Instrumental success

Guitars: Paul Reed Smith started building guitars in 1976, completing one a month. Today his factory on the Eastern Shore turns out more than 50 a day.

January 01, 2002|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

STEVENSVILLE -- The sounds and smells at the Paul Reed Smith Guitars factory are similar to those of other manufacturing operations: The steely whir of automated machinery as drills and blades bite into wood; the scuffing sounds of workers hand-sanding wood to buttery smoothness; scents of sawdust, glue and lacquer lingering in the air.

But amid the industrial clatter, there's live music. Near the electronics assembly area, an employee conducts the musical equivalent of a test drive, plucking the strings of a Paul Reed Smith guitar.

Here in an office park on Kent Island, a business that took root in a small room in Annapolis in the 1970s has grown into one of the most respected names in the guitar industry. Some of the hottest acts in music -- from Creed to Limp Bizkit -- are playing these guitars today.

"Really what we're doing is trying to not just make a utilitarian instrument to play music on," said Paul Reed Smith, the company's 45-year-old founder and managing general partner. "We're trying to make something that's beautiful, that someone can be proud of."

These days, the guitar business is good, even as the economy grapples with recession. Smith said that revenue will be $21.5 million for 2001 -- a doubling in two years. And the 25,000- square-foot factory, where they complete 52 guitars a day, will soon get a companion on the same property: a 20,000-square- foot building, Smith said.

"We're going to double in size in a year," he said.

The parking lot in the corporate office park here overflows with the cars of its 164 employees, many of whom never helped build a guitar in their lives before coming to PRS. They receive training to perform jobs in the factory's wood shop, electronics assembly or finishing areas.

In the electronics assembly area, where workers put together the electrical guts of the guitars, five-year employee Helen Runk works with wire that's as thin as a piece of human hair.

"I know when I first started, I thought, `My God, I can't even see this wire,'" Runk said.

In the woodshop area, where all workers wear earplugs or ear muffs, Sam Barnes manages a group of 16 employees who build and sand the guitar necks that are attached to the guitar bodies. The various woods used include mahogany, rosewood and rock maple, he said.

"The end product -- it's stunning," said Barnes. "This is by far the greatest job I ever had."

I. Katherine Magruder, director of the Queen Anne's County Department of Business and Tourism, said she has toured the factory on several occasions and observed a "real sense of pride and ownership" in the guitars the workers made.

"They know that the instruments are used by professional musicians," she said. "They know that what they do has meaning."

Nearly two years ago, after Carlos Santana won a Grammy award for his album "Supernatural," he paid a visit to the PRS factory. In 1980, Santana was one of Smith's first high-profile converts to his guitars.

"Carlos Santana? It was a big deal," Smith said about Santana's impact on his business in the early years. "He's a human being, but he's also an icon. It was a milestone."

Smith's largest competitors still dwarf his company. Gibson Musical Instruments and Fender Musical Instruments Corp., for example, have been two of the heavyweights in the electric guitar business for decades -- both have sales in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Smith's guitars, though, have earned a following over the years that continues to grow.

"He stands alone in inspiring the next generation of luthiers," said Jon Chappell, content director for the Music Player Network, which publishes Guitar Player magazine. A luthier is a maker of stringed musical instruments.

"For one thing, his product is so distinctive," Chappell said. "A PRS doesn't look like a knockoff of a Gibson or a Fender. It's much easier to make a quick buck and be derivative, but he didn't do that."

Nearly 80 percent of Smith's guitars are sold domestically through 350 dealers. But the foreign market is getting better, he said. The guitars differ in style and color, and prices range from $550 to $20,000.

Many have stylistic flourishes drawn from Smith's life. For example, birds with widespread wings decorate the necks of many of his guitars. Smith's mother was a birder and field guide.

Smith got his start in 1976 when he left St. Mary's College early and headed for Annapolis, where he rented a room above the Rams Head Tavern for $100 a month. There, he mostly repaired guitars, but managed to make one guitar a month.

Then he'd go out and pitch them to rock stars. He'd lug his guitars to concerts, often talking his way backstage and getting them into the hands of musicians. His reputation grew along with his business: He moved into a larger Annapolis space in 1985 and finally across the Chesapeake Bay to Stevensville five years ago.

"He's a very driven individual and he's very intense," said Chappell of Music Player. "The fact that he made quality guitars in his basement was not that unusual. What's really remarkable was the business model he created. ... He's now a household name to any guitar player."

The popularity of Smith's guitars also increased, Chappell said, when he introduced lower-cost models as a result of implementing construction measures that allowed him to lower his prices. The factory has several sophisticated $100,000 robotic machines that do work in minutes that used to take hours. From start to finish now, it takes about 18 days to build a guitar.

Smith chalks up the company's recent growth spurt to a well-tuned production process.

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