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MojoTone: A Factory Tour

Mojo Risin' ...

 

by Blake Wright

 

 

 

ON THE DAY of our visit, the headquarters of leading music equipment manufacturer and supplier Mojotone was abuzz with the normal activity on a Wednesday morning. The crew of 50-plus staff at the Burgaw, North Carolina facility was fulfilling orders, milling cabinets, wiring pickups — all the things they would be doing any other workday. But there was something different happening as well. Boxes lined a few of the main building corridors and inventory was being palleted, wrapped and readied. Readied for the big move. The company was relocating to a new facility about a mile and a half away. It was a shell building that the county built to attract business. Mojotone bought it from the county.

“This building is 25,000 square feet and we have two 5,000 square feet building across the street,” explains Mike McWhorter, chief executive officer of Mojotone. “We’re moving to a 40,000 square foot building that is just right down the road. They just put the floor in last week. It’s two stories. We’ll be able to fit all three building inside. It has 30-foot ceilings, where these are 14. So we’ll be able to go high with everything. It’ll give us a lot more room. You can see, we’re pretty packed in here.”

 

   

Mojotone has over one thousand suppliers and over 5,000 SKUs. Just looking at a single speaker cabinet, there is a company that makes the handle hardware, another that makes the leather handle, the coverings, the copperhead screws, the feet, corners — all of the additional hardware. There are over 10 vendors on one cab.

The current Mojotone main building houses much of manufacturing and shipping, while the smaller units across the street house a second wood shop and laser CNC machines.

“We do the circuit boards and faceplates for all of our kit amps,” says McWhorter. “We do faceplates for a bunch of different amp companies, logos for companies, pedal parts. We have two wood shops. One across the street and this one in this building does most of our OEM stuff. We build cabinets for over 100 different amp companies.

The shop across the street mainly does all of our stock cabinets… so the tweed stuff, the blackface stuff, Marshall stuff. Some companies will do two to three at a time, other guys will do 400 to 500 a month.

We’ll do all kinds of custom stuff — specific dimensions, colors.”

 

   

The road to Burgaw was an interesting one for Mojotone. The company began as Mojo Musical Supply — catalog sales company out of Petaluma, California, but hit a rough patch in the late 1990s and was looking to sell. Meanwhile, McWhorter, while attending Wake Forest University, took a job in Winston-Salem with current business partner Andy Turner at his amp repair shop. A few years in, Turner got into buying surplus from instrument companies. eBay was young, but a solid avenue for finding extra parts. It was through the internet that Turner came to know of Mojo.

“Andy made a deal just to buy his complete inventory,” recalls McWhorter. “I had decided I was going to go to Med-school since my plan to be a rock star hadn’t worked out. I had applied to Med school and I was waiting to hear back and randomly ran into Andy who was in the process of moving everything from California. So I jumped in with him. We found an old RJR warehouse in downtown Winston and moved all of the stuff there. We started going through everything to figure out what we had. We found an old box of catalogs a couple of weeks in. The old catalog had an 800 number on it. We decided we should turn that back on and see what happens. So we transfer the 800 number and the phone just kept ringing. Guys looking for transformers for old Bassmans, etc… So we started selling and shipping stuff out.”

For a year and a half, it was just the two men, answering phones and taking order from 10am to 7pm each weekday, then breaking for dinner, then driving over to the warehouse, which was a mile or so down the road, to pack up the day’s orders and leave them on a pallet for the UPS man to pick up the next day.

Eventually, the pair would hire a wood shop hand, then some warehouse labor, and soon started adding some parts to the catalogs. “It took us a while to get going because the old owner had burned so many bridges,” says McWhorter. “He owed over $1 million to his vendors… the grill cloth company, the tolex company…all the people that there was only one source for at the time. So we had to establish our relationship.

Go COD with most of them. After about six months I ended up getting wait-listed for Med school. By then, it looked like this could be a pretty cool business. So I bagged Med school. We decided what was the least amount of money that we could live on? I think it was maybe $275 a week.

Then we plowed all of the other money back into the business and were able to grow it quickly by doing that.” Once a cabinet hand was brought on the company started doing OEM work for others.

 

 

Soon, more labor would be added on the manufacturing side. The company’s first OEM customer? Gibson. Mojo built the company’s Goldtone amps, as well as some Trace Elliott acoustic amplifiers and early Budda amps.

Today, the company OEM’s for over 100 companies for cabinets. There are six to seven companies it does everything for — cabinets and electronics, but due to non-disclosure agreements, the details are kept hush-hush. The company also has its own line of amplifiers, which it does have a dealer network for.

“We started out just doing that direct, but quickly realized that people wanted to play it, play their guitar through it,” says McWhorter. “So the Mojo amps are just sold through dealers. We had done custom amp builds for guitarists from the beginning. It also grew out of having some OEM customers leave and instead of reducing staff we put them on special projects, which was building our own line. In a lot of eyes, people thought that we were crossing the line because we supply all of these amp builders and now we’re building our own amps and competing with them. We thought long and hard about it. It doesn’t look like any other amps, and it’s not at the forefront of our business. They are cool designs.

 

It’s a slow play. It’s fun to do and people seem to like them.” One of the more recent artist builds was the Lerxst amp for Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson. “We had a relationship with Geddy and his bass tech… rewind- ing and building him pickups,” says McWhorter. “On their last album (Clockwork Angels) Alex had used a (Marshall) Silver Jubilee in the studio. He loved the sound of it but couldn’t find one that was road worthy. Those things were pretty notorious for breaking down. They asked us to build one. So we did and he loved it. We had to do this over a week’s time. Then they wanted a backup. So we built another one. So continuing the conversation, we told him if he ever wanted to do something he could own the brand trademark, we would build them and sell them and cut him a check. Alex was humble and awesome… and funny. It was a really cool experience.”

 

Getting into the amp business was no stretch for the company. After all, all that was needed was already in-house. However, the same can now be said for guitars. Does that mean that Mojo will look to release its own line of guitars in the future? “We’ve always talked about guitars,” reveals McWhorter. “We just lack neck and bodies, but we do wood here so… It’s kind of a different ballgame than amps, parts, and pickups. I don’t want to build a guitar just to do it. I don’t want to build a Strat. If we found the right angle to jump in with I think it would work better. Buying a struggling builder with his own designs and bringing him in-shop would definitely be one possibility.

 

When we first moved down here we did some work with a company called RKS. It was a one-piece neck, thin body, and plastic molded sides. They were cool guitars. We were good friends with him. We were tooling up to do all of their production, but by the time we got ready there was a changing of the guard and they ended up making them in California. We are also looking at distribution opportunities with the additional space of the new building.”

With a new building and an adjacent 40,000 square foot pad around the back, Mojo will have plenty of opportunities to expand further… when the time is right. -HC-

 

Republished with expressed written permission

 

 

____________________________________________

Who Are Gearphoria? 

Blake and Holly Wright are Gearphoria. They travel full-time in their 25-foot Airstream while writing about cool guitars and guitar accessories. Gearphoria is a bi-monthly free-to-read online publication. You can visit their website by going to www.gearphoria.com and while you are there, sign up for their free e-zine.

 

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