A billion dollar business. That’s what Fort Wayne-based music instrument and sound equipment company Sweetwater Sound Inc. is on track to becoming and Chuck Surack finds it amazing.
“I’ve never run a billion dollar company and neither have my employees,” says Surack. “I just want to make sure we’re prepared. It’s not necessarily a goal of ours to become a billion dollar company, but we keep growing. Every year, our top line and bottom line are better than the year before. It’s fun, but challenging at the same time.”
If you ask Surack what his secret is, he’ll tell you there’s not really one thing that led to his success. Instead, a multitude of factors have created amazing opportunity.
“Fort Wayne is a great place to live, to raise a family and to grow a business,” he says. “From a technical standpoint, Fort Wayne is in a great shipping location. You can reach 60 to 70 percent of the U.S. population very quickly because we’re in the Midwest. If you live in California, it can take days to reach your customers on the opposite side of the country. And the work ethic in this area is phenomenal. We have good, hard-working people with great morals. Plus, the community of Fort Wayne has been very supportive. They’re proud of us and that helps. There are a lot of little pieces to the puzzle that made it all work.”
Chuck and his wife, Lisa, are the sole owners of Sweetwater Sound Inc. There are no shareholders or venture capitalists involved. Over the years, that has allowed for greater flexibility and a focus on what Surack believes to be the most important part of running a successful business.
“Frankly, I’ve never chased the money,” he says. “There were many years when the money was very lean. My goal was always to do the right thing for our customers who are also our friends and to treat people the way I would want to be treated. I’m not saying that we’re perfect—we’re not. We’re human and we’ve made mistakes. But I would add, we always step up and do the right thing for the customer. I have found that if you treat people really well, the money will follow.”
Surack owns a number of other businesses, many of which he bought to save and create jobs.
He bought Longe Optical, the oldest eyeglass business in Fort Wayne, and saved 25 jobs.
Another example is SweetCars on West Jefferson Blvd. “I acquired the old Allen County Motors building about four years ago, remodeled it and started selling slightly used cars. Eventually, we brought in higher-end vehicles people wanted, but would have had to go to bigger cities to get, like Ferraris, Porsches and even exotic cars like the Lamborghini. SweetCars employs about a dozen people and is doing really well.”
He also saved Sweet Aviation at Smith Field from closure. The list of businesses he owns goes on and includes three other aviation businesses, as well as a lighting control systems business, Touche Lighting Control, located downtown.
“I love doing this and I have really great people running these businesses. I stay engaged enough to be able to support and direct, but it’s my employees who manage the day-to-day operations. They’re awesome.”
Surack is extremely grateful for his financial success, which is the driving force behind he and Lisa’s long list of philanthropic commitments.
“We’ve been very blessed and we love being able to give back. Last year, we helped 450 charities and donated $2 million. We’re not just involved through our money, but also with our time. I’ve served on numerous boards, including those for the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, Easter Seals, Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum and the Fort Wayne Philharmonic. We’re fortunate to be in the position that we’re in.”
Above all, Surack wants people to know that he’s just a regular guy.
“I feel bad when people don’t really know me and form an opinion about me and my wife. We’re normal, down-to-earth people who are incredibly blessed.”
Nobody could blame Chuck Surack if he were a so-called “name dropper,” but he’s not. The list of people he calls friends and regular customers is pretty impressive by anyone’s standards.
“I’ve been to Stevie Wonder’s studio. I’ve spent plenty of time hanging out with Kenny Rogers. Then there’s Thomas Dolby, REO Speedwagon, B.B. King … the list goes on and on.”
All of the above and dozens more know Surack through his ownership of Sweetwater Sound Inc. He says stars and people from all over the world come to Fort Wayne every day to visit his business on the city’s northwest side.
Surack himself plays saxophone in two bands. Primetime is a 3-person band that plays popular hit songs. They play at Don Hall’s Guesthouse at least once a month and at numerous local fundraising events.
The second band is called the Sweetwater All-Stars. “The players are all absolutely first string. We hired a bunch of musicians from Nashville. Our guitarist played with The Oak Ridge Boys for 23 years and our drummer used to play with Tears for Fears. It’s a rhythm and blues band and we play once a month at C2G Music Hall on West Baker Street.”
Owner(s): Chuck and Lisa Surack
Address: 5501 U.S. Highway 30 West Fort Wayne, Indiana 46818
Phone: (800) 222-4700
Years in Business: 36
Number of Employees: 800
Products & Services: Sweetwater is the No. 1 online retailer of music instruments and audio gear in the U.S.