The Journal Gazette
Thursday, December 03, 2015 6:54 am

Surack not too busy to volunteer

Sherry Slater | The Journal Gazette

Chuck Surack’s calling card includes red, black and blue logos for 12 different ventures.

The standard-sized business card is so crowded that his email address and two telephone numbers are roughly half the size of the words printed in a newspaper article.

Leave it to Surack, a man known for getting the most from any given day, for squeezing a seemingly impossible amount of information onto such a small space.

The founder and president of Sweetwater Sound owns nine separate businesses and plays saxophone regularly in two local bands. He’s a licensed pilot and devoted husband and father who never disconnects from his two iPhones for longer than the time it takes to conduct a business meeting, watch a movie or eat dinner.

"I have a reputation for responding wickedly fast to emails," he admitted.

Yet even as Surack’s business empire has expanded, he finds time to volunteer on nonprofit boards and lead community-related committees. With each request from a worthy cause, he has to decide whether to lend support with his wallet or with his most precious resource: time.

Those decisions are not easy, he admitted, even for a man who rarely sleeps more than four hours a night.

One of Surack’s most recent high-profile commitments is to chair a special committee of 16 business leaders who will study whether there’s enough demand to support a downtown arena.

Although local – and some national – organizations are always angling to recruit him, Surack actually volunteered for this assignment.

After city officials received a consultant’s report on an arena’s feasibility, Mayor Tom Henry discussed the results with Surack. Henry said the study "would need more studying and evaluation," said John Perlich, the mayor’s spokesman.

"Chuck jumped in and said he’d like to lead a committee to examine this further," Perlich wrote in an email. "Chuck put the committee together himself and chose the members."

Henry described Surack’s management skills as incredible. "He has a real passion for this city and thinks we’ve done a tremendous job but could still do more," Henry said.

This isn’t the first time Surack and Henry have worked together. The entrepreneur was asked to serve on then-Mayor-elect Henry’s 2007 transition team, a group that has been called into action more than once over the years for tasks that have included interviewing candidates for the deputy mayor’s position.

Surack holds his own on communitywide teams and committees these days, but he wasn’t always among Fort Wayne’s business elite.

He devoted day and night to building Sweetwater Sound, the music equipment company he founded in the back of a battered Volkswagen bus. After more than a decade, the company had a modest six employees and annual sales of $6 million.

Fast forward to today, Sweetwater employs about 850 and has annual sales of more than $350 million. Trusted lieutenants lead various parts of the organization, allowing Surack to step away from daily operations when necessary.

As sole owners of the company, Surack and his wife, Lisa, have reaped the rewards. Even after investing in a new headquarters in 2006, expansions, affiliated businesses and indulging in his hobbies, the Suracks have made enough money to allow them to generously support causes large and small in the city and region.

Some donations don’t require a discussion; other times, Surack asks for his wife’s input before writing a check. But it’s mostly a formality. "I don’t think there’s ever been a time when I’ve said, ‘No, that’s not a good organization,’ " Lisa Surack said.

Sometimes in their names and sometimes under the Sweetwater name, they donate several million dollars total to about 450 organizations each year, Chuck Surack said, including:

• Fort Wayne Philharmonic

• Fort Wayne Voices of Unity Youth Choir

• Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo

• Easter Seals Arc

• Turnstone Center for Children and Adults with Disabilities

Surack, who consistently supports school music programs, favors nonprofits that are closer to home over national and international organizations. And he’s more likely to write a check when the cause concerns children, music or human welfare.

Even seemingly modest requests are seriously considered. That’s how Sweetwater sometimes ends up shipping guitars to soldiers serving overseas.

"We don’t say no very often," he said. "There’s just so much we can do here. There is no end to the need, that’s for sure."

Finding his voice

Giving money is one thing. Even a five-figure check might not generate more than a one-line mention in a concert program.

Stepping up publicly as a leader is something else.

Surack welcomes the opportunity to remain in the background. But over time, the former Boy Scout realized that he had something to say.

In 2007, Surack drafted his first letter to the editor. The Journal Gazette published the piece, which advocated for the Harrison Square project.

Since then, he has spoken out publicly several times, expressing his support for the one county executive initiative and the Fort Wayne Philharmonic.

But Surack doesn’t want to be a bully.

"I’m always willing to speak the truth or what I believe," he said. "That doesn’t mean that’s the way other people should believe. If I can convince you, great. (But) I’m all about respecting the other person’s beliefs and opinions."

In 2008, Surack offered written words of advice to young business leaders at the request of The Journal Gazette.

"Give back to the community that made you successful," he wrote. "Whether you volunteer on a local nonprofit board or make donations of cash, products or services, you’ll make your community a better place to do business, and you’ll sleep better knowing you’ve done your part."

He has lived that philosophy, serving on nonprofit boards including:

• Greater Fort Wayne Inc.

• Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum

• WBNI/WBOI Public Radio

Surack also serves on the boards of Lutheran Health Network and Lutheran Hospital. Although part of a for-profit organization, Lutheran makes significant annual donations to the community in addition to providing health care.

Brian Bauer, Lutheran’s CEO, described Surack as a tireless advocate for Fort Wayne and for Lutheran Hospital.

"He’s an advocate for patient safety, quality and employee engagement," Bauer said in an email. "He gives of himself and his resources constantly. He never stops giving. At a time when communities are trying to grow employment and retain talent, Chuck is leading the way for us."

And it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Surack has also served on the boards of the Philharmonic and the zoo.

"Chuck is a very busy guy, but he always makes time for the zoo," said Jim Anderson, the zoo’s executive director. "Meetings of our full board, finance committee and other committees tally over 30 per year. Chuck committed to attending all of these meetings during the two years in which he was president of the board."

Surack takes volunteer commitments seriously and tends to stay involved even after his terms end.

"I don’t want to serve on boards just to have it on my resume," he said.

Kelly Updike, the Embassy Theatre’s executive director, described Surack as a great businessman.

"What makes Chuck special is that he really listens to the conversation," she wrote in an email. "This results in a very thoughtful approach to solving problems and understanding issues."

Anderson said Surack’s participation has helped the zoo up its game.

"Chuck is willing to share decades of business experience with us," Anderson said in an email. "He asks great questions, challenging some of our long-held assumptions, and suggesting news ways of looking at things."

Hard choices

Despite the heavy demands on his time, Surack is adding a new board position this year.

As the result of an especially persuasive petitioner, 8-year-old daughter Adderly, Surack is joining the trustees board of Canterbury School. He suspects the urgency of her request was fueled by the fact that one of her second-grade friends has a parent on the board.

But that’s OK. Surack likes the school and believes his daughter has some good ideas she’d like to pass along through him.

When Arts United officials were seeking someone to chair their Cultural Advancement Committee, they also sought Surack.

He hesitated.

Surack told the nonprofit’s leaders to really think about whether his involvement would add value to the effort that will create a 10-year agenda for arts and culture investment in greater Fort Wayne.

If the request cleared that hurdle, Surack said, they needed to work with his assistant to find a consistent time when he’d be able to attend meetings. His conditions weren’t easily met, but Arts United officials met them – and secured themselves a chairman.

To get more from his days, Surack has started scheduling some business meetings at 7 or 7:30 a.m. Fundraisers and other commitments often keep him going until 9 p.m.

Lisa Surack trusts her husband not to overcommit himself. He rarely seems stressed, so she tries not to let his schedule stress her out, either.

"I think he knows where his boundaries are and what his stress level is," she said.

Chuck Surack hates to say no to good causes, but even he realizes he’s only human.

So while it’s true that he volunteered to chair the downtown arena study committee, that’s not quite the whole story. He did so with behind-the-scenes encouragement from Henry and Deputy Mayor Karl Bandemer.

"They think my credibility will help (the idea) get a fair shake," Surack said. "I think the mayor trusts me and, ultimately, he thought the public would trust me."


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