KEVIN LEININGER: Growth of local corporate leadership is good for Fort Wayne, as Sweetwater proved again this week

Sweetwater studio manager Chet Chambers, left,, discusses a studio project with founder Chuck Surack in 2005. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
Kevin Leininger

The $76 million, 1,000-employee expansion announced this week by Sweetwater Sound could have happened in Las Vegas, California or any other trendy locale looking for a lot of glitzy entertainment-related jobs with a lot of money to spend. Instead, Fort Wayne will be the beneficiary — in large part this is home for company founder and President Chuck Surack, and he intends to keep it that way.

“We get offers (to move or expand elsewhere) all the time; more than we got from Indiana (this time),” Surack said, referring to the $8.8 million in tax credits and $200,000 in training grants Sweetwater’s latest expansion will receive from the Indiana Economic Development Corp. “Las Vegas has offered us free rent; and a warehouse on the West Coast could serve some of our customers faster. But I like the culture in our company, and I don’t think we could be as ‘Sweetwater’ anywhere else as we are here.”

Surack, a former itinerant saxophone player who started what is now a $619 million-a-year music and audio business in the back of a Volkswagen van 39 years ago, is the embodiment of something I’ve been writing about for decades: the need for home-grown and home-controlled businesses, and their obligation to reinvest in the community that created and sustains them.

Surack agrees with that assessment, and has backed it up with more than words: In addition to Sweetwater his local business holdings include a luxury auto dealership, an aviation business and Longe optical. He and wife Lisa also invested more than $1 million in the restoration of the Clyde Theatre, and Sweetwater’s annual charitable contributions total about $3.5 million. And because the couple owns 100 percent of Sweetwater, Surack said, that mutually beneficial relationship between corporation and community will continue indefinitely — no matter how “sweet” offers from out-of-town suitors may become.

That sentiment isn’t entirely altruistic, of course, as Surack acknowledged when he said that “in a perfect case, businesses would be local. In a less-perfect case, they would recognize the value of staying in Fort Wayne.” The relatively low cost of living in Fort Wayne means more spending power for employees — and lower costs for employers like Sweetwater.

But Surack said Fort Wayne offers another value that is equally important but less tangible: a quality of life that, until relatively recently, was not exactly a recruitment tool. Politicians deserve some of the credit for that positive change in Fort Wayne’s image, but so do Surack and other local business leaders.

“When I was on the road as a musician in the ’70s, if you would say you were from Fort Wayne they’d think Fort Worth,” he said. “With (Parkview Field) and other things, it’s gotten easier in the last 10 years to get people to come to Fort Wayne.” Sweetwater’s U.S. 30 campus, home since 2006, also helps, he said, because “Nobody has a music store like ours.”

RELATED: $76 million expansion to create 1,000 jobs at Sweetwater Sound

But campus might not exist at all, and be positioned for still more growth, if not for the ability of Sweetwater’s local leadership team to spot an opportunity and move quickly to seize it. In 2005, then-Allen County Sheriff Jim Herman wanted to buy the former North American Van Lines property for about $2.8 million and relocate some of his departments there. But when the county failed to act, Surack did.

The county’s loss was the community’s gain.

When longtime, influential, respected and community minded bank presidents Richard Doermer and Paul Shaffer both retired on the same day in 1994, I wondered in print whether Fort Wayne was capable of producing anyone to fill the void. After all, I noted, prominent locally headquartered businesses had become an endangered species through various mergers and acquisitions. North American Van Lines was one, along with Seyferts snack foods, Eckrich meats, Central Soya and many others. Once the headquarters leaves, the local focus often follows, just as Lincoln Financial’s did after longtime community benefactor CEO Ian Rolland retired in 1998 and his successors bolted for Philadelphia.

Happily, the void in top-level local corporate leadership that existed in 1994 is being ably filled, and not by Surack alone. Fort Wayne Metals’ Scott Glaze, Parkview Health’s Mike Packnett, Ash Brokerage’s Tim Ash, Ruoff Mortgage’s Mark Music, Steel Dynamics’ Keith Busse and others have at one time or another all invested their time, talent and treasure in Fort Wayne in a big way — including completed or planned projects downtown. Surack and Packnett are also said to be considering investments in the Electric Works project. Indiana’s business-friendly environment is one reason, Surack said, but so is personal commitment.

But would if someone made Surack an offer he can’t refuse?

“I don’t use the word ‘never,’ but I sold a major share of the company in 1997. In 2001 I bought it back,” he said.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.


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