At GearFest, the main mall of Sweetwater’s headquarters is home to the “DealZone,” an amply stocked assortment of bargain-priced merchandise and a prime stop for attendees.
Fort Wayne, IN (July 23, 2013)—Sweetwater Sound, the USA’s third largest retailer of music instruments and pro audio equipment, held its annual customer homecoming event, GearFest 2013, in June at the company’s headquarters. By the numbers, some 200 manufacturers participated, filling 12 outdoor tents; more than 140 workshops and seminars were held; $54,000-plus in gear was given away; and some 7,000 attendees made the trek, up from 6,000 in 2012, with sales up by more than 36% over GearFest 2012. Presenters included record producer Jack Douglas, producer/engineer Frank Filipetti, mixer Chris Lord-Alge, live sound engineer Rick Camp, and many others. Videos of events are posted on Sweetwater’s Facebook and YouTube pages.
Sweetwater moved to its current location in 2006 with 200 employees, fully occupying the 150,000 square foot building in 2008 and growing to 550 employees today. Marketing and publications moved to an adjacent building a few years back, making room for the growing sales engineering team, now numbering over 200. The groundwork is complete for a new physical expansion to be completed in 2014, adding an additional 130,000 square feet of space, including new music training and conference areas, a second-floor balcony and a south concourse. The expansion will allow the staff to grow by an additional 1,000 individuals. The current Sweetwater retail store will be expanded in the current building.
“It’ll double the size of our warehouse,” elaborates Sweetwater founder and owner, Chuck Surack. “And more importantly than doubling the size, it’s going to change the way we use it. Right now, we’re going in and out seven or eight loading dock doors; incoming freight at the beginning of the day and outgoing freight [at day’s end] are going through the same doors.” With the new building, there will be dedicated entrance and exit freight doors and inventory can flow through the warehouse. “It’ll be more efficient,” says Surack. In 2008, the official grand opening year for the current building, Surack told Pro Sound News that the warehouse was 40 percent used and housed over $8 million in inventory that turned over roughly every 30 days. The current warehouse is, he says now, “filled to the gills” with more than $18 million in inventory, still with a less-than-30-day turnover. Sweetwater Sound has also added the Florida installation company, All Pro, to its corporate roster, with reportedly booming business.
Sweetwater is known for being generous with the fruits of its success, evidenced in recent months by Surack and his co-owner/wife Lisa pledging a $150,000 endowment to support music programs through Easter Seals Arc (ESA), securing the organization’s programs indefinitely. Immediate plans call for the upgrade of musical equipment used by 300 clients—ESA has eight new programs created in the last year for individuals with disabilities, from youth to adult, each program containing some music curriculum. Sweetwater is also participating in equipping the NOAA-developed Science On A Sphere exhibit at the Fort Wayne interactive science museum, Science Central.
“We love that we’re able to support the community both locally, and as much as we can, nationally,” says Surack. “We donated to over 400 organizations last year—literally millions of dollars,” says Surack, “and we support and sponsor virtually every event that’s going on in this community. And that’s kind of what we really set Sweetwater up to do is to be an economic engine to help people, to help our employees [with the Suracks generously celebrating with their employees at major life milestones like new homes and new children], to help the community, the region and the whole country. We support a lot of stuff all around the country.
For example, in Nashville, Sweetwater was the title sponsor of the studio-focused day of the two-day AudioMasters Benefit golf tournament for the fifth consecutive year, supporting an event that fills the coffers of the Nashville Engineer Relief Fund (NERF). While acknowledging that there are limits to what he can do, Surack says his company does “invest where we can.” Of NERF, he comments, “Those are our friends first and customers second. That’s a great organization. Being a pure recording engineer myself for many years, I understand what it’s like to not have benefits, and if you have something catastrophic happen, that’s life-changing.” Sweetwater also believes in education, demonstrated by its sponsorship of the AES Nashville Section’s annual Nashville Recording Workshop+Expo. It goes much further, Surack explains: “We support virtually every music department around this country—all the colleges and many, many, many high schools and fundraisers.
“I think it’s important to give back,” Surack continues. “I think that’s one of the things that our country was founded on—people doing things for others.” Surack says that Sweetwater tries to instill that giving culture in its employees. “We encourage them all to serve on boards and give back to their school, their church, other nonprofit organizations, that sort of thing. I teach my children that; if it makes a little difference, then I’m happy.”
Surack says he made the decision in 2008 “to not participate” in the recession, sitting his employees down and telling them “I’ve never laid a person off; I’m not about to lay a person off now. I don’t want you to worry about your job or things at home from anything to do with Sweetwater. And so, focus on what you do and we’ll go back and work on the basics here.” The brands sold were critiqued—some were dropped, some were added. Processes were examined and systems redesigned. A paperless office was achieved. For 35 years, including the 21st century recession years, Surack reports that “the bottom line of the company and the top line of the company are bigger than the year before,” from the humble beginnings out of the back of a VW bus to the massive, 14-acre campus of today, all built with a dedication to continuously improving and making things better.