To say that Paul Reed Smith is passionate about guitars would be an understatement. Smith, a native of Bowie, Md., began making guitars in the attic of his childhood home, while attending St. Mary’s College of Maryland as a math major. He built his first one as a challenge to a music professor for some credits. He ended up earning an “A.”
“I always knew that this is what I wanted to do with my life—I just had to figure out a way to do it,” Smith, 51, said.
He left college after his sophomore year to chase his dreams of starting his own guitar business.
“It was obvious that I couldn’t make a living by selling one guitar at a time,” Smith said. “I had to go to market with more guitars, change my lifestyle or be very poor.”
Refusing to settle, Smith decided to hang outside local concert venues to make friends with roadies. He started snagging backstage passes and peddling his guitars to rock stars. After getting orders for more than 50 guitars, he built two prototypes. In 1984, he popped them in the back seat of his truck and called on guitar dealers along the East Coast.
He was able to launch his company a year later, after he secured enough orders to fund his venture.
In 1986, Smith contacted Gibson Guitar Corp. pioneer and former company president Ted McCarty, who was known for creating the famous Flying V guitar, and looked to him as a mentor.
“Ted was an extremely influential person in my career,” Smith said. “My advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is to find a teacher and glue yourself to them. You can learn so much from someone who has gone through it all before.”
Founder, managing general partner Paul Reed Smith Guitars (PRS Guitars) Stevensville, Md.Annual sales: $30 million-plusType of business: Manufacturer and online marketer of guitarsAreas of operation: Worldwide.
His collaboration with McCarty eventually gave rise to various innovative modifications, some of which have become standard to PRS guitar models. The Private Stock collection, PRS’ most high-end line of guitars, are made utilizing a vast range of exotic materials including various stones, elaborately figured tone woods and intricate shells for inlays.
Now, the company makes more than 15,000 guitars each year. Although consumers can’t purchase guitars online, the site does sell guitar accessories. Looking forward, Smith hopes to double the company size within the next three to five years.
“I really believe in the power of following your dreams, even through the hardest of times,” Smith said. He said he is inspired by those who never give up—from civil-rights pioneer Abraham Lincoln to Olympic Gold gymnast Kerri Strug, who clinched the world title in 1996 while competing on a broken ankle.
Although he no longer has time to work on guitars every day, his passion to build them never wavers. In his free time, Smith said he loves to fish and spend time his wife, three children and two stepchildren.