Sweetwater: Hitting all the right notes
The Indiana-based company found its business groove in the back of a VW bus. Now, Sweetwater is one of the leading online retailers of audio equipment and musical instruments.
Since its humble beginnings in 1979 as a mobile recording studio, Sweetwater has grown into a leading online retailer of musical instruments and pro audio gear. It’s now a billion-dollar company with millions of customers and thousands of employees.
Founder and Chairman Chuck Surack was looking for ways to bring the “Sweetwater Difference” to even more customers. So he turned to J.P. Morgan for ideas.
Sweetwater had worked with J.P. Morgan’s Commercial Banking team for years, most recently providing merchant services and credit syndication. When it came time to find an outside investor, Sweetwater chose the firm’s Corporate & Investment Bank to serve as its exclusive financial adviser. J.P. Morgan used its expertise in the retail industry—and its knowledge of disruptive commerce companies—to help Sweetwater secure an investment from Providence Equity Partners.
Here, Surack talks about starting his company in a Volkswagen bus, why customer service is so important and what he looks for in a strategic partner.
How did you come up with the idea for Sweetwater?
I play saxophone and keyboards, and I went on the road as a musician for about five years when I was younger. I came back home in 1979 with a little bit of equipment that I had acquired. I didn’t know what I was going to do, and I started a recording studio out of my old VW bus in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Of course, all of my friends would say, “Fort Wayne? You need to be in Nashville. You need to be in Los Angeles. You need to be in New York.” But I didn’t know any better.
What are some of the lessons you learned taking Sweetwater from a one-man operation to an e-commerce giant?
It’s really all about the people, whether it’s the people who work for you or work with you. Whether it’s your customers or vendors, it’s all about doing the right thing for people. And we always treat our customers great.
I want to make sure when a customer opens the box, it’s a “wow” experience. Heaven forbid, if they get a guitar or something else and they don’t like it, I’ll take it back. I’m interested in a long-term, repeat relationship and the referrals that we get taking care of a customer.
Talk a little bit about your relationship with J.P. Morgan.
We’ve worked with J.P. Morgan for years, and they’ve helped us build our future by really understanding our business. They came out and learned our company, learned what was important to us and learned how we wanted to grow.
I never thought I would take an investor into Sweetwater. It was my company—my baby—for over 40 years. But I wanted to make sure the company could continue to grow. So we started looking for a financial adviser and landed on J.P. Morgan, who helped us find Providence Equity Partners.
And how has that been?
I’m so thankful that we were able to find investors who have the same values as us. Providence has been great, and I’m sure over time we’ll become very good friends. It’s been a great experience.
Chuck Surack, Founder and Chairman of Sweetwater
Sweetwater has grown their team of sales engineers to nearly 600 and is in the process of opening their first distribution center outside of their Fort Wayne headquarters. The new 350,000-square-foot facility, located in Glendale, Arizona, will hire as many as 165 positions and is scheduled to open in October 2022.
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