Even in an industry that’s fueled by passion and populated by those who exude it, the PRS Guitars team distinguishes itself with its fanatical devotion to crafting exquisite instruments that inspire people to play and help fill the world with music. It’s no surprise, then, that the company’s National Sales Manager, Jim Cullen, describes his 20-year tenure with the Maryland-based manufacturer as a two-decade passion project. In this interview, Cullen discusses how he discovered music as a child and his drive to pursue it as a young man. That drive brought him to PRS, where he was embraced into the fold. Speaking from a uniquely knowledgeable position, Cullen delves into the factors that distinguish PRS from its peers. He also elucidates the unbreakable bond between the company and its dealer partners.
The Music & Sound Retailer: I know that you’re a talented musician. How did you get started playing?
Jim Cullen: First off, great question, and thank you for asking. I play music because of my father. He is a talented guitar player who made his living (for a time) playing in Chicago IL and touring the Midwest in the late ’60s into the early ’70s. But, I actually didn’t know any of that ’til I started playing music. Here’s what happened….
I had always loved the Beatles, but, at around 11 years old, I started listening to bands like Mötley Crüe. And, for some reason—probably because they looked “cool”—I asked my dad for a bass for Christmas. He didn’t really say much at the time. A few months passed. I had a birthday. It was getting close to Christmas, and I was hanging out with my friends at the house. My dad said, “Come here! Put these on, sit down and listen.” He handed me a set of headphones and gave me a stack of records. Among them were Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s “Tarkus,” Jeff Beck’s “Wired” and “Blow by Blow,” “Led Zeppelin I” through “Houses of the Holy,” and a few others. All I can say is that my life was changed.
I got a Fender Squier Katana bass for Christmas that year. I started taking lessons, joined a band and saved up for a P-Bass. I got a 76 “A” neck P-Bass, and it just became my life. I was playing, on average, around 20 gigs per month, while also trying to attend community college. I chose to follow my passion, which was music. Fortunately, I was always encouraged by my family.
The Retailer: Did your passion for music grease the skids in terms of getting the job at PRS Guitars?
Cullen: Well, aside from the typical “odd jobs” that young people have, playing music was really my life. When I was 19 years old, I lived in a house with my band and traveled around parts of the country a bit, “working” to expand the minds of deadheads, while playing music and throwing festivals at our old farmhouse. The last one was a little too large and ended somewhat abruptly. All good things come to an end, or must pass, or…you know what I’m saying.
Anyway, I brushed myself off and had to figure out what I was going to do with my life, and how I could incorporate music. So, I took the local guitar shop owner out to lunch and asked for a job. That gig lasted roughly two years or so, and my final position was managing the shop. I sold lots of PRS while I worked there.
The Retailer: What initially brought you to PRS Guitars, when the company hired you in January 1997? Was there something in particular that attracted you to PRS? If so, what was it?
Cullen: Well, I grew up in Annapolis MD, and, as we all know, that is where the company began its journey. What attracted me to PRS was that they were local boys. Many of the folks working there were my friends, and they were trying new things and making great guitars.
I’ve always loved old Fender guitars and basses, so it just became a Fender and PRS world to me, because I grew up around both brands. Just about all my bandmates somehow figured out how to get a PRS, and a ton of musicians around town played them. I remember going to Chuck Levin’s Washington Music Center to buy an amp or whatever and, while I was waiting to be helped, I would just stare at them. And I’m a bass player, so WTF? [Laughs.] Kidding!
Really, they always sounded nice in the bands I was in. In fact, even today, in my band Elder Statesmen, the guitarist plays an older Starla. And, in the other band I play in, with my father and brother, my pops plays an NF3. Oddly, PRS has always been a part of my life in one way or another.
The Retailer: Having been with PRS Guitars for nearly 20 years, give us a sense of how you’ve built a career within the company.
Cullen: I started as a 220 sander. It was a tough environment, because everyone gives a shit here. So, they push you to be your best. I say “push” and, boy, do I mean it! I think I wanted to quit my first week because I was razzed so hard. Thankfully, it’s in a very loving manner, and I was embraced into the fold. I sanded for a while, and then I moved over to staining, where the initial color coats are applied by hand. That was a fun job! I did some spray prep before poly, and I was a floater in the finish hall, finally landing at topcoat prep. That was a job where I got to solve problems and, since I enjoy using my brain, it was quite a rewarding (yet frustrating) job.
At some point, in early 1999, a Customer Service position was posted. I applied, and I got the job. Talk about being thrown into the fire! All I can say is that I learned a great deal about the history of the company in a very short time. In parallel, I also managed the archives, threw forum events, attended the NAMM Show…. We wear a lot of hats here. In 2004, I got an inside sales job, doing all the grunt work, which grew into being the Key Accounts Manager and, eventually, into what I do today. We’re a fairly small company, so, at this point, my hands are in many of the pots.
The Retailer: What is the best part of being PRS Guitars’ National Sales Manager? What makes you most eager and excited to get to the office in the morning?
Cullen: I love the people here and in the field. They are some of the most caring, sarcastic, hilariously loving and smartest people I’ve ever met. That—and my family—keeps me giving it my all every day.
What I’ve learned about myself over the course of, say, the past 10 years is that I like to help people. I like to see them succeed and achieve happiness. Every day is important and part of our short time on the planet. So, if you can do something better…learn something…help with something, then why wouldn’t you?
Because of my diverse background here, and having done jobs in production, service and sales, I’ve developed some really great relationships with our dealers and some people in our industry. Some are old; some are new. But, if you establish trust with one another, it makes all the other stuff a bit easier.
The Retailer: What is the “secret sauce” at PRS Guitars that serves to distinguish the company not only from its direct competitors in the guitar space, but also from MI companies more broadly?
Cullen: Passion. If you’ve ever hung with Paul, you know that is one thing you can say about him: The man is driven by his passion. That same passion is part of our moral fiber at PRS. The crew here is passionate about making the best guitars and amps that we can. We try hard, and we beat the shit out of each other and our products to be sure we’re doing our absolute best. We’re continually asking ourselves how we can make it better than it is right now. A blessing and curse, but it’s what we do.
We are a group of guitar builders, and our main focus is making magical instruments to inspire and create with. Obviously, we focus on other things to keep the business running, but, at its heart, it is making heirloom-quality instruments. That mantra runs deep in our veins and into all our products, from Private Stock on down.
The Retailer: Among PRS Guitars’ achievements, of which are you the proudest, and with which have you been most closely involved?
Cullen: Well, I’d have to say that reestablishing our domestic distribution model was a big one. It was like turning chaos into order, in that it went from being the wild west to us all marching to the same beat, just by putting a sound plan in place. I beat it up for months, and we got inside sales, reps, dealers, marketing and accounting all to align. We basically just put up some rails to steer a unified mission and, now, we’re at least singing from the same songbook. From what I understand, our dealers are happier than in years past.
There’s also the S2 Series, which I was involved with from the inception. To work with our President, as well as engineering, purchasing, production, etc., was another big moment for me. Necessity is the mother of invention, and all I can say is that it was time! Like I said earlier, we’re guitar builders, and our mission is to build exceptional instruments. But, in this case, it was a challenge to start with a price point and work backward to the final product.
Once the S2 Series was under our belts, so to speak, R&D Project Engineer Jon Wasserman and I worked up the design for the Vela. It took over a year to get all the parts right. We presented it to the group, and we agreed to march forward with the goal that it could bring new customers to the brand. It is currently the second-best seller in the S2 Series, and there are plans to expand on the platform.
The Retailer: On the flip side, talk about one or two challenges you’ve faced during your time with PRS, discussing how you identified the problem and then worked to get past it.
Cullen: There was a time in the not-too-distant past when we overproduced, and the market was a bit flooded with our core product. Enter the S2 Series. We made some very difficult choices and laid out a three-year plan to achieve them. It was pretty scary, cutting our core production in order to bring a new line of price-point-based instruments to market. But, we made the big gamble to fill a much-needed hole in our product line and broaden our customer base. S2 brings our dealers a more tangible “everyday” step up from our SE product line, without having to jump all the way to our core price point. Because the instruments deliver the same value proposition as the rest of our products, but with a bit of a different vibe, we were able to satisfy our current customers and attract new players at the same time.
Policing MAP is also a challenge, as we do not have sophisticated software to handle it for us. It is a very manual process for us that greatly helps retain our brand equity and keep money in our dealers’ pockets. We stick with it, and we all take turns poking around on the interweb, looking for rogue listings.
The Retailer: Give our brick-and-mortar dealer readers insight into PRS Guitars’ commitment to working through the dealer channel, as opposed to pursuing direct sales. To what extent is a firm commitment to the dealer channel a fundamental part of PRS’ core approach to doing business?
Cullen: Well, without our dealers, we would not exist. Our dealers are our sales and distribution channel, thus making them a beloved part of our team. To start PRS, Paul took two prototype instruments up and down the east coast of the U.S., soliciting orders. By the time his trip was complete, he had secured $300,000 worth of orders with no factory to build them in. This was the commitment he needed to get the company going and get the initial factory up and running. So, that belief in the products and our vision from brick-and-mortar dealers—many of which are still with us today—helped launch our company. There is a lot of water under that bridge, and we value our relationships greatly.
We actually host quite a few dealers at the shop for various reasons: education, to build Private Stock or Wood Library instruments, etc. But, with every visit, we share things we are working on to gain feedback and insight from our highly valued sales channel. It’s invaluable, if you ask me. (And, since you did, here I am, stating it out loud again, for redundancy’s sake.)
The Retailer: What trends have you identified over the last year or so, relative to acoustic versus electric, genre popularity, strength or weakness at particular price points, and features that are more or less in demand?
Cullen: Although SE, S2 and CEs are nice and steady, the demand for our core product has really picked up. This is for a variety of reasons, obviously, but drying up the market, the alignment of key artists like John Mayer and the McCarty 594 model introduction earlier this year have all helped the cause.
Regarding acoustics, music is currently in such a different place. The lack of highly visible, inspirational guitar “rock bands” to kick-start a person to want to play electric guitar may put it in a lesser place than it has been in some time.
Acoustics in general are also somewhat less of an investment. What I mean by that is, in the end, all you need is the guitar. There are established electric players who want to continue to gig, but “full band” bar gigs are drying up. So, it becomes more intriguing to do solo and duo gigs.
Trends ebb and flow, though. It’s our job to create compelling products, at a variety of price points, to inspire the creation of music. PRS is primarily known for electric guitars, but, within the last few years, we have gotten into the acoustic and amplifier markets.
We’ve also expanded our price points in electrics, and we have plans to spread our wings into a segment of the electric market that we’re not really in right now. So, when the tide turns, PRS Guitars and our dealers should be able to prosper from every angle.
The Retailer: What does the future hold for PRS Guitars over the next year, three years or five years? What can company watchers expect to see from you?
Cullen: Focus. Our goal is vertical alignment in our products to create a clean and clear path for our dealers and end customers to navigate. There is a lot going on, most of which I can’t really talk about just yet. It’s funny you ask this, though, because we just had an ongoing series of three-to-five-year product roadmap meetings. All I can say is there are more ideas than time allows. Some are category expansions, and some could possibly create altogether new categories for us.
It’s an exciting time at PRS. All our teams are gelling, and we are marching forth with our employees, dealers, distributors and customers in an effort to deliver our very best every day. There is so much to look forward to that we’re bursting at the seams with focused excitement.