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‘A Company with a Heart and Great People’: New CEO Mike Clem Discusses What’s Next for Sweetwater

Christian Wissmuller • ArchivesOctober 2023Upfront Q&A • October 5, 2023

In early September of this year, Sweetwater announced the promotion of Mike Clem to CEO and president, replacing outgoing CEO John Hopkins. Clem’s tenure at Sweetwater began in 2003, initially holding a number of leadership roles in marketing and eCommerce. Prior to his new joint-roles, he had served as president since January 2023 and, before that, chief growth officer.

At the time of his appointment this fall, Sweetwater founder and chairman of the board Chuck Surack asserted, “I firmly believe in Mike’s ability to lead the company into the future. Not only does he understand and value the principles that have guided me at Sweetwater for the past four decades, but he has a true heart for ensuring that we continue to take care of our customers, our employees and their families, and our vendor partners.”

MMR recently chatted with Mike Clem about his professional background, his history in MI, how the largest MI retailer in the world competes and coexists with smaller brick-and-mortar dealers, and his vision for Sweetwater’s future.

Let’s start prior to your time at Sweetwater, which began in 2003: What was your own personal and professional background in music and management prior to Sweetwater? I know you’re a musician – what instrument, or instruments, do you play? What, if any, specific background in the MI industry did you have before joining Sweetwater?

I have been a musician from an early age. I play several instruments, primarily drums. I’ve played in many bands and many shows. I have written and recorded. I still play in church. So I have a great passion for this industry and I understand our customers and products very well.

My background is in technology and marketing. I have been building and managing ecommerce businesses since the pioneering days in the 1990s. Back then, you had to build all of your own technology from scratch, which allows you to have a much deeper understanding of what makes great customer experiences.

Can you talk a little about your previous positions at Sweetwater, working in marketing and eCommerce, et cetera? What are some key achievements and events in your prior roles that you view as having been pivotal in your evolution at the company, leading up to this recent appointment as president and CEO? And, on a personal level, as an area native who even attended college in Indiana, how important to you was it – and is it – to have landed at a Fort Wayne-based institution such as Sweetwater?

I came to Sweetwater in 2003 when Sweetwater was only doing about $4 million in online sales. Over the next few years, I built our online experience to what it is today. Our focus was less on shopping and more on demonstrating our value and expertise in tangible ways: videos, product reviews, newsletters, tips and tricks, et cetera. We saw the Internet as a funnel – as a way to meet new customers and invite them into a relationship with our Sales Engineers who would then nurture those 1-to-1 relationships and help customers along their musical journeys. It still works that way today.

Yes, I grew up near Fort Wayne and I am very proud of this community. There is a wonderful energy and resurgence in Fort Wayne right now. Sweetwater is excited to be part of that momentum by hosting concerts, events, artist workshops, and music camps for kids, et cetera. We have hired hundreds of great musicians into town, so it is hard to go into a bar or a church without finding fantastic music!

What has been your relationship with previous leadership officers at Sweetwater, particularly Chuck Surack and your immediate predecessor John Hopkins? How closely have you worked with either/both and to what extent have they been helpful in transitioning to your new position as president and CEO?

Chuck and John are both inspiring business leaders, but then you find out that they are both wonderful human beings – very caring and giving men. Chuck taught us a lot about serving customers with white-glove experiences, adding more value than expected, and obsessing over details. John taught us about integrity, creating win-win partnerships, and enjoying life together.

In your new role, do you have any immediate or short-term “action items,” or is your main goal – for the time being – to just ensure a steady transition and “stay the course” to assure both employee and customer confidence?

Sweetwater is a company with a heart and great people. My first focus is to ensure that we stay true to who we are and continue providing over-the-top experiences for customers. Period. I am also excited about the growth we are finding from things like our new Arizona distribution center which is now serving our West Coast customers with 1-2 day deliveries, and serving new markets like content creators, K12 educators, instrument rentals, and used gear.

The retail landscape, for MI in particular, has changed drastically in the past couple of decades. In broad stroke terms, what challenges do you feel face the industry and Sweetwater, specifically, going forward and what further changes do you foresee?

There are three things that really excite me about our industry right now. Over the last three years, we have seen a surge in first-time players and musicians re-engaging with the hobby. Many of these players continue to stay engaged, which is very encouraging. Second, as music-making continues to become more tech-enabled , and now especially with genAI, it is creating an easier entry point for people to interact with music making. This is good for growing the industry. And finally, I’m excited to see a renewed focus on getting music and modern music growing in schools again. This is something we can all get behind together.

A commonly cited concern amongst more traditional brick-and-mortar MI dealers has been the perception of a looming threat represented by big-box outlets and online commerce. As the largest online retailer in MI, how would you describe Sweetwater’s relationship to those smaller, independent brick-and-mortar stores and how do you see the co-existence and evolution of MI retail in terms of in-person versus online (or mail-order, phone, et cetera) shopping experiences?

We honestly try to focus more on growing the whole industry than competing. My hope is that all music retailers would win more and fill the Earth with more music makers. Brick-and-mortar plays an important role in creating those emotional, in-person experiences with the gear. Sweetwater provides a different angle of value to the industry with expertise, consultations, and unique values like two-year warranties, free tech support, guitar inspections, et cetera, Amazon, Guitar Center, and others play their unique role…

I also think it is an interesting moment in time. Marketplaces like Reverb, Amazon, and eBay have made it easier than ever for independent stores to have online visibility and reach, and we know many store owners who are enjoying growth that way. And new advertising products from Google and others are very much focused on “leveling the playing field” for all sized companies. I would encourage everyone to be exploring these opportunities. It is clearly better for all of us when musicians buy their gear from specialty retailers who share in the passion, as opposed to more transactional experiences.

Are there any upcoming Sweetwater events or developments of note that you’d like to draw MMR readers’ attention to?

Many people have asked if Chuck is still involved, and the answer is “yes!” – he very much still has a heart for Sweetwater and our partners, he is the chair of our board, and he and I exchange emails on a nearly daily basis. But in addition, he is now able to pursue some other things on his heart from philanthropy to community development. He is having such a huge impact on Fort Wayne and our region. It is fun to watch.

Expectations and hopes for Sweetwater and the MI industry as a whole in the coming months?

This uncertain economy is going to create a challenging season that will last into next year. But we know that ours is a high-passion industry and music making has always been more resilient in tough conditions than other retail sectors. I am encouraged by the level of engagement we are seeing with new musicians and the creativity that will be unlocked with this next generation of technology and instruments.

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