Chuck Surack began his signature business, Sweetwater Sound, as a recording studio operated from the back of a beaten-up, Volkswagen bus. Today his musical instruments and technology company does business worldwide and employs more than a thousand people in Fort Wayne.
But that’s only part of the story of Surack’s impact on his community.
With his wife, Lisa, Chuck Surack the philanthropist donates to a multitude of area organizations and he gives vast amounts of his time to boards that celebrate the arts, promote quality of life and help the less fortunate. As a member of Mayor Tom Henry’s unofficial "Kitchen Cabinet," he’s lent his advice and support to the effort to develop the downtown.
This year, Surack accepted an assignment from Henry that others might have run from: looking at whether Fort Wayne should build a new arena just west of Grand Wayne Center. There could be a Parkview Field-style battle looming.
Surack emphasized that his group won’t make its official announcement till early 2016. "We’re just trying to decide, does putting an arena downtown add to the quality of life in Fort Wayne? And to make sure that it doesn’t hurt the Embassy, doesn’t hurt the Coliseum," said Surack.
But he added, "I’m definitely leaning that way. I think this will be huge for the Embassy. You get more events happening downtown. Anything that grows downtown is going to be good for the downtown community."
As he helps to transform the city he’s lived in since seventh grade, Surack emerges as our clear choice for 2015 Citizen of the Year.
The Suracks contribute to more than 500 nonprofit organizations annually. He is on the boards of the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, Lutheran Hospital and Lutheran Health Network, Greater Fort Wayne Inc., the Auburn- Cord-Duesenberg Museum, and the advisory board of the Boy Scouts of America, among others. He is also president-elect of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, capital campaign chair for the Rescue Mission and the Boys and Girls Club, honorary capital campaign chair for the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, and a trustee of Canterbury School. At Sweetwater’s headquarters on U.S. 30, Surack accommodates organizations for meetings and fundraising performances at no charge.
"They like helping other people," said Bruce Boxberger, who is the Suracks’ personal attorney and one of Chuck’s best friends.
"We’re very lucky to have him in our city," said Donna Elbrecht, president and CEO of Easter Seals Arc. Surack served six years on her board and now heads the organization’s external relations committee. The family’s donations have included an endowment for a music program, which is especially meaningful to Easter Seals Arc clients who have limited speech or can’t speak at all, Elbrecht said.
But Surack’s service involves more than providing money and attending meetings. "He’s not somebody who just sits on a board," Elbrecht said. "He’s a consensus-builder ... He gives of his time and his ideas. He listens ... When he does speak, he’s always thoughtful.
"Chuck is responsive and deeply cares about people," Elbrecht said. "He’s a lot more than what people see" in his public life.
Since 2010, Surack’s empire has expanded to include Sweet Cars, Sweet Aviation, Longe Optical and other businesses.
But Surack now finds he has more time to devote to community service, not less.
"In the last 12-15 years," Surack said, "the team at Sweetwater has gotten so strong that frankly it’s freed me up to personally give my time to other organizations and try and lead by example."
Surack said he is driven to give back because of his own humble beginnings.
"I remember where I came from," he said. "I really do remember my roots."
Surack’s life has taken some unlikely turns in the years since his family moved here from Waverly, Ohio, and he enrolled at Ben F. Geyer Middle School. His parents had divorced, something he believes drove him to excel in school, and in the Cub and Boy Scouts.
"I think one of the biggest influences on me was the Boy Scouts," Surack said. He rattles off their motto from memory: "Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent."
He pauses. "I think those are amazing principles to live by. A Boy Scout learns to treat people well."
Surack’s parents wanted him to be a doctor, but the lure of music proved stronger. At Wayne High School, he participated in every music activity he could.
After graduation, he hit the road with a band, playing sax and keyboards. He told himself that after a year he’d start college and medical school.
Instead, he put the technical skills he had acquired on the road toward building a small recording business. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, he recorded on location, driving his van-full of equipment to schools, churches or VFWs and running a couple of hundred feet of microcable inside. Then he’d take the recordings home – for a while, he lived in a trailer – and do his editing there.
The break that changed everything came in 1984, when he saw a prototype of a musical instrument called the Kurzweil K250 at a trade show in Chicago.
"It was the first synthesizer that played back digital recordings of other instruments," Surack said.
Stevie Wonder, Bob James, Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers were among the first to recognize the potential of the K250. Surack was another.
They and other musicians became Surack’s friends, and, eventually his customers. He figured out how to create libraries of musical sounds he would trade and later sell to other musicians. He became a secondary dealer for the Kurzweils, at one point stacking the synthesizers in his living room and in a barn behind his studio.
"From 1990 to 2006, we kept having more and more friends wanting more and more help with recording equipment," Surack said. "My company changed from being just a recording studio to really helping ‘our friends’ all around the country with music and gear."
"Fast forward," Surack continued, and today "our company has 2 million ‘friends,’ and that’s kind of the whole model of the company.
"I’ve studied all the sales techniques and all that, but from my point of view, it’s not about selling, it’s about doing the right thing for the customer, long-term."
Those close to Surack say that philosophy runs through all aspects of his life.
"What you see is what you get," Lisa Surack said. "What you know about Chuck is what he is.
"With business and personal life, it’s the same. He always wants to do the right thing, whether it’s for a family, whether it’s for a friend."
The Suracks met when she began working at Sweetwater and have been married 15 years. They have a 9-year-old daughter, Adderly, and two boys, 21-year-old Cameron and 23-year-old Tyler, who are Chuck Surack’s stepsons.
Just as Surack balances work and nonprofit activities, he’s always made time to attend the children’s school events. "I’m very proud of my husband," Lisa Surack said. "He’s early for everything," she said. "He’s never forgotten anything."
He’s made sure his children had the opportunity to try music. "Music is an amazing gift that people can give their children," Surack said. His daughter’s name was partly inspired by his admiration for saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, with whom he once shared a set on the stage of the Embassy.
Surack continues to play the saxophone in regular gigs with his variety band, PrimeTime.
The family attends The Pointe, a church located in the former Sweetwater facility on Bass Road.
"I absolutely know that we would have not have been as successful or have been able to help so many people without our belief in God," the 58-year-old Surack said. "It’s amazing. The more I believe, the more I do for others, the more comes back to us."
"We have a lot of great nonprofits," Surack continued, "but we also have a lot of people with serious needs.
"I would love to encourage people to help their neighbor, or go serve on a board, or go do a little volunteer time in some organization, or go take a little old lady out to dinner, or buy her groceries.
"I want to show others that it’s possible. Just give back a little more."