In Magazine Article, News
Oct/Nov 2021 cover

Read this article in the digital edition of our Oct/Nov 2021 issue.

By Tina Irgang Leaderman

PRS Guitars has come a long way from its humble beginnings in founder Paul Reed Smith’s Annapolis garret.

“I was lucky if I finished a guitar a month,” he recalled in a written company history. “Once a guitar was completed, I’d play it at a gig — field testing in the purest sense.”

Compare that to today’s PRS, which is the third-largest guitar builder in the U.S. — after Fender and Gibson — and whose instruments are played by such prominent musicians as Carlos Santana and John Mayer. The company’s state-of-the-art factory in Stevensville, Md. employs more than 400 people, who produce around 1,800 electric guitars each month.

Paul Reed Smith and Jack Higginbotham

Paul Reed Smith (left) and Jack Higginbotham.

It’s been a long, crazy road for PRS, and for COO Jack Higginbotham, who joined the company the year it was founded: 1985.

“I was a musician playing around Baltimore and Washington and basically saw that that was not going to be leading to fame and riches,” Higginbotham said. “Paul was starting the factory, and I just wanted to stay involved in music in some way.”

Since then, Higginbotham has worked his way around the company, from building guitars himself to serving as PRS’ President.

Now, as COO, Higginbotham is in charge of the company’s push to expand its international business. He has been working closely with Cort Guitars and other Asian manufacturing partners to ensure that guitars made there meet PRS’ stringent quality standards. “We have a true partnership where we very respectfully know that we augment each other’s business,” he said. “It’s unusual to have such a collaborative effort.”

Relationship With Port Supports PRS’ Growth

With a greater emphasis on overseas manufacturing obviously comes a greater volume of imports and exports. “The Port of Baltimore is certainly seeing a whole lot more of our stuff flowing in and out,” Higginbotham said. “Our communication with the Port has been almost constant.”

Meghan Efland

Meghan Efland

While COVID has created procurement and logistical challenges across the maritime industry, he said, “we’ve never gotten the sense that there’s any apathy or lackadaisicalness at the Port. Everybody is working as hard as they can to make things happen, and we appreciate that.”

PRS’ Director of Supply Chain, Meghan Efland, agreed. “We have a really good relationship with our representatives at the Port of Baltimore,” she said. “When we do have to import or export through other ports, we don’t get the same service level or one-on-one contact. In Baltimore, we can rely on the containers coming in and getting turned around in a day or two.”

These quick turnarounds have been especially crucial as PRS’ needs have grown. “We used to only do one or two containers a month, but now we’re doing more like six to eight, and the majority of them are full container loads,” she said. “Over the last few years, PRS has experienced 16% to 20% growth year over year.”

While other businesses saw demand for their products slow down during COVID, PRS experienced the opposite. “If you put yourself in the mindset of March 2020,” Efland said, “there were so many unknowns. You started thinking about things you want in life, and purchases you always wanted to make. A lot of people bought guitars.”

PRS Guitars

Manufacturing a PRS Guitar is a delicate, lengthy process that results in a smooth, well-balanced instrument.

Or, as Higginbotham puts it, “I think the pandemic catalyzed people that there was something artistic inside of them, and the instrument would help them explore that.”

All this is not to say that PRS came through COVID unscathed. At the outset of the pandemic, PRS was deemed a non-essential manufacturer and shut down. When the factory was finally allowed to reopen, it did so in phases, bringing back first 25% of the staff, then 50%, then 100%, as PRS adjusted its protocols to keep employees as safe as possible.

Despite the shutdown and slow reopening, the skyrocketing demand for guitars meant that PRS had “the best year of our existence” in 2020, Higginbotham said, “and that’s 100% on the shoulders of the people who work here. They did a fantastic job.”

As PRS continues to grow, it will maintain the focus on quality sourcing that has been a major component of its guitars’ popularity. “PRS is known for its engineered parts,” Efland said. “We rarely buy something that’s off the shelf. Most of it is designed by our team of engineers and custom-built for us.”

Another reason PRS’ future quality is guaranteed: company founder Paul Reed Smith himself is still very much involved in the running of the business, and “he is constantly driving to make a better product,” Efland said. “He never turns his brain off, so it’s always thinking about how to make the guitars sound better.”

Given the continued uncertainty surrounding global logistics and the supply chain, it pays to be cautious, but on the whole, PRS’ leadership team is optimistic. As Higginbotham put it, “things look extraordinarily positive for us as a company right now.”

PRS Guitars at a Glance

Location: 380 Log Canoe Cir., Stevensville, MD 21666

Year Founded: 1985

Founder: Paul Reed Smith

Employees: Approx. 420