Dad goes on a trip so his sons can play video games, but can’t help but stop by a place for business. Actually, though, it was more like stopping by a toy shop for big boys and girls who want to “play” with music gear of all kinds.
Full Compass Systems has been around since 1977, and has been part of the music scene in Wisconsin and nationally since the 1990s. Started as a professional studio and then becoming a retail store, the company grew quickly under the leadership of Jonathan and Susan Lipp.
While I didn’t spend time with them directly at their store, as they were out at a NAMM event in Washington DC, my sons and I toured their 140,000-square-foot headquarters in Madison, Wisconsin this March with Laurie Andres. Laurie was a great guide, showing us around from the offices to the warehouse and the employee bistro. I spoke with the owners a few weeks after our visit.
Jonathan Lipp: The history of the company dates all the way back to 1971, when I was one of the partners in what was called Full Compass Sound Studios. It was a recording studio, the first studio that was oriented towards popular music and commercial work in Madison in 1971— first multitrack studio. And I was an engineer in the studio. I designed and built much of the equipment in the studio. So my first few years were spent as a recording engineer.
In 1977 I split away from the studio and created a new company, which is this company, called Full Compass Systems, which was dedicated to selling professional audio equipment. In 1977 the largest national market— and I was going after national, not a local market because Madison has a quarter-million people. I mean, it’s a nice medium-sized town but really can’t support a pro audio dealer— the only national market at that time was radio broadcast.
So that was my focus, which included tape recorders, turntable, mixers, microphones, headphones, the sorts of things they would use at a radio station in those days. And also, I built one of my first DJ mixers in 1977 for a local club. There wasn’t much on the market back in ‘77. And unfortunately I really didn’t understand the club DJ business at the time, so I designed a miniature broadcast mixer.
And it was not— like all broadcast mixers— capable of doing deep mixing where you listen to your live channel and a queued-up channel so you can synchronize two discs to be on the same beat, because I didn’t understand that. I didn’t understand that market properly. But that was my first experience with club. And subsequently I very quickly learned what that was about. But at that time, that was a very, very small industry. There was very little and very crude equipment available for those purposes.
As time went on— and it’s still going on— we have continuously broadened our clientele. I can tell you quite clearly that even today there is no majority profile of who our customers are. They range from people who do DJ work, to broadcasters, houses of worship, schools, government, television broadcasters, and theatrical lighting people.
We sell a broad range of equipment to a broad range of customers. So we really aren’t a specialist in anything. I would probably describe it as national generalists. But what differentiates us operationally from many other dealers is that we do have a 4500-square-foot showroom. We have a 4500-square-foot studio, which allows us to do seminars, webinars, live events.
But only about 3 percent of our business is local, even though we have a good retail presence here in Madison. We have 50 real salespeople. These are career salespeople; average tenure is around 19 years…who’s the oldest now, Susan?
Susan Lipp: Our oldest salesperson has been working for us for 30 years. Mike has been with us forever. He started out as a shipper, and he was the shipping department when he started 30 years ago. But he has developed into a salesman and he’s been selling for probably about 25 years.
We have 185 employees, full-time— everybody that is an employee of Full Compass is on full-time… They also have full benefits; a very, very heavy benefit package. About one-third of their salary is in benefit.
J L: So these are people who have learned many, many different markets…
R B: Wow…I saw the sales area; I saw the warehouse. I mean, there’s no doubt you are a stocking dealer of a ton of popular products… Susan, you joined the company just a couple years after; it says here 1978 as the second employee.
J L: I met Susan about six months after I started the company. Six months after that she quit her job and joined me as an equal partner in this business. So she’s been here for all practical purposes since the beginning.
Our very first year our total sales were about $33,000. And I think that I can time $33,000 on the second hand of watch at this point. We broke $100 million last year, so that puts it in perspective. It did not happen all at once.
S L: We actually broke $110 million last year…we’re pretty proud of that. But we’ve socked most of our money. Everything that we’ve made has gone back into the business because this whole business was started on $11,000…we were pretty church mouse-poor…I was managing a professional theater for almost nothing and Jonathan was still working in the studio.
J L: A typical starving recording engineer.
R B: But you guys got together and have built this business. I mean, I saw your building that you moved into just a couple years ago and got the tour of it and saw the cafeteria and everything that you have for employees because you want the employees to be eating well and stay onsite with everything. The massive warehouse— I mean, you really have put some personal touch into things. My tour guide even gave me a very quick peek into your office…
S L: Did you also notice the fact that we sit in the same office?
R B: Yeah.
R B: From what I understand, many of your employees are working musicians, and some working DJs. Is that something you’re looking for when you’re interviewing an employee, that they already understand the music industry?
S L: Well…about eight or 10 years ago we started something kind of unique, that is we started giving headhunting fees to the employees. If they bring somebody in, I hand them $50 out of my purse. And if they’re here (the new employee) a year later, they get another $200…We have such little turnover that this week— I just checked with HR to find out who I owe money to, about five minutes before I got on the phone— I found that I owe another $150 in headhunting fees…They take a lot of pride in bringing one of their friends in. And obviously they like working here enough to bring other people here. You don’t hear people grousing about, “I have to go to work; I hate this place; it’s awful; the food’s lousy.” You don’t hear any of that.
We also do extraordinary testing. So when you ask if they are musicians, most of them are musicians. Ninety percent of the people that work here come from a musical background…We have given orders to every one of our managers that they must hire people smarter than they are. Which means the last guy hired is a genius and I’m the most stupid one in the whole place.
R B: (Laughs.) When I was getting the tour, Laurie was telling me that you guys were very proud of your connection with the local scene, both musically and through charities and everything. Tell us a little bit about your feelings on giving back to the community that has done so much for you.
S L: Well, both Jonathan and I have the same kind of parental background. Our parents were very heavily involved, especially our mothers— heavily involved in charity work; gave back always; always had a Sadaka box, which means a charity box where all of their change would go into the box. If you came into our office, if you saw my desk, I have three Sadaka boxes on my desk. And if you went inside you’d find hundreds of dollars sitting in these little boxes. All that money goes to different charities.
JL:I would say we have a number of different channels that we raise money for. One is that we do have a dress code here, but we have occasional dress-down Fridays, but people have to pay for the privilege. Just with that in itself, we raise I’d say close to $20,000 a year for a variety of charities…Plus we sponsor fundraising events for a variety of charities, mostly in the arts.
S L: We have a golf outing next month and all of the money that is coming in from the golf outing—.
with usually quite a heavy chunk coming in from Jonathan and me personally— that money will
go into our scholarship fund at the University of Wisconsin. We have two scholarships right now that are fully funded, and one goes to an undergrad in the school of music. Last year it was somebody in the strings program. Even though we don’t sell strings and are not involved with strings, we still gave somebody a scholarship in the strings program. This year we are doing it for a student who will be in the percussion program.
And then we have a second scholarship, and that is in the University of Wisconsin theatre and drama department, and also this will be for undergrads. Graduate students can very easily get money. They always seem to be able to get money from the school somehow. But undergrads don’t, and that was the reason we decided to go with undergrad as our scholarships.
J L: But we also do do fundraisers for local orchestras, acting groups, plus other charities that include local mental health centers, farmland sanctuary— what other ones are we doing this year?
S L: Well, the Arthritis Foundation. We have one for WYSO, which is the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra, and that one will be coming up next month. This month we have the Journey Mental Health Association, which is another board that Jonathan sits on.
We do a lot of fundraisers for boards that we personally sit on. Jonathan and I have run a big event yearly for the Circus World Museum, which houses the largest collection of circus memorabilia in the world, especially circus wagons.
J L: It’s the original home of the Ringling Bros., which is in Wisconsin.
S L: And last year we raised $209,000, which we were pretty proud.
R B: You also appear to be very proud of the educational workshops you do in the store. Can you give us a little bit more information about that?
S L: Sure. We do workshops not only for people outside of the store, where we bring in people— like Lesley Ann Jones came in and did a workshop for us on miking techniques for recording.
J L: She’s the chief engineer at Skywalker Ranch…One of the coolest seminars that we did in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin, which is relevant to your industry, is that we hosted a seminar with Cool Herc…He invented the term “break-dancing.”…He started looping using two identical records where he would take, let’s say, a drum break in a James Brown number, and loop it between two turntables and keep it going indefinitely for however long people wanted to dance. And that’s where the term “breakdance” came from, because it was the drum break that he would loop between two discs.
Now, that particular drum break was played by a drummer who used to be on the road with James Brown, called Clyde Stubblefield, who lives here in Madison and is still a performing drummer. The two of them had never met. Of course, Clyde never saw a cent from all the people doing samples of his drum breaks. He’s the most sampled drummer; he’s the original “funky drummer.” And they got to meet—
S L: — at Full Compass—
J L: — and performed together. So we do a very wide variety of training and seminars…One of the other groups, which is based at the University of Wisconsin, is called First Wave…It’s an urban poetry program which kind of mixes in between hip-hop and DJ work and they usually mix and perform together.
S L: And they always have a DJ performing with the group.
R B: Wow. That’s a great progression from what was a local recording studio becoming a national player in all these different industries, and you guys are still realistic, connected with the industry personally, and giving back constantly.
Go to FullCompass.com for more information.
Filed Under: Issue #143, Lighting, Profiles, Sound
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