful, and I love it and my family likes it,’ and they share a picture and I think to myself ‘Wow, how many companies have that?’” 

If music be the food of love, play on 

The warm smiles and beaming faces of appreciative customers do not always cover the bills, though. The Webbs’ dedication to local manufacturing and responsibly-sourced materials has tempered their financial growth. Dale knows that “this wouldn’t work for a lot of people. Our lifestyle allows us to operate without high incomes; we’ve got everything we need right here and we’re able to do what we want to do. But the lifestyle is great; we’d love to see more people pursuing small-scale manufacturing and offering the kind of jobs that we offer, which are interesting and satisfying.” 

It wouldn’t take much expansion to sacrifice the quality control, loving attention to detail, and involved customer service that have been the bedrock of the Webbs’ success thus far. “Simpler is better from a lifestyle standpoint,” Ben opines. “From a business standpoint, from a product–design standpoint, from a manufacturing standpoint, and in the age of instant access to everything and being able to overwhelm yourself with possibility, it’s important first to understand what is available and what you have access to and what is local.”  

As someone whose customers bring in old instruments for repairs and reunions sometimes years or even decades later, Dale jumps in with a simple yet excoriating picture of the current economic model—the opposite of the Fluke’s commitment to sustainability and durability. “What that boils down to is, how quickly can you take resources out of the earth and recycle them through society and then put them back into a landfill?”   

Thanks to how the Webbs do business, the future here at The Magic Fluke is bright and very much open. Josh feels that “whether down the road we’re still making musical instruments doesn’t so much matter to me. We have a pretty incredible foundation here. If somebody has a great idea, we could make it. And I feel strongly about a movement to replace imported goods, of not relying so heavily on things that come from overseas and are sold in big-box stores. There’s so much opportunity to make things that are useful to us right here, and employ local people and develop a real community around that so we have a more resilient society.”  

Continuing the family legacy. Photo by E.M. Marcus.

Phyllis stands behind the battles they’ve fought and the sons she and her husband have successfully collaborated with: “Maybe we’re doing a little bit of our share. We feel like we’ve got some fine young men here, and we walk on air because we’re so thrilled to have the relationships we do with them. And we want to support their efforts, our environment, and our community. We live in a pretty special place; this is the magical Berkshires.” 

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