Sweetwater’s Chuck Surack (center) holds his facility’s
Platinum LEED certification plaque. Flanking Surack are
Ft. Wayne Mayor Tom Henry and Elizabeth Ellis, Director
of the Indiana chapter of the U.S. Green Building Alliance.By Frank Wells.
Ft. Wayne, IN--Sweetwater celebrated its 30th anniversary by throwing itself a party in June, inviting customers to a homecoming called GearFest '09—the second of this series of events in its $35-million new facility since it opened last year. Fort Wayne mayor Tom Henry was on hand, quipping, “Chuck has been such a significant part of the growth and progress of the city of Ft. Wayne, that quite frankly I’m getting rather tired of giving him proclamations,” before presenting Sweetwater founder and owner Chuck Surack with a proclamation acknowledging Sweetwater’s success as the world’s third-largest MI and Pro Audio retailer and further commending the many ways Sweetwater has shared that success with its community.
Sweetwater’s new “green” facility, already LEED certified, was presented with a Platinum LEED certification by the U.S. Green Building Council at a GearFest opening event. The showcase building is one of only two Platinum LEED certified buildings in Indiana, and one of only 100 or so facilities nationwide.
Surack told Pro Sound News that even in these recessionary times, Sweetwater is doing well, as evidenced by this year's expanded GearFest. “Last September,” says Surack, "I met with the whole sales department and I said ‘I’m just not going to participate in the recession, so we’re going to choose to drive through it’ and that’s what we’re doing. We’re taking on some lines and categories, and we’re just really laser-beam focused on the core things that we’re good at.” Extended lines at Sweetwater include drums, a new category for the retailer, and product lines like API. Last year, when touring the new facility, Surack revealed to PSN that the modern warehouse contained $8 million worth of inventory that didn’t just sit on the shelf; the inventory turned over roughly every 30 days. “Now it’s more like 9 1/2 [million],” said Surack, “it’s roughly the same [turnover], still about every 30 days.”
Every inch of the Sweetwater facility and much of its campus was used for GearFest '09 (which Surack likens to “bringing NAMM to Ft. Wayne”) featured greatly expanded (over last year’s GearFest) manufacturer presence in tents outside the main facility and various rooms used for presentations and tutorials. Sweetwater’s Director of Program Development, Christopher Guerin, said this year's two d-y event (another first) drew more attendees (“registration was way up, with customers traveling from as far away as Italy”), more vendors (“we had to add tent space to accommodate the additional vendors”), and with everything Sweetwater carries on sale during GearFest, “sales were up, too.” Surack told PSN that extending the event to two days was in part a recognition to the contributions of the various vendors: “For the work that all the reps do to put the thing together, I think it’s nice to spread it out a little bit.” GearFest sessions were streamed live online, and video will be posted online at sweetwater.com over the next few weeks (some is already online on YouTube).
Even though he admits it’s more work to succeed in the current economy, Surack says that Sweetwater is still successful and growing. “We anticipate even before GearFest that this month--and we only have a few days left in this month--[will] exceed last year’s 'this month,'” he confides. “I can’t tell you every month this year has been that way, but it’s fine. I haven’t had to lay anybody off and we’re truly investing in the future. We’ve hired a bunch of new people--a lot of new sales people, a couple new people in the marketing department, we hired Tom Menrath…Tom is working on a special project for us.” Menrath was formerly head of GC Pro, but Surack would not be baited into revealing whether that provided a hint as to his activities for Sweetwater. “Probably early fall, it’ll make sense. But it’s something that will help us get to the next level, use his expertise and kind of capitalize on the synergy we already have going. We’re real excited to have him on board.”
Surack says he was “very fortunate” and “fortunate to have some really good people” around him when reflecting on Sweetwater’s 30 years of success. He says that actually, “as the ball got rolling, it became easier and easier.” While there were plenty of naysayers in the early days, from manufacturers to bankers, Surack’s model for Sweetwater has undeniably stood the test of time. Some of those same early naysayers are now, says Surack, “reinventing history” to tie themselves to Sweetwater’s success and growth. As for the next 30 years, the Sweetwater campus now includes 70 acres, allowing “plenty of room to grow.
“I’m very blessed, I’m very fortunate and thrilled that the model seems to work; it’s got legs and now I love what I do and I’m here every day. It’s a passion for me, but I’m also thinking really hard about longterm to make sure it’s really right,” he adds, for Sweetwater’s employees, customers, business partners and his own family.