Part 2: The Sweet and Bitter Fruits of Success

March 2, 2015


With the band now established, Mike Trull needed to learn how to manage success.  The kids were in danger of becoming over-confident, even arrogant, best illustrated by an exchange between Mike and one of the band members about a trophy missing from the display case after a recent competition.

“It was only second place, so we threw it out of the bus on the way home,” answered the cocky youngster, apparently unconcerned about the break in the sequence of awards on display.

As happy as he was to be a part of the success of the band and pleased, for the most part, that the students now expected only the best from themselves, he knew there were things that needed to be done to sustain that success.   The six elementary “feeder” schools were old, running toward dilapidation, and had little room for a growing band program.   One school even assigned their budding musicians to an unused coal bin with no windows, a single bare light bulb and walls of concrete.

“Not a good place for beginning trumpet and trombone students,  so I had them bring empty egg cartons from home to tape on the walls to cut down on the sound,”  Mike says, adding,  “It was one more example of how the students had taken ownership of the band.   It was theirs as much as it was mine or Bob’s, or the school’s.  Maybe more.”

The feeder schools were the root of the tree and had to be nurtured.  Having a decent place to rehearse was critical, but space was limited and what there was available didn’t do much for morale.  Recalling that his grandfather had turned an old school bus into a camper, Mike converted a retired bus into a mobile rehearsal hall, taking the seats out, painting it in fun colors and equipping it with heat, lights, and chairs and music stands, all for a scrape-by budget of $1,000.   He then became the driver, taking the mobile rehearsal hall from school to school, plugging it into an outside power source, then donning his teacher hat and conducting lessons.   The kids could count on Mike being there with his flower-power bus, named “Music in Motion,” so the drop-out rate from the band plummeted and eventually 250 junior high students were being served by the only peripatetic music program in, if maybe not the whole nation, at least most of it.   By 1974, a vastly improved junior high band had become the training ground that was needed for the championship high school band if the winning streak was going to last.   Mike had learned his next valuable lessons in entrepreneurism.  Be creative, think outside the box, and think long-term.

What Mike had done was as old as history:  build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.   And the world was coming to the small mountain town tucked in the southwest corner of North Carolina.   Bob and Mike responded by organizing Corps Style Inc. and conducting clinics all over the country, hiring the best drum and bugle corps kids in the nation to strut their stuff before band teachers hoping to emulate what Sylva had done.   Mike, a natural salesman, added flags, poles, boots, gloves and uniforms for sale and by 1977, seven years after graduating from Western Carolina University, Mike was facing a life-changing decision.    He was selling so many band uniforms at the clinics that a major uniform maker offered him the positon of Sales Manager.   He had learned yet another lesson about success:  it presents you with difficult choices.

Once settled into his new job, Mike began sorting through the opportunities that were just waiting for someone to seize.  Two of the uniform company’s suppliers were selling the dashing Aussie style hat to go with the uniforms and suppliers couldn’t keep up with the demand.    Mike decided that he would devote five hours a week to learning how the hats were made and eighteen months later (or 360 hours later), he had his answers.   A conversation with the owners of the business landed a $25,000 investment to be used to buy the machines, molds, and hire four new employees to start making the Aussie hats.  Just as the hats were beginning to grab some market share, disaster struck.

The uniform company closed its doors, a victim of mismanagement and overdue back taxes.   Mike was stuck with four employees and a lot of idle machinery.    He had experienced the most difficult lesson of entrepreneurship:  you can’t control everything that happens to you, no matter how good your idea is or how hard you work, so you just have to start all over.









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