Treating Others Well is Not Just Good for Your Employees: The Sweetwater Sound Story

Business Coaching

Chuck Surack is the founder and CEO of Sweetwater Sound in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the nation’s largest online retailer of musical instruments and pro audio gear. He’s a well-respected member of the community, not only because of the business he’s built and the culture he’s created but because of the unwavering way he treats his employees and his customers. Chuck has been recognized for the numerous ways he gives back through community service and philanthropy as well as his ability to convene business, civic, and non-profit leaders to address economic development opportunities that enhance the region.

My family-run business is about treating people well.

As a young touring musician, I started Sweetwater in my Volkswagen bus. Back then, my customers became my friends and some of those friends became employees. To this day, I’m very fortunate that some of my very best friends are ones who have been working in the company for a long time.

Treating your friends and family well happens to also be good for business. Why would I not want to treat others well? Why would I not want to have a great culture? What motivates me is treating people the way I want to be treated. We spend a lot of time at work, so why not make it as good as we can make it?

With GLS, I can have more positive influence than I thought possible.

 One of the most surprising things GLS has taught me on my leadership journey is that I can handle more, do more and have more influence than I ever thought possible. I didn’t go to college and yet I have multiple honorary doctorate degrees.

I founded Sweetwater 40 years ago with the simple intent of helping people make music. Though we have ultimately been incredibly successful, I have never been motivated by money. We’re helping fulfill the dreams of music makers all over the world, in their homes, studios, arenas, churches and schools. That’s part of my ministry and I’m humbled and thankful for the opportunities I’ve been given. With that success has come great responsibility and that’s why I am so passionate about giving back to others and leading by example.

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I use my position to encourage, influence and build others up.

In my position, I am fortunate to be able to encourage others, to influence them in positive ways and build them up. With 1,700 employees at Sweetwater and another 500 employed within the Sweet Family of Companies like Sweet Aviation, SweetCars, and Longe Optical, we can make a huge impact. I encourage employees to get involved by volunteering for non-profits, schools, neighborhood associations and churches. I’m so proud of them! They are genuinely good people who work to do the right thing and serve others. I’m continually motivated and inspired by the quality of people who choose to work here.

For my employees, I chose not to participate in the recession.

I have a firm belief that where there is a will there’s a way. During the 2008-2010 recession, I was on the board of a publicly traded bank and we were calling lots of loans due. General Motors filed for bankruptcy. Things were bleak for many.

I came in and pulled all the employees together, and said, “As arrogant as this sounds, I’m choosing to not participate in this recession. I’ve never laid anybody off and I’m not going to lay anybody off now. We just need to buckle down and do our jobs well.”

I didn’t want my employees being fearful, so giving them confidence in our company made them even more loyal and it motivated them to work even harder. They met challenges with excitement and energy. Our business has consistently grown year over year for 40 years, so we’ve proven that by taking care of each other, we are better equipped to take care of customers.

Success is about empowering people to do the right thing.

To us it’s simple—our overall motto is do the right thing. Every person in this company is empowered. In fact, I meet with all employees on their first day tell them that they have permission to do what it takes to do the right thing for colleagues and for customers. If that means replacing a keyboard or replacing a guitar or paying for someone’s Uber ride or buying their lunch, they’re empowered to do it, and they will never get into trouble for it. The only thing they’d get in trouble for is not doing it, and I really mean that.

I don’t like the idea of going into a store and hearing someone say, “Well, I have to talk to my manager.” That’s crazy! We interview our employees thoroughly before we hire them, making sure that their values align with ours and that they understand the expectation of always doing the right thing. Then we give them the resources they need to make the right decisions.

The Global Leadership Summit helps amplify and simplify these values.

I started coming to the Summit about eight years ago, back when it was hosted at Blackhawk Church in Fort Wayne. A couple of years later, it moved to a non-church, city-movement location downtown at our Grand Wayne Center.

When the talented speakers at the Summit talk about many of the same things we value, it’s very validating. A couple of years ago, Horst Schulze spoke about hospitality and customer service. Other speakers like Juliet Funt provided so much clarity on balance and performance. Craig Groeschel has been incredible. He is direct and intentional yet always kind and loving. There are many lessons to be learned from them.

We take several dozen people from our company to the Summit.

Having two days where you unplug and intentionally listen to some of the greatest leaders, teachers and speakers from around the world—if your mind is even half open—you can’t help but learn things from it. It has caused me to be more aware of my blind spots. It’s helped me to be more understanding and considerate, knowing we’re all different, but that we all have dreams and fears and aspirations.

We take several dozen people from our company to the Summit because it’s an inexpensive way to give them access to some of the world’s best leaders. It’s two days of diverse thinking, motivation and insight. The investment is so worth it, and I see the results. In the days, weeks and months after the Summit, we constantly work to bring those lessons to life.

No matter your level of leadership, attend the Summit!

I encourage anyone, no matter what level of leader you are, to attend the Summit. Anyone can be a leader, whether it’s in your 4H Club, Girl Scouts, church group, neighborhood association, your homes or some big Fortune 500 company. It’s not about being the boss. It’s about leading by example in a way that people want to follow and join in. When leaders get better, we all get better!


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