By Jessica Borders
Times West Virginian
Andrew White identifies himself simply as a guitar-maker.
But this guitar-maker’s Morgantown-based business is going global.
White, originally from Annapolis, Md., came to Morgantown to attend West Virginia University, where he graduated with a dual degree in philosophy and Spanish.
While traveling in Spain during college, he bought a guitar and asked to see the guitar maker’s tiny shop, which is how he got interested in making his own guitars.
“The light bulb went off,” White said.
He saw building a guitar as the biggest and coolest challenge he could possibly find for himself at the time, and also as an exercise in patience.
“For me, it was big, and I loved that about it,” White said of the idea.
For Christmas, his sister gave him enough wood for one instrument, three clamps and three chisels. A year later, he had successfully built one guitar, and he made two more the following year. After that, he starting pushing his guitar-making really hard.
White remembers how two people asked him on the very same day if he had heard about West Virginia University’s Business Plan Competition, hosted by the College of Business and Economics’ Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and encouraged him to enter.
During the competition, he found out just how much business leaders want to help young people succeed as entrepreneurs.
“The most important thing that I learned from that competition is that there is a support network that exists in this state and in this community that really wants to see small, creative, interesting businesses in their community,” White said.
He was named the winner of the 2005 Business Plan Competition. In 2006, the annual contest went statewide and opened up to full-time students at all four-year colleges and universities across West Virginia.
It now has two categories — Lifestyle & Innovation and Hospitality & Tourism — and awards $10,000 and a bundle of business services to the top team in each category.
White said WVU’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship continues to provide support for his business, Andrew White Guitars. The West Virginia Small Business Development Center and INNOVA Commercialization Group have been a great help to him as well.
Steve Cutright, director of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and a consulting team at WVU are working with White to assist and guide his business development. Cutright said recently that White had a passion for building guitars from the beginning.
“He had a dream of building guitars that musicians, famous people as well as just everyday individuals would play,” Cutright said.
“I watched that vision and passion grow from the time I first met Andrew up until the time that I just recently came to WVU full-time as director of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center. I’ve watched a full transformation of Andrew to where he was able to pursue his dream to go out and compete in a global market on a global basis.”
After winning the competition, White moved his wood shop out of his apartment and got a proper space for his business in Morgantown. With his $10,000 prize, he was also able to purchase some materials and a few key pieces of machinery, which gave him more control over the product he was building, and started marketing in a small way.
While building his business, White faced a lot of struggles, especially financially.
“A lot of people are going to tell you maybe you should go back to school, maybe you should get a job,” he said. “But I was able to get enough insight that I was still moving in the right direction, enough support at just the right time to make sure that I kept going in the direction of my business.”
White said it’s important for new business owners to keep their passion strong while going up against those challenges.
“If you start to lose your core values and your core philosophies, it compromises your ability to be innovative, and as an entrepreneur you need to be an innovator,” he said.
“Most importantly, have a really fun time, because if you’re not having fun ... you’re going to stray from that stuff.”
When looking at White’s operations, people see that he works in a very small shop building prototype instruments for clients who order high-end, custom guitars. But there’s more to the business than meets the eye.
About 18 months ago, he began conversations with a Korean company called Artec Sound. The two parties came to an agreement on Dec. 20, 2011, with Artec Sound making a massive investment in White’s brand and designs.
Artec Sound created a manufacturing facility for his guitars in Korea and has the capacity to do 10,000 units a month. The products are now being distributed all over the world, including to the United States, China, Brazil, Europe, Peru, Malaysia and other major regions.
The factory is about four or five months into producing instruments, and is seeing 500 to 1,000 guitars go out every month to major distributors globally.
White stressed that Andrew White Guitars is a West Virginia company, but it is partnering with a Korean company. This is not a situation where jobs have been shipped overseas, he explained.
“It is very much an American company that just offers a Korean-made product as well as our American-made products,” he said. “We are very good partners.”
By partnering, White said he has been able to create large opportunities for business development and growth in West Virginia. Artec Sound is marketing this brand globally, and that is creating brand recognition for a product developed and designed in the state.
White is working to build a distribution center in West Virginia which would import and sell the high-quality Andrew White Guitars throughout the country and also distribute them globally. Right now, he’s working to develop a strategy and raise capital for this facility.
He explained that a dealer of guitars in China, for example, would typically want to buy the Korean version of Andrew White Guitars. But maybe 10 percent of customers want a more expensive unit, and they will also be able to buy the American-made Andrew White Guitars.
White said 150 guitars are on their way into the United States, and his company will be working to sell and distribute those instruments. These guitars are from Andrew White Guitars’ Goddess Series and are for sale online at www.andrewwhiteguitars.com.
The company will also soon be going to the largest music industry trade show in the world, which is held in California in January. White is looking for some big-name artists to endorse his products as well.
“The beautiful thing about it is I still do make guitars,” he said, “I’m working to just personally build great guitars for guitar players who need great guitars.”
He explained that he designs his guitars based on what he wants, what looks good and what affects the acoustics in different ways.
“The acoustic guitar industry has really been focused on very traditionally designed instruments,” White said. “I didn’t look at any other guitars when I designed my instruments. When you look at the instruments, you can clearly see that they are more contemporary.”
He designed the guitars in his Goddess Series and Signature Series. But Andrew White Guitars also offers a line of absolute traditional instruments, called the Deckers Creek Collection. His designs often give musicians the attributes of two different traditional guitars in one instrument, which has been a big selling point, White said.
The popular band Maroon5 contacted White to have him make a guitar, and he got to deliver the finished product to them during one of their concerts. He is currently working with country star Craig Morgan.
White has also developed guitars for artists like Cathy King, Larry Keel, Keller Williams, and Adam Aijala from Yonder Mountain String Band. Some of his local customers are the Davisson Brothers Band and Trae Buckner from The Hillbilly Gypsies.
He said he loves the actual guitar-making the most, and he enjoys the challenge that comes along with the trade as well as building his business.
“The challenge of building a great guitar is basically endless,” White said. “It’s not money to me at all — it’s this wonderful challenge of building a great company.”
Email Jessica Borders at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @JBordersTWV.