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A 400-Year-Old Family Business Remains the ‘Gold Standard’ in Its Category — Its First Women Leaders Reveal the Secret

If you’re a musician or have ever attended a concert, you’ve probably seen (and heard) Zildjian cymbals in action.

Considered the “gold standard” by many in the industry, the company traces its origins back to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire’s palace, where Avedis Zildjian was on a mission to make actual gold in 1618.

Zildjian’s attempt failed, but he succeeded in formulating a secret alloy perfect for crafting cymbals — so much so that it’s still used in Zildjian cymbals today. The alchemist’s discovery made a lot of noise in its own time too: In 1623, the Sultan bestowed the family name “Zildjian,” which means “cymbal smith” in Armenian, on Avedis, and the rest, quite literally, was history.

Over the next 400 years, Zildjian grew its reputation as a manufacturer to be trusted. Classical composers began to incorporate cymbals into their work, as did European military bands in the 1700s, and orchestras in the 1800s.

But the company’s future became uncertain when Avedis’s descendent Aram Zildjian was forced to flee Turkey amid political upheaval in 1910. He opened a second Zildjian factory in Bucharest but ultimately returned to his native country.

By 1927, Aram’s nephew Avedis III, who was the only man in the direct line of succession, was more than 5,000 miles away in the U.S. and had a successful candy manufacturing business of his own — and no interest in going back to Turkey.

Current executive chair and president Craigie Zildjian tells Entrepreneur that although the company wouldn’t have a woman leader for nearly another century, “there might not have been a 400th anniversary if it wasn’t for [her] Nana Sally,” who suggested the “romantic story” of the 300-year-old family business might continue with she and Avedis III’s own sons.

And, of course, it did: Aram came to the U.S. to help his nephew set up the first Zildjian cymbal foundry in America; the company was incorporated in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1929, just as the Jazz Era began. (For her part in preserving the company, Sally became the first woman honored with her own collection of cymbals, the “S” line).

Now, for the first time in the cymbal maker’s sprawling history, women are officially at the helm — sustaining the company’s centuries-strong success and positioning it as an innovative leader for the future.

Entrepreneur sat down with Craigie and her niece Cady Zildjian, a current board member on track to become the vice chair, to discuss their experiences as the first women in the family business and how they’re preserving its legacy.

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Image Credit: Courtesy of Zildjian

“[People were] literally questioning whether the company was going to be able to continue this kind of performance.”

Growing up, Craigie didn’t think she’d work in the family business — no woman ever had.

But Craigie’s grandfather invited her to join the company in 1976. “I might have been the wrong gender,” she says, “but I was the right age, and my grandfather wanted to see the next generation in the business. So that’s how that came about.”

Craigie would work at Zildjian alongside her grandfather for three years and her father for eight years before he passed, “doing everything together,” then stepped into the CEO role in 1990. Yet, despite her birthright and experience, outsiders expressed reservations about her ability to lead.

“A lot of people, not internally, but externally, were expecting some big change and looking for missteps and so on,” Craigie explains. “And I thought that that was strange. [People were] literally questioning whether the company was going to be able to continue this kind of performance as a leader in the industry.”

Of course, those fears were completely unfounded: For more than three decades, Craigie has led Zildjian toward success, safeguarding its place as a first-in-class instrument manufacturer of cymbals, drumsticks, mallets and alternative implements.

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“I always wanted to be part of Zildjian and help with the family legacy.”

Now, as Zildjian eyes the future, it’s preparing its next generation — of women — to lead. Craigie’s niece Cady, whose mother Debbie Zildjian is Craigie’s sister and was the head of human resources for more than 20 years (and is still actively involved with the company), is currently a board member preparing to take on the vice chair position.

As a child, Cady spent a lot of time at Zildjian. “I remember being in the office a lot,” she says, “and my sister and I would go to industry events, like trade shows and drum clinics. I have just always loved music — if I could go to a concert every night, I probably would.”

Cady was involved on and off at Zildjian over the years, interning in various capacities before working in the apparel industry. But once her daughters, now 11 and 14, were old enough, she was ready for her “third tenure back” and “jumped at the chance” to join the board in 2018.

“I always wanted to be part of Zildjian and help with the family legacy here,” Cady says, “so I’m pretty thrilled to be part of the team.”

During the company’s 400th anniversary year, Cady’s proud to represent the 15th Zildjian generation — getting involved with related initiatives and attending celebrations, which kicked off with a lively artists’ jam session at the New York City-based Cutting Room on January 31, 2023.

In preparing for her new role, Cady credits her aunt Craigie with aiding the transition.

“Craigie has been a long-time champion and supporter of my education and career,” Cady says. “She encouraged me to get my MBA a couple years ago. We do a lot of family business education and conferences together. She’s incredibly smart and strong, and I feel lucky to have her as my aunt and mentor.”

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“The communication is different when you’re talking to your sister versus if you’re talking to just a professional manager.”

Naturally, running a business with family comes with additional layers to navigate, but the Zildjians are seasoned pros by now.

“You have a series of dual relationships here,” Craigie explains. “I’ve worked all these years with my sister, and we’re colleagues, but the primary relationship is we’ve grown up as sisters, and we have those life experiences and so on. So the communication is different when you’re talking to your sister versus if you’re talking to just a professional manager.”

And working with family makes victories feel even more significant. “When we have an accomplishment, it’s something that we can really share because we’ve worked on it together,” Craigie says.

Determining where everyone’s skill set can shine is also key.

“Sometimes I feel like we’re like a little bit of a basketball team,” Cady says, “like Craigie and I are offense and my mom’s defense. And if we can let everyone find their path, it seems to work well for us.”

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“Innovation has always been one of our strengths, and that’s got to continue.”

As Zildjian considers the next set of centuries, the insight of its up-and-coming leaders will be crucial to its continuing success. “Each generation is charged with revitalizing the business,” Craigie says.

Growing a business, no matter how storied, is always a challenge, but staying up to date with changes and trends within the industry can make all the difference — though, of course, it’s not always easy.

“Aspects of the business are changing rapidly,” Cady says. “I favor the artist-relations side of the business and keeping up with the spaces. The artists are making and sharing music on different platforms, [which] is challenging for us.”

But Cady says she’s lucky to have “a 14-year-old who’s as obsessed with music as [she is],” which helps her remain in the know when it comes to happenings on TikTok, YouTube and Twitch. (Both of Cady’s daughters are also musicians with “the drive and personality” to potentially thrive in the business themselves one day as 16th-generation leaders).

Today, 400 impressive and influential years later, Zildjian has several new ventures in the works — and its new head of ventures is also a woman.

Innovation has always been one of our strengths,” Craigie says, “and that’s got to continue.”

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