The Music Man

The Music Man

Phil Rich brings strategy, patience, fundamentals, focus, positive feedback, corrective direction, and celebration of achievements to everything he does—from playing guitar to flying planes.

One way or another, Phil Rich was destined for a music career. His military service included nearly seven years as a guitarist and sound engineer in the Navy Band. Back in civilian life, he worked briefly as a studio engineer. When that didn’t lead to a steady living, he took a job at a Guitar Center store in downtown Seattle. “That’s where I was around all the things that I loved, the music gear and the people,” says Rich. “That’s where I wanted to be.”

Rich still spends his days immersed in that world, now as senior vice president and chief supply chain officer at Sweetwater, a leading online retailer of musical instruments and professional audio equipment. Here’s a window into his role.

IL: How did an experience early in your career help to shape you as a leader?

I’m a competitive guy, and in my early days in music retail, I’d get riled up about things from time to time. The person who hired me for my first job would smile and say, “Let’s go talk to this customer together.” He would always turn things around. I learned early on that you can have a positive attitude about even the most difficult things, because we’re all just trying to do good things for our company and for other people.

IL: What are the biggest day-to-day supply chain challenges you deal with at Sweetwater?

Our daily challenge is customer demand for unique products that are brand-specific. People often want an exact model and color from an exact brand. Given the global supply chain challenges over the past few years, we have to work extra hard with the manufacturers to help them understand customer demand and get those products into our inventory. One complicating factor is that there’s so much demand for the newest products in the market. It’s like people lining up for the new car that was announced but nobody has yet.

IL: How do you match your inventory to that customer demand?

We’ve brought on some additional brands, in case there are opportunities for any substitutions. But the key is having access to a lot of breadth in all the brands, so we have as much of the assortment as possible. We used to keep three weeks’ worth of safety stock, but now we keep 90 days. And when we plan our inventory, we program in longer lead times for our orders.

IL: What longer-term supply chain challenges are you focused on?

We keep an eye on the chip shortage, which has a huge effect on our industry. We work with companies to make decisions about what products they should manufacture given the limited number of chips they have.

The other big challenge is the cost of delivery to the customer’s home. Like other e-commerce companies, we wrestle with delivery surcharges and rising fuel costs.

IL: How would you describe your leadership style?

I try to be warm with people, to give everybody at the company as much love as possible, but also to demand a lot from the team. We need to challenge people in two ways. Data and strategy are important, but people also need to develop the street smarts it takes to understand the competition and make the best decisions for our customers.

Teaching is also an important part of leadership. Every senior-level leader should teach something to someone every day: how to crunch a piece of data, how to solve a problem.

IL: What are you doing that’s new and interesting?

Sweetwater is in the midst of opening a new 350,000-square-foot fulfillment center in the Phoenix area. This is the first time we’ve had an operation outside Fort Wayne, Indiana. We’re setting up the new building to accommodate robotics and other technologies we haven’t used before.

Once this second facility is up and running, we expect to be able to deliver any product to any location in the United States in about three days or less.

IL: What’s most fun about your job?

Music is about bringing people together. It makes me feel good every day that we’re helping people enjoy the power of music. Also, I love to build teams. I love teaching. I love seeing people progress through careers. Mentoring people and seeing how that changes the trajectory of their lives—that’s the fun part.

IL: Have you had a mentor?

I’ve had several, but the one who comes to mind is Keith Brawley, who was vice president of merchandising for guitars and amps at Guitar Center when I was director of electric guitars. When I used to ask why our partner companies made certain decisions, he pointed out that every decision is made not by a faceless, nameless bureaucracy, but by an individual.

For the past 15 years, whenever I’ve had a concern about a decision, I would trace my way through a company until I got to that person. Every time I do that, I learn a lot.

IL: You’re an instrument-rated pilot. Tell us about that.

I grew up with my father teaching missionaries how to troubleshoot and repair avionics, so I was always around small airplanes. My first year in the Navy, I was lucky enough to work on the flight deck on the USS Midway CV-41, an aircraft carrier. When I joined Sweetwater, Chuck Surack, our chairman and founder, had just purchased a flight school a few miles away. I decided to dive in and get my pilot’s license.

Flying, like teaching, connects back to my professional career. Pilots need to follow checklists and processes but also need to think quickly and understand the aircraft from nose to tail.

IL: How else do you spend your time outside work?

I love to sharpen myself in as many ways as I can. For me, that means playing guitar, flying planes, and being the best leader, father, and husband I can be. Writing new music or playing someone else’s is a favorite way to get my mind off work.

I’m also a high performance driver education instructor, which means I spend my weekends at tracks around the region teaching drivers how to get around the track faster.

All the time and practice I’ve put into being a better teacher has made me a better leader. Strategy, patience, fundamentals, focus, positive feedback, corrective direction, and celebration of achievements—those are just a few of the things from teaching that cross over into my work and life.

The Virtue of Losing Your Balance

“A lot of people say it’s important to have balance in life,” says Phil Rich. “I say to them, try having a little unbalance.” Going all-in on a specific pursuit is the way to become great at something, he says.

“Trying to keep a balance can be somewhat like trying to make everyone happy; it just isn’t realistic,” Rich explains. “Achieving greatness requires putting your head down for long periods of time and focusing on one thing. Did Beethoven or Edison have a balanced life? I doubt it.”