What it takes to keep a 400-year-old family business at the top


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

Considered the “gold standard” by many in the industry, the company dates back to the palace of the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire, where Avedis Zildjian was on a mission to create real gold in 1618.

Zildjian’s attempt failed, but he managed to formulate a secret alloy perfect for making cymbals – so much so that it’s still used in Zildjian cymbals today. The discovery of the alchemist also caused quite a stir in its day: in 1623 the Sultan gave Avedis the family name “Zildjian”, which means “cymbal smith” in Armenian, and the rest was literally history.

Over the next 400 years, Zildjian built its reputation as a trusted manufacturer. Classical composers began incorporating cymbals into their work, as did European military bands in the 17th century and orchestras in the 18th century.

However, the future of the company became uncertain when Avedis became a descendant Aram Zildjian had to flee from Turkey in 1910 due to political upheavals. He opened a second Zildjian factory in Bucharest but eventually returned to his home country.

By 1927, Aram’s nephew Avedis III, the only male in direct line of succession, was more than 5,000 miles away in the US and had a successful candy business of his own – and had no interest in returning to Turkey.

Current CEO and President Craigie Zildjian narrates entrepreneur that although the company would not have a female executive for almost another century, “if it hadn’t been for it, it might not have had its 400th anniversary [her] Nana Sally,” who suggested the “romantic history” of the 300-year-old family business could continue with her and Avedis III’s own sons.

And of course it did: Aram came to the US to help his nephew establish the first Zildjian cymbal foundry in America; The company was founded in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1929 when the jazz era was beginning. (For her contribution to the preservation of the company, Sally became the first woman to be honored with her own collection of cymbals, the “S” line).

Now, for the first time in the cymbal manufacturer’s expansive history, women are officially at the helm – continuing the company’s centuries of success and positioning it as an innovation leader for the future.

entrepreneur met with Craigie and her niece, Cady Zildjian, current Executive Vice President, to discuss their experiences as the first women in the family business and how they are preserving its legacy.

Also see: How NFTs will disrupt the music industry

Photo credit: Courtesy of Zildjian

Cady, center, and her mother, Debbie, right

“[People were] literally questioned whether the company would be able to continue this kind of performance.”

Growing up, Craigie didn’t think she would work in the family business – no woman had done that before.

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 come into being.”

Craigie worked with her grandfather for three years and with her father for eight years at Zildjian before he died, “doing everything together,” then stepping into the role of CEO in 1990. Yet, despite her birthright and experience, outsiders have expressed reservations about her ability to lead.

“A lot of people, not internally but externally, were expecting big changes and looking for missteps and so on,” explains Craigie. “And I found that strange. [People were] literally questioned whether the company would be able to continue that kind of performance as an industry leader.”

Of course, those fears were completely unfounded: for more than three decades Craigie has led Zildjian to success and secured its place as a premier instrument maker of cymbals, drumsticks, mallets and alternative instruments.

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

Now, as Zildjian looks to the future, it is preparing its next generation – of women – to lead the company. Craigie’s niece Cady, whose mother is Debbie Zildjian Craigie’s sister and was Head of Human Resources for more than 20 years (and is still actively involved with the company), is currently Executive Vice President of the Board.

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

Cady has been involved with Zildjian on and off over the years, completing internships in various roles before working in the apparel industry. But when her daughters, now 11 and 14, were old enough, she was ready for her “third term back” and “chance jumped at the chance” to join the board in 2018.

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

In the company’s 400th anniversary year, Cady is proud to represent the 15th generation of Zildjian – to get involved in related initiatives and participate in celebrations culminating on January 31, 2023 with a lively artist jam session in the cutting room in New York City began.

In preparing for her new role, Cady credits her Aunt Craigie with helping with the transition.

“Craigie has been a longtime advocate and supporter of my education and career,” says Cady. “She encouraged me to do my MBA a few years ago. We host many family business trainings and conferences together. She is incredibly smart and strong and I am fortunate to have her as my aunt and mentor.”

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

Of course, running a business with family comes with additional layers, but the Zildjians are seasoned professionals by now.

“They have a number of dual relationships here,” Craigie explains. “I’ve worked with my sister all these years and we’re colleagues but the primary relationship is that we grew up as sisters and we have these life experiences and so on. So the communication is different if it’s talking to your sister or just talking to a professional manager.”

And working with family makes victories feel even more meaningful. “When we achieve something, we can really share it because we worked on it together,” says Craigie.

It’s also crucial to determine where each person’s skills can shine.

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

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“Innovation has always been one of our strengths and it must remain so.”

As Zildjian ponders the next few centuries, the insights of his rising leaders will be critical to his continued success. “Each generation is charged with reviving the business,” says Craigie.

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

“Aspects of the business change quickly,” says Cady. “I prefer the artist relationship side of the business and keep up with the spaces. The artists make and share music on different platforms, [which] is a challenge for us.”

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

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

“Innovation has always been one of our strengths,” says Craigie, “and it has to stay that way.”

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