Chuck Surack launched his instrument sales empire from his Volkswagen bus, the same one he used as a 4-track recording studio four decades ago. Over that time, Sweetwater has ballooned into a $619 million per year operation.
Boy Scout’s Code
I grew up as a Boy Scout. A Boy Scout learns that they’re trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, clean, brave and reverent. Those are great principles to live by personally and great principles to run a business by. I make every employee hear me talk about those values.
We’re not really interested in whether we make money on this sale or that transaction. We’re interested in doing the right thing. And we’ve found that over time if you do the right thing you get referrals, repeat business and the money eventually comes. But that’s not what drives me. What drives me is doing the right thing for the customer.
I always want to treat people the way I’d want to be treated. I always wanted to give extra value to the customer. And that value is things like the knowledge and understanding of the products and helping the customer fulfill their dreams and aspirations.
It’s also value in the form of [how] every keyboard we sell includes an extra bank of sounds that you only get from Sweetwater. If you buy a guitar from us, it goes through our 55-point quality-control check. We do high-quality pictures that nobody else does. We offer a two-year warranty for free on everything we sell. We have free technical support. That’s extra value that we offer.
Before our sales engineers ever talk to a customer, we put them through 13 weeks of Sweetwater University. That’s eight hours a day, 300 classes, taught by 80 teachers. We teach them about products, how to work our information system and most importantly how to develop a relationship with a customer. I can’t have them on the phones until they know what they’re talking about.
It started very informally. We used to meet at a restaurant every Tuesday and Thursday morning. There were six of us and as the program grew we brought in teachers and put more of a program and agenda together.
Sweetwater U is divided into three parts. One is learning to work our customer information system. That’s where we track everything about the customer, down to birth dates, dog names, children’s names, spouse’s name, dreams and aspirations. Another third is how to develop a relationship and more traditional sales techniques. The final third is learning products. Stuff is changing quickly, so we want to make sure there are no holes in your knowledge. You might’ve been a live sound guy, but I need to make sure you can sell guitars as well as keyboards, drums and lighting equipment.
We want sales engineers to develop relationships with the end-users. The end-user gets very loyal to their sales engineer. The sales engineer becomes a friend who’s helping you with your system and making sure we’re getting toward fulfilling your dreams. And when something new comes in, my sales engineers know you and your studio well enough to call and say, hey, I just got this microphone or guitar and it’d be great in your set-up. Customers love getting those calls.
We have some pretty nice amenities that make everybody feel good about working here. It’s also an incredible recruiting tool when people see the racquetball court or the health club or the full-time doctor or the kitchen/food eating area, the theater… There’s nothing else like that in the music industry.
It’s also good for our community. We have hundreds of people in our building every day and they have access to the same stuff. We don’t charge for any of that other than the food, of course. It’s a great way to give back to our community, the employees and our customers.
When I was designing the building, I told my architects I wanted to do a slide. We found a company that specialized in slides and the next thing my architect says is we’re going to have to tell the attorney. The attorney says we can’t do a slide. It’s too dangerous. I said I want to do a slide. Then he says everybody’s going to sign a release. I said we’re not going to have people sign a release. That’s ridiculous. Anyway, the slide’s been there for about six years. Nobody’s been hurt on it and people love it.
Looking For Work?
We’re looking for anybody technical who has a strong music technology background; we’re always looking to train more sales engineers. We’re also looking for marketing folks and IT people. Even in our IT area most of them are musicians. The guy who runs the department is a phenomenal drummer. Musicians like working around other musicians. You can apply at our website or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
We [record] lots of local musicians. Sometimes they’ll do the basic recordings at home and bring them in for us to mix or master. But the other thing we use our studios for is to bring artists in and do a one- to three-day seminar. We call these Master Classes. We’ve had everybody from Gene Simmons just last month to Peter Erskine, a very famous jazz drummer. We use the studios for a lot of fun stuff like that.
We’re filled to our ears with inventory. Last year, I added a 40,000 square foot addition. We have four attached warehouses that account for about 140,000 square feet and they’re filled from floor to ceiling. We broke ground about three months ago on a new distribution center. It’ll take two years to build and be 400,000 square feet.
A lot of manufacturers that used to only sell one or two things have diversified and if you want to be a full supplier to your customers you’ve got to basically carry everything they sell. Fortunately, we’ve got the economy of scale working for us. We’ve got so much business that if I don’t sell it today it’ll sell tomorrow or next week. Nothing is in our building for more than 30 days.
Guitars Done Right
You don’t really know an instrument until you’ve had it in your hands. One thing we’ve pioneered is our guitar gallery. Seventeen years ago, I didn’t sell any guitars. I came up with this idea that we would quality control check every guitar we sell. We would take high-quality pictures so the customer can see it online. You can see the weight, serial number, wood grain…
You buy that guitar from us and the next morning we call and say thank you for the business. By the way, did you want some extra strings? Do you need picks? Do you need a case? And you can play it in your home where you don’t have to worry about the noise in a store and make sure you really like it. If you don’t, we’ll gladly take it back.
Accessibility and Ownership
We really do care. I’m not saying other stores don’t, but [customers] can actually call and reach me. I answer all my own emails. I return phone calls. Sweetwater may be big, but we’re still a human company with real humans behind it.
And I’m not driven by a venture capital firm or other investors. It’s owned 100% by me and my wife. We get to make the decisions we think make sense for our customers and our employees.