After spending most of 2016 barraged by polarizing politics and the sad news of music legend losses, you may find yourself hard-pressed to hear stories of inspiration. Look no further. MMR is ushering in 2017 by featuring the winners of The Don Johnson Industry Service Award (DJA), Susan and Jonathan Lipp, in a story of generous giving and all that is right with the MI world.
Philanthropy IS the American dream for this married couple and co-founders of Full Compass Systems, Ltd. — retailers of pro audio, video, lighting, and musical instruments for 40 years. The Lipps’ altruistic efforts truly encompass the spirit of the DJA as they have sat on over a hundred boards of nonprofit organizations through the years, advocated for music education on Capitol Hill, created an employee-run charitable contributions committee, hosted countless charity events in their on-site theatre, and received numerous awards for their efforts throughout the years.
MMR sat down with Susan and Jonathan to discuss the importance of music education and the arts in their lives, the heritage and people who’ve inspired them, the continuous success of their woman-owned business, their partnership, their habit of hiring artists, and their passionate commitment to generosity in their community and beyond.
What role did music and/or music education play in your life as a child?
Jonathan Lipp: I did take piano lessons from kindergarten to when I was 13, but unfortunately, I wasn’t very good at it. There was always music in our home — my mother played piano, guitar, and sang. We listened to and would sing folk music. Both my parents and my extended family were very involved in musical theatre, which was a part of my life as a child and my perspective on the world. So, it was not a surprise that I got involved in the music business. Even though it was from the direction of being an engineer, working with musicians, both as a recording engineer and building equipment — it was not uncommon in the early ‘70s to design and build your own equipment.
How did you come to open a professional music studio?
JL: In 1971 I was visiting an old friend from high school who lived with another guy who was talking about building a recording studio. I told him I would do some research and see what’s involved. I visited a regional dealer for professional sound equipment and worked up the equipment list. As I was leaving I was approached in the parking lot by Mike Kuehl who said, “I heard you’re planning on building a recording studio, so are we.” It turned out my friend talked a big game but never did anything, but that’s how I met Mike, Will Elmendorf, and Rick Murphy and became partner number four at Full Compass Sound Studios. Like most things in life, that was not planned, it just happened. My involvement in electronics and building things ever since I was a young kid played into it very well. I understood the equipment immediately, and had been around enough music that I had an ear for it, even though I didn’t consider myself a musician.
In ‘73, I built a custom-built broadcast mixer for the local NBC television station, which was on the air for over 20 years. They returned it to us and it still functions!
What kind of things did you build as a child?
JL: Tinker Toys and Erector Sets and an old version of what we would now call Legos. When my parents would buy me a toy I’d play with it for ten minutes and then I’d take it apart to see how it worked. Eventually, I figured out how to put them back together again. When I was maybe twelve years old, my cousin needed another bedroom, and we ordered lumber, built the room, and I did all the wiring. I had never built anything much with wood before, but we figured it out. (He chuckles) Nobody told me about wire nuts, and I soldered all the wiring like it was sound equipment. But the room’s still there and it hasn’t burned the house down after over 50 years.
Did you have any mentors professionally or in your family that ended up influencing you as you furthered your career?
JL: My mother was an MD. She influenced me and her mother, my grandmother, was a professional who worked. So, it did shape a lot of my personality, as far as how I regard women and how capable they are. It probably had a lot to do with meeting Susan and getting married, because she mirrored very much my role model of an assertive, accomplished female. And because of that, Madison Full Compass has been, over the years, dominated by female managers and other professionals who certainly have never experienced a glass ceiling here. I think it’s been an advantage for us because we’ve offered opportunities that’ve traditionally been closed to women.
On the other hand, I certainly didn’t learn anything from my father about using tools. I don’t know if he knew which end of the screwdriver to use. I think, to quote Jackie Mason, “in our house, a universal tool was called a butter knife,” and that would’ve been a screwdriver and a hammer.
A PARTNERSHIP FORMS
Tell the story of meeting Susan and how that affected your business?
JL: I had one foot in the recording studio and I had just started Full Compass Systems, focusing on selling equipment primarily to radio stations nationwide at that time. This is 1977, and radio broadcast was really the only national pro audio market. So, because a number of my partners were in the radio broadcasting business, I had come to know that end of the business very well. I met Susan in early ‘78...
Susan Lipp: January 26th. I remember the date only because of the opening night of the show that we were doing at the Madison Civic Repertory Theatre.
JL: Susan was running a professional theatre at that time. Almost immediately she started learning about my business. Her two teenage sons started working for the recording studio and the store, whether it was putting equipment away in the studio or soldering circuit cards. They got an early start at 12 and 13. And about six months later, Susan and I got married, and six months after that, she quit her job as a headhunter and came to work with me full-time.
SL: As I was the first executive director of the Madison Civic Repertory Theatre, I would get everything done for free because I had to. At that time I had a budget of $60,000 a year. I had to put on five shows, pay our artistic director, a tech director, and myself out of that same $60,000, which was pretty slim. If the theatre needed a park bench, I would send our tech director out to the park to borrow one, and put it back after the show. We had to reuse gel (lighting) because we didn’t have any money at the theatre to buy new gel so we got it from the university.
JL: To sum it up, she was very good at getting people to do stuff for free.
SL: I got Rick Murphy to do a public service announcement for the theatre at his studio and went down to pick it up. I’d never been in a studio before, so I went and played with the equipment for about a half an hour, and when I left, I had forgotten the PSA tape. When I got to the other side of town and realized I went there for one reason and didn’t get it. I called Rick and said, “Do you know anybody coming out to the theatre tonight?” He said, “Yeah, my partner Jonathan will be there.” And I said, “Who is Jonathan?” Rick said, “He was the guy running the equipment while you were playing with it at the studio.” To which I replied, “Oh, the cute one with the mustache!” Rick told Jonathan that I thought he was cute. Jonathan got all dressed up and brought me the tape and asked me for a date. The rest was history, you know, it was unbelievable.
Six months later we were married. He had to make a living suddenly, too, because if he was going to be my husband he was also going to be surrogate father of my two children. He’s a wonderful, wonderful father to my kids. Both of them are in the business and he taught them everything they know about the audio business.
Are your sons working in the business with you now?
SL: Our son, Jeff Lipp, is an audio and AV consultant in Chicago and does national work. Steve Cohan, our other son, has been in the business as a manufacturer for a very long time.
Your company has showed continuous success over failing economic times. What do you attribute that to?
JL: I’ve been asked the question a number of times. Since ‘77 we’ve been through four recessions and, of course, the most recent one in 2008 and 2009 is fresh in everybody’s minds. It was certainly one of the worst ones. But, in earlier recessions, we were growing rapidly and had to deal with things like 20 percent interest rates from banks, which is hard to imagine when we’re paying less than three percent these days. In a recession it is normal, whether you’re a manufacturer or merchant, to kind of hunker down. You try and reduce the amount of inventory you have, you schedule less advertising and promotion, you may lay people off, and try and ride it out, lower expenses. The fact is, let’s say business is down 20 percent. That still means that 80 percent of the business is there. Once your competitors have sold off their inventory and stopped advertising, and laid some of their people off, there’s an opportunity. The manufacturers are hungry for any sale, so we buy more stuff cheaper. There are people on the street who may have been laid off that would probably be looking for a job, who are high quality that we would hire. The trade publications are desperate for advertising, they’ll make better deals, and their magazines might be a little skinnier, so your ads show up better.
So we can buy advertising cheaper, we can get better deals on merchandise, and we would keep our inventory past the first couple of months of the recession when everybody else is dumping their inventory. All of a sudden we’re the only ones with inventory. And with a strong sales staff, with more presence in our advertising, and typically what’s happened in a recession is that sales are flat. That’s what’s worked for us.
Susan, were there influences in your childhood that encouraged you to become involved in philanthropy the way that you did?
SL: I started in art. I was a painting major. I went to college at Layton School of Art, but I had started at Layton when I was 11 years old. I was a painting major with a minor in printmaking and another minor in sculpture. And my mom, Marcella Schiewitz Wynn, who had been very much like Jonathan’s mom, was a singer. When she was young, she sang on the radio, and she even had a stage name, Marcella Shay. She did a lot of theatre, and she wrote a lot of shows, she did a lot of musical theatre, and wrote parodies all the time. She was constantly writing. She was into poetry, and she was very, very clever. So, she was a force behind the arts and a lot of people in the Milwaukee community got to know her. She tried to talk to me about going into theatre, and telling me how much I’d like it. Layton happened to be right next door to the Jewish Center in Milwaukee where they had a very good theatre department.
One day I walked in and the director said, “Would you like to act?” I said, “Well sure.” I’d never acted in my life, but got into the first show as an actor, and found out that I really didn’t like acting. I did set painting and then I became the set designer. I got married to my first husband and moved to Wausau. My ex-husband didn’t think women should work, which is probably the worst thing that has ever happened to me in my life. The best thing that ever happened to me was divorcing him. I got involved, I mean truly involved in the community theatre there. With the first show I was involved with, “A Majority of One,” they asked me if I could come in and do dialect coaching. I’d never been a dialogue coach before, but I understood the Jewish dialogue that they were looking for. I became a director and directed for a number of years and helped create the Wisconsin Community Theatre Association. I was on the board of the American Theatre Association, helped run conventions, and created a convention in Wisconsin. It was all, seat of your pants kind of stuff. I didn’t do it for any other reason other than I needed something to do. I had two little kids and you can only be a mom for so long without some conversation with adults. I gained a lot of management experience, by being a director.
A friend of mine who had been on Weight Watchers was a major advocate and his wife was a VP at Weight Watchers of Wisconsin. She got me through the program in five months, I lost a ton of weight, looked like a whole new person – weighed 108, which is a little skinny for me, but I was very into being able to accomplish something. I got a phone call from the owner of Weight Watchers, and he asked if I would open Weight Watchers in Wausau. And I said, “Sure, but I’ve never been to a meeting.” He said, “Oh, you’ll be able to do it fine, don’t worry about it.” So I drove to Milwaukee, went to the only meeting that I’d ever been to, came back and on a Monday I opened Weight Watchers, Wausau. I had gone out and bought a scale, and bought chairs and tables and all the rest of the stuff that you need, and I pretty much faked it for the next year or so. I created a big company up there. I trained 27 lecturers and weighers and people to run seven counties of Weight Watchers. That was my main experience of managing people, managing a company, and being able to manage the money and figure out what to do with it and how to deal with it.
I think about myself as having more guts than brains. So, when I met Jonathan, I saw what he was doing in his little 500 square foot space, and he was running it like an old mom-and-pop, dusty little store. I came with my experience in theatre and of how to get the tushes in the seats.
Susan, you eventually became majority owner in the company, how did the company and your partnership evolve?
SL: I started advertising, by sending out mailings — knowing that you have to send out at least three to have your name in somebody’s mind. Jonathan and I had gone to the library and gotten 150 names of engineers all over the country at a radio stations. I went down to the post office and picked up a bulk permit. And I knew, because of my theatre experience, you had to send out 200. So, we sent 150 to the names we had and 50 back to ourselves, because it turned out to be cheaper. And when we would get the customers to talk to us. I would call them, the engineers, because I have a lot of guts, and I come from a sales background, my father had a menswear store, and I started working at 13 years old in the store, so I knew how to sell. I would get on the phone, call them, the engineers, and then as soon as they had any interest, I’d put Jonathan on the phone because he knew all about the stuff – I knew nothing. I’d listen to his conversation, and as soon as he sounded like he was going to talk somebody out of a sale, over-talking it, I would grab the phone and close. We’ve spent almost 39 years together and we’ve shared the same office. We still sit six feet away from each other. I don’t even go out with the girls alone, drinks or dinner or anything, it’s just uncomfortable to me to go somewhere without him, because he is my 100 percent partner.
We grew up pretty much the same, we both had mothers that were very, very involved in philanthropy. We made it by working together and what was always ingrained in our minds — how important it is to give to the less fortunate.
Susan, do you have any specific advice for women business owners?
SL: Well, number one, hire smarter people than you are. They will always make you look good and smarter. That’s the most important thing you can do in business. If you hire people who are not as smart as you are, you’re making the biggest mistake. We test everybody that comes to work for us and it’s not just a little nothing test, it’s a heavy-duty test to determine IQ’s. Right now, we’ve got 210 employees and the guy that was hired last in the warehouse had damn well better be smarter than Susan Lipp. I am a true believer that if you hire the right person in the right position, you can be successful.
JL: Susan wrote a speech she delivered a couple times called, “Hire Like a Casting Director.”
SL: You can be successful, you can be successful. The other thing is, I wish women would stop seeing a glass ceiling. It shouldn’t be there. Most women that are successful in business are pretty ballsy. Jonathan’s always thought that women were smarter than men, which is a spectacular thing, because we’ve always thought that women should be in executive positions because they think differently than men. Our current top salespeople have consistently been women, dating all the way back to the mid-‘80s.
JL: Part of the skill set, is that you have to learn to be deaf to “no.”
SL: Women ask questions. How many men do you know that would get lost 20 minutes before asking anybody how to get somewhere? Women ask the questions and they listen and they remember what they’re told, so that they can use it again. Also, understanding the fact that you, as a business owner, better be able to work around the clock. I think for at least 25 years of being in business, we did nothing else. I mean, we were parents of kids who were working in the store, we were became parents of our employees who were kids who were working in the store. But we have a number of people who have been with us for over 30 years.
On the Full Compass website it states, “Giving back to the community has always been a Lipp family tradition.” Can you speak to that tradition and who influenced this spirit of generosity?
JL: I think it’s because of both of our parents, it was just the way that we grew up. I think that it’s part of our Jewish heritage also. There was always something that’s called a tzedakah box, which is like a little metal bank that you’d put your change in, and that money would always go to charity. Tzedakah means charity. When we were children and we went trick-or-treating, we’d have a UNICEF box. It was what our parents did. There’s another Jewish philosophy which is called tikunolam. Loosely transliterated from Hebrew, it means, “healing the world.”
We raise money for traditional charities, that help people in need, we raise money for the arts — to make life richer, and we also raise money for politics, for politicians that show the same sort of tradition and caring for wanting to afford a rich life, broad in both the arts and in human caring, to society. It all dovetails together. Susan has told people for many years that her motive for working as hard as she works is to be a philanthropist.
SL: When I met Jonathan, he was making $3,000 a year, and I was making $9,500 a year. And when I told him my goal in life was to become a philanthropist, I really meant it. It was so very important to me. It became just as important to him. We give because it’s just what we do. It’s what our hearts say is the right thing to do. And it’s not just about school music and education, I sit on 13 boards, Jonathan is on three boards — a lot of them are arts boards and extraordinarily meaningful.
JL: One of the most satisfying organizations that we’ve worked with is NAMM. Susan is a previous board member of NAMM, and she got me involved with their legislative committee with Mary Luehrsen, and was on the second NAMM Fly-in to Washington.
SL: I’ve been on all of them (the flyins) except for one when I was ill.
JL: Promoting music education is what we’ve been fighting with Congress for—to try and fix “No Child Left Behind,” so that it would be friendly to the arts. We have no idea if all the work we’ve done is going to collapse going into the next presidency because the future proposed Secretary of Education is very unfriendly to public education. These are people who would like to see the Department of Education go away. Whatever happens, it’s been a very meaningful thing for us to go up on the Hill and promote the value of music and the arts.
SL: We were extraordinarily proud to be a part of the passing of the Every Student Succeeds Act and we were very, very excited about the fact that Tammy Baldwin who is Wisconsin’s Democratic senator, was very involved with getting that passed.
JL: She worked across the aisle with Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and hammered out compromises to get what we’ve worked 12 years to get accomplished. It was wonderful lobbying and NAMM has done a superb job of convincing people that music education is a vitally important thing. I mean, to us, the aesthetic value of it is the only argument we need, but to everybody else, the side effects; higher graduation rates, better grade points, less crime, more kids go to college, it teaches kids discipline and how to work together—the idea that it’s traditionally been considered extracurricular is a mistake. If a musician comes to us looking for a job, we know here’s somebody who knows how to work with other people.
SL: We’ve found that 79 percent of our employees are musicians and we also have a bunch of theatre people working for us.
JL: And a number of artists. Our vice president of operations has a degree in fine art. These are people who know how to think, accomplish, create, and solve problems.
SL: And people come here to work because they’re artistic, and they really like to be able to have other people to talk to, who have something in common. When you think about the fact that we are more of a pro-audio business than MI — MI is a small part of what we do.
JL: MI is relatively a new thing for us, yet we’ve always had a very close affinity to the music business. This past four years in MI is about shifting opportunities. In the early ‘80s, home recording became a big thing. We moved into recording equipment, which of course I do well, and then we moved into education. Educators need audio equipment, but started asking for visual equipment also, so we became video dealers. Then we got into video production for theatrical productions. It was natural for us, we started selling lighting, intercoms, and rigging equipment for theatre, and of course the sound equipment we were already selling worked in that venue. We began to address the entertainment industry, eventually the disco and dance club industry. And so we’ve changed tremendously based on changing opportunities. The variety of products we sell represents the multi-media world we are now in.
SL: Our name is Full Compass: We go the whole way around.
JL: Our name means that we do everything, which was a hand-me-down from the recording studio, which also did everything. We did commercials, albums, soundtracks, and training tapes. That’s where the name came fro
How do you feel your philanthropic endeavors affect your company culture, and are your employees involved?
JL: Wonderful question. We like to try and mentor philanthropy to our employees. A lot of them are young when they come to us, so if there was any philanthropy in their family it was probably their parents doing the giving. It may or may not have been part of their culture. So we have many employee events and we have an employee committee that helps create these events to raise money.
SL: It’s called the Charitable Contributions Committee.
JL: Susan and I typically match the funds that they raise. Also, we have a very nice facility with a large studio space that can be used as a banquet or performance facility.
SL: It’s a 4,500 square foot black box theatre. We built it as a black box theatre and video recording studio.
JL: We also have an on-site restaurant, which is primarily for our staff. We are able to self-cater charitable events, so we host about 10 a year for various different nonprofits to help them to raise money. And we subsidize it, so they’re not paying a hotel for a ballroom and catering.
SL: We’ve got two coming up right now that I’m chairing, one in February and one in March, and they’re only three weeks apart! They are both going to be a chef auction events, where we’ll have a number of chefs bringing food and showing their wares and one is for Mardi Gras and the next is for St. Patrick’s Day. The St. Patrick’s Day event is going to be very interesting because that one is for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, I sit on that board and have been involved with it for probably 17 or 18 years now. The Chamber Orchestra will play all kinds of music. It’ll be everything from jazz to a solo violinist playing. It will be three hours of constant music, and a lot of food, costumes, and because it’s on St. Patrick’s Day, it’ll be kind of a crazy party.
What is your proudest moment when you look back at 40 years of being in the industry?
JL: Well I think Susan’s mentioned that NAMM gave her an award at one of the Fly-ins. What’s it called?
SL: The SupportMusic.com Award (2007). Which, now they are only given to really important people. I got the second one ever, and it was a very proud moment. I think probably the most important award that we’ve received in recent years was the AFP.
JL: The Association of Fundraising Professionals does something called “Philanthropy Day” and in the local chapter gave us a lifetime achievement award.
SL: We’ve filled up rooms with plaques and awards. But the one that I keep in my office is the one from NAMM, and the one that we keep on a very prominent shelf at home is the one from AFP. To get a lifetime achievement award was pretty incredible
SL: We just got another lifetime achievement award from the MAMAs, which is the Madison-Area Music Association.
Full Compass has been named the third-largest woman- owned business in the state of Wisconsin, and recently the Milwaukee Business Journal named you number one — noting that “only businesses who submitted information were considered for inclusion on the list” — to what do you attribute your tremendous success?
SL: It’s really weird because, when we were told about being first, it was like, “Yeah, right. I don’t think so.” But, neither one of us takes ourselves very seriously. We run our business by the seat of our pants. Our managers would much prefer us to not be as impulsive as we are in running a business. But we take opportunities when they arise. You know, if you find somebody who is a fit, who is the right person for a job that hasn’t been created yet, create the job around the person.
Again, congratulations on receiving this award, it has been an absolute pleasure speaking with the two of you. Is there anything else that you’d like to add, something I didn’t ask you?
JL: You know, some of our best opportunities in life, whether it’s finding a mate, or business opportunities, or anything else, those opportunities never come along on a convenient schedule. They come along on their own schedule and you have to be able to respond. Probably the biggest problem that some people have in business or in other endeavors is called paralysis-by-analysis. You can analyze something to death and you can plan it to the last dot and crossed “T,” with pages and pages of projections in your business plan. You still have no control over future trends or the economy. There is so much you are still guessing about. You have to be responsive, because nothing ever comes out the way you plan it. Plans are only guidelines.
SL: Maybe a cake. JL: Maybe a cake.
SL: You know, because you’re following exact recipes on a cake. (She chuckles) I’m not that much of a baker, but I can bake because I know how to read. All it takes is to know how to read to do something.
JL: Well we have to know certain things, like the Three Stooges said, “The recipe didn’t say anything about cracking the eggs!”
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