This article can be found in the Winter 2016 edition of the Alumni Magazine.

July 12, 2016

When Sweetwater Sound’s senior vice president for human resources joined the music gear mega-retailer 10 years ago, he developed a baseball metaphor as a strategy to supply the talented employees the expanding company needed.

“Lots of jobs here require a music technology/audio production background,” Jeff McDonald said. “I came here in 2005, and the majority of applicants with the background we needed were coming from outside Fort Wayne because that’s where the schools with those majors were. It’s a challenge to get candidates from the Sun Belt to acclimate to the Midwest.”

He decided to think locally. “I knew we’d grow, so I wanted to establish some local ‘farm teams,’ by offering internships and helping develop [a] curriculum to train for our opportunities,” he said. “I never anticipated this explosion. Then, we had 175 employees. Now we have 890, with no end in sight. With 20 percent annual growth, the numbers take on a life of their own. It’s a great problem.”

With over 30 graduates now employees, USF has become a decisive player for Sweetwater, in more than the music and baseball sense. And when you look at the history of the Sweetwater/USF partnership, a set of names repeat: USF President Sister M. Elise Kriss, Sweetwater founder/CEO Chuck Surack, Sweetwater VP of Corporate Communications Christopher Guerin, Kenny Bergle and Jeff Rodgers.

Sweetwater founder Chuck Surak

Sweetwater founder Chuck Surak

Sweetwater sales engineer Bergle began working with USF to build a curriculum and procure equipment about the time McDonald arrived. “When Christopher got Chuck and Sister Elise together, a series of Sweetwater scholarships was set up,” McDonald said.

“Kenny took a studio from his house to campus, working with School of Creative Arts Dean Rick Cartwright. He taught beginning sound design through professor Jane Martin while developing a four-year degree program with her and Sister Elise. In 2008, things were off and running. Then USF bought the North Campus and put studios there.”

USF Music Technology program director Jeff Rodgers took over, working closely with Sweetwater to develop employees. “Jeff started with USF in Sept. 2010 after working for six years in sales and technical support at Sweetwater. He understood our culture and opportunities,” McDonald said.

“The program is very blended,” Rodgers said. “Sweetwater people teach as adjuncts. The sales and marketing class uses materials from Sweetwater’s sales training program, so our students have a leg up. We do a sophomore review that involves a mock interview and presenting a portfolio at Sweetwater. It’s almost a pre-screening. Sweetwater can then get to know our students for their last two years at USF.”

The first batch of Music Technology students graduated in 2012, and T.J. Bechill, who had already interned at Sweetwater in the recording studio and retail store, became the first official hire.

Our University of Saint Francis graduates are great employees and I am so honored and thrilled to have them on our team. They are Sweetwater’s future! – Chuck Surack

Sweetwater’s success hiring USF graduates led to an interest in students outside the Music Technology program. “It was natural to say hey, we’re growing, so what other disciplines can we pursue and help each other,” McDonald said. “We had hired Maggie Crampton in 2004 as a part-time receptionist while she attended USF. I asked her about other USF programs, so that led to internships in marketing, graphic design, photography and Web design. We ended up hiring grads from all those disciplines. Over the last five years, we’ve had three or four dozen USF interns in the studio, theater and marketing department.”

Now, USF grads fill other niches for Sweetwater. “We initially wanted music tech grads as sales people, but some with production backgrounds didn’t want to do sales. For two years, we’ve been hiring some of those students for technical support. We now have four USF students in part-time technical support,” McDonald said.

It fits like a hand in a ball glove. “We now have our local farm team,” McDonald said. “It’s like the Cubs having a Triple-A farm team five minutes away instead of halfway across the country. Students get to see what we’re like, and we get to see what they’re like—it’s been phenomenal.”

Today the partnership continues in the new Music Technology learning space, to be housed in the Downtown Campus in fall 2016. “Sweetwater has consulted on design space and put us with an acoustical engineer,” Rodgers said. “We’ve toured their studios and used their ideas. We better understand how to get it done.”