How Sweetwater Beat The Pandemic Odds

Illustration by Curt Merlo

IT WAS LATE March 2020, and Chuck Surack, the 62-year-old millionaire founder of Sweetwater Sound Inc., was, in many ways, back to where he started. After 41 years of building his Fort Wayne–based company from a mobile recording studio stationed in his VW bus into the largest online retailer of musical instruments and pro audio equipment in the U.S., he was back on the warehouse floor, fulfilling orders and packing boxes by hand. He was reporting to work at 4 a.m. and finishing up after 11 p.m.

Not that Surack would’ve gotten much sleep if he had been at home. Like every other business owner at the time, he was sick with worry about the economic uncertainty brought on by COVID-19. Surack’s situation was particularly tenuous. Due to the company’s rapid growth, Sweetwater had just opened a new 580,000-square-foot distribution center that February and stuffed it with merchandise. When the worsening pandemic led Gov. Eric Holcomb to keep workers at home and essentially shut down the economy, Surack worried that he would be left with millions of dollars of inventory gathering dust on his brand-new warehouse shelves. “I was somewhere between panicked and trying to inspire those around me,” says Surack. “My wife and 13-year-old daughter both worked the warehouse. We were going to ship what we could ship. Failure was not an option.”

Surack did not fail. In fact, the same pandemic that kept millions of workers housebound did the same for musicians and hobbyists who, coupled with Sweetwater’s unique way of building relationships with its customers, led to a record year for Surack’s business. All told, the company did $1.1 billion in business in 2020, a 40 percent boost from the previous year. And with the end of lockdowns and the return of concerts, festivals, and touring bands in sight, Surack believes Sweetwater is poised to emerge from this potential catastrophe stronger than ever.

As a businessman, Surack is used to having his optimism rewarded. When he was 5 years old and decided to sell handmade potholders to neighbors in small-town Waverly, Ohio, he sewed thousands of them—and sold each one for 15 cents apiece. The family soon moved closer to his mother’s parents in Fort Wayne, where he went to school and learned to play saxophone and keyboards. Music became his passion, but as soon as he was able, he hit the road to turn it into a profession, gigging six nights a week. When that wasn’t quite paying the bills, Surack outfitted the Volkswagen van his parents had given him as a portable four-track recording studio and parked it outside of any school, church, or nightclub that wanted to preserve a performance. Eventually, he moved the studio into a split-level house on the west side of Fort Wayne. Sweetwater Sound was born.

In 1985, Surack attended a trade show for the National Association of Music Merchants, where he discovered the Kurzweil K250, the first electronic device to produce sounds from samples of other instruments. Always a bit of a techie, Surack reverse engineered the machine and designed his own catalog of sounds. He became so proficient with the K250 that he was brought on to contribute to albums for artists such as Stevie Wonder, Aerosmith, and Dolly Parton. He also became a Kurzweil reseller. Soon, the retail side of business eclipsed the recording studio.

In the mid-1990s, Sweetwater was like many other local music stores—except for two key differences. First, due to Surack being an early adopter of technology, the company became one of the first to put up a website., registered in 1994, was simple but instantly gave the company a worldwide reach.

But online commerce was still in its infancy, meaning that most interstate business was done by phone. And that’s where Surack implemented his second innovation: the sales engineer. Unlike other music megastores and even some Mom-and-Pop shops, Sweetwater enlisted a crew of salespeople to build long-distance relationships with their customers. Rather than just filling orders, they tried to get to know the consumer, understand their individual needs, and direct them accordingly. If an instrument or piece of equipment didn’t quite satisfy that need, the buyer could send it back for something else, often free of charge. “When you go to Amazon or even some local stores, they give you a price and you can either buy it or not buy it,” says Surack. “You call us, it’s ‘Hi, my name is Chuck. What are you trying to accomplish?’ Maybe we can help you do it better; maybe we can help you save money. Either way, if I sell you the right thing this time, you’ll be back and you’ll refer me to your friends.”

That philosophy has led to exponential growth. By 2006, Sweetwater had amassed a staff of 220 employees, enough to necessitate a new 44-acre corporate campus, replete with office space, a distribution center, a recording studio, and a performance theater that hosts the annual GearFest, a free two-day festival welcoming hundreds of customers, manufacturers, and artists. So when COVID-19 confined all of those musicians to their homes, many were happy to get a call from their friendly Sweetwater sales engineer asking how the company could send them gear to help them pass the time. Surack says they added 800,000 new clients during the pandemic, from musicians splurging on a new guitar to churches looking to broadcast their services to podcasters finally investing in equipment to start their shows.

Surack eventually got off the warehouse floor, welcoming back all of his employees—and even hiring 100 more last fall. At one point, they were filling up to 20,000 orders per day. And business shows no signs of slowing down: Despite a record-smashing 2020, sales for the first quarter of 2021 were already up 50 percent from last year. “This is still a creative process,” says Surack. “But I love helping others produce music, making them sound better than they thought they could. I love helping people find their voice.”