40 years in, Sweetwater Sound still brings the music

Founder and CEO Chuck Surack on helping musicians new and old get through the pandemic

The current coronavirus shutdown has house-bound folks turning toward diversions. Some are binge baking (if they can find flour and yeast), while others are picking up their musical instruments. That’s a resonating sound for one independent music retailer that sees its sweet spot somewhere between Amazon and the local music store.

Professional musician Chuck Surack founded Sweetwater Sound in 1979. It’s now one of the largest online retailers of audio equipment and musical instruments (147,000 guitars sold in 2019) in the United States. The first location was a mobile recording studio doing business from a 1966 VW microbus in his hometown of Fort Wayne, Ind. Today Sweetwater sits on 166 acres in Fort Wayne and employs sales engineers, marketing and merchandising teams, back office and support staff.

Sweetwater Studios and Academy of Music & Technology provides lessons to students of all ages. The company also sponsors GearFest, a two-day event that takes place in and around Sweetwater Performance Pavilion, an onsite outdoor venue. In June 2019, more than 17,000 attendees had access to nearly 500 vendors and manufacturers and could take part in 81 live workshops and seminars hosted by 72 of the biggest names in the music industry.

These days Sweetwater’s sales engineers are working remotely to offer a high level of service and product advice. The company’s newly expanded 480,000-square-foot distribution center, opened in February, is now operating at near capacity.

Folks are turning to music, possibly for the first time to learn an instrument. What are you seeing?

We are seeing more customers picking up instruments for the first time or different — new to them — instruments. Recently a dentist friend of mine reached out to let me know he bought his first guitar because he’s always wanted to play and now has the time. We’re also seeing a lot more customers buying into technology for making their own productions like podcasts or videos. This is the case all over the country, not just one particular region.

Founder and CEO Chuck Surack, Sweetwater
Sweetwater Founder and CEO Chuck Surack

Sweetwater also supplies churches and institutions. Can you speak to any recent trends there?

Churches especially scrambled quickly to shift their services online and, as a result, sales of microphones, interfaces, cameras and related production equipment have all seen a significant uptick. Our team got out in front of things when the situation in China developed, which is where a large number of these products come from. We increased orders before China shut down, which enabled us to be in a better position to fill customers’ orders without delay.

How many packages are going out the door?

We’re shipping between 10,000 and 12,000 packages daily. That’s up about 8 percent over this time last year. Our distribution center which is allowed to be open is pretty darn functional. We’re at 95 percent capacity with our employees who are comfortable working (during this time) along with temporary warehouse help.

What’s your typical day like now?

My days are not typical right now. I’ve been working at the distribution center, as has my wife and my daughter. We needed as much physical labor as we could get. So along with family and as many friends who feel comfortable (working there), we’re out there packing and shipping boxes.

I’m running from about 4:30 in the morning to 9 or 10 at night in the distribution center, along with other members of our leadership team. I have to say after the first week, my feet and my back hurt, and my hands were cut up from using a utility knife. It’s given me an amazing respect for the people who do it for us every day.

Service has been foundational to Sweetwater’s success and it’s known for a relationship-based consultative sales team. Could you tell us how you’re handling?

While I wouldn’t exactly characterize our current workflow as “business as usual,” the way we engage with and help customers every day hasn’t changed. It’s at the core of who we are and what we do. Our philosophy puts relationships above sales, and it’s been in place since I founded Sweetwater in 1979. Back then, my goal was to help my friends make music.

Today, that’s still the goal — we just happen to have millions of friends. That foundation is what has allowed us to continue to provide the same level of customer service even during these trying and unprecedented times. We sell 50,000 products and they all inter-relate and interconnect, so you really need advice. Our sales engineers can help a customer figure out how to use an Apple computer with a specific software and a specific interface, with their Les Paul guitar.

Are most sales employees working from home?

With few exceptions, the sales team members are working from home. We’re routing calls and texts to their mobile devices and we’ve implemented technology that speeds up access to our proprietary systems. It may not be quite as efficient as when we’re all in the office, but we’ve been able to adapt and pivot quickly to provide the same level of service our customers have come to expect.

Having many team members work remotely has been key to keeping the business running, but we are looking forward to getting back together in the same building. We believe there’s something very beneficial about being together in a space where we can share knowledge, better collaborate, and develop camaraderie.

Are you working on a reopening plan?

I wouldn’t go so far as to say we’re making plans because it’s so hypothetical right now. But I listen to our governor every day to learn how and when we might.

Before the global shutdown, you were an active musician playing saxophone and keyboards at about 70 gigs each year, right?

I play with two bands — PrimeTime and the Sweetwater All Stars. Most of the gigs are local so we don’t do a lot of traveling, but I do miss getting up on stage with my fellow bandmates. As much as possible, I still pick up my saxophone and play. It’s a great outlet and escape for me.

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