Chuck Surack is no longer working out of a VW Microbus.
That’s where he started Sweetwater Sound nearly 30 years ago. Today, as a major retail player with annual sales in excess of $125 million, Sweetwater is cultivating the fruits of their labor into what is amongst the most cutting-edge – and most ecologically friendly – business headquarters in the music and sound products industry.
The 180,000-square-foot campus in Ft. Wayne, Ind. is centered on a 44-acre spread of land, and includes some pretty spiffy amenities: a health club and racquetball court; a free game and recreation area including a $15,000 video golf simulator; full-service print shop; ATM; DVD lending library; and full-time concierge service. And to complete the country club aspect, what about those guys cooking in their kitchen?
Well, they were hired away from a country club.
Costing in excess of $35 million, the facility also includes a retail shop, three recording studios, and a 250-seat state-of-the-art auditorium/performance theater with four separate sound systems to accommodate everything from simple lectures to full-blown ensemble performances.
Most important to Surack is that it is the “greenest” facility in northern Indiana, and perhaps the entire industry.
It All Adds Up
Here’s a riddle: why would a business owner build a new facility that seems to be more concerned with his employees’ golf handicap and making sure they have a movie to watch at night than the proverbial bottom line?
The answer comes in two parts.
“The company is 29 years old and we’ve shown a profit every year, and …. well, we could do this …” Surack replies. “But the real reason we’ve done this is because of our employees. Everyone says his or her employees are number-one, but I think we’ve proven we mean it. This new facility makes it really nice for all of us. You should see it when the kids are off school – they are brought here to the dining room, and play ping-pong in the game room!” The food from the dining facility is tasty fare served at below average cost (meals are partially subsidized by the company). Even this has economic and ecological benefits: by providing quality food for his 325 employees on site, Surack points out hundreds of gallons of gas is being saved a week, as there is less need to drive five or 10 minutes to lunch and back.
Surack knows that turnover is expensive, and recruiting top talent is a key component to a successful, growing company. Walking through the opening doors, let alone the entire building, the facility is an obviously tantalizing to those already working there or those being considered for a position within the organization.
“And it makes it nice for our customers, our community,” Surack adds.
Others might shrug off Ft. Wayne as a small market, but Chuck Surack has opened his doors to his corporate home, offering the local population access to the auditorium, launching a lessons program, and having expanded on their retail operation tradition. “We do a lot of local business, and have been here a long time, so showing that we’re very much part of the community is important.”
Acoustician/studio designer Russ Berger designed the auditorium and three recording studios. Right now the auditorium is mostly used for twice-weekly sales meetings, but it’ll be used for live concerts as well. Outside organizations, such as the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, will be able to perform at the facility. Employees with spouses who teach music are able to use it for recitals. Big screens and six high-definition cameras allow the audience to see close-ups of the performers.
The on-site retail store has been expanded and improved from the previous location, and is stocked with Sweetwater’s best-selling items. “We sell $6 million worth of products annually, which is pretty good for community of 250,000 people,” Surack says. “And we hired a trained professional to set up a teaching program, and have a dozen teachers working out of our new studio. In addition to music lessons, we’ll be doing sessions on how to use Pro Tools, Apple’s Garage Band, and so on. Mom and Dad can bring Johnny in for lessons, then sit in our cafeteria and use our Wi-Fi on their laptops while they wait.”
The three recording studios are available for rent and used for jingles and local projects, but also act as a merchandising opportunity. The studios designed so customers can go through it and see all the microphones set up, for example.
“The theater, store, teaching facility, and recording studio are pretty amazing when taken together,” he says. “The sum of the parts is much bigger than the pieces.”
‘A Lot of Fun’
Surack moved from working out of his Volkswagen van to working out of his home and operated that way until 1990. Then, with five employees working with him, he moved into what seemed huge: a 5,000 square foot facility. “This would be great!” he recalls thinking.
In a single year, the company doubled sales to $12 million, though, and that seemingly cavernous space quickly became a shoebox. Surack added another 5,000 square feet, then another 10,000, and kept expanding through the years as much as he could. Three years ago he was all set to bump it beyond 50,000 square feet … but his finger hesitated on the trigger.
“It was literally the eleventh hour,” he sighs. “Right before they turned dirt, I called it off.”
By the fall of 2005, he found 44 acres of land and bought it. In May of 2006 Sweetwater broke ground. In between, there was a blank piece of paper.
“Unless you’ve been down this path, you don’t know how unusual it is to have a clean slate,” Surack notes. “We were fortunate, and I’m glad the company was doing so well that I could step aside and work on just this. John Hopkins, my vice president of operations, and I have worked almost exclusively on this since the fall of 2005… this has been our full time job! We have good managers, fortunately, who allowed us to dedicate that time.
“And it was a lot of fun.”
The process would spur more than the deciding of where to put what offices and what bathrooms, and provided them the opportunity to rethink how they do business. Everything from how people walk into the front of the building to how products were shipped out the back was reevaluated. Some aspects were changed a lot; some hardly at all. But every aspect was at least re-tuned.
LEED Honors Follow
One aspect that was given priority was ecological implications. Here again, it was a case of doing what is “right” also making good business sense. The U.S. Green Building Council has named the Sweetwater operation the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) facility in the region. The certification process rates the site in regard to water efficiency, energy, atmosphere treatment, materials and resources used, the indoor environment, and overall innovation in the design.
“This approach is more popular on the coasts, and it does take special engineering,” he explains. “But the small things add up.” Examples are that 92 percent of the employees get natural light via windows and skylights, which leads to significant energy savings. Urinals in bathrooms are non-flushing, saving 400,000 gallons of water a year. Walls and carpet are furnished with non-petroleum products. Bamboo, the most rapid-growing wood in the world, was used for flooring whenever possible. “Funny thing about it all, I can’t tell you I approached it specifically from a ‘green’ stance – it always had to make business sense,” Surack admits.
It has in turn paid a huge public relations dividend: Groups come far and wide for tours of the building, and Surack takes great delight in personally serving as tour master.
“Everyone is raving about the look and how we designed it, and its influence is really extending beyond the industry … it’s a rags-to-riches story that can only happen in America, and a far cry from when I was working out of my VW bus!”