Morgantown’s Andrew White Guitars isn’t just surviving, it’s thriving.
As a West Virginia University sophomore in Spain, Andrew White was constantly reminded to explore the world around him. “When you travel abroad, they tell you, ‘Immerse yourself in the culture. That’s the best way to learn the language,’” White says. He was doing just that when he walked into the shop of a luthier named Ignacio Rozas.
White found a guitar he was interested in and proposed a deal: He would buy the guitar if Rozas would give him a tour of the shop. “None of the other kids in the Spanish class would learn luthier words, right? That was unique,” White says.
Rozas showed him to a small room with a potbelly stove in the center. A flue pipe rose straight from the cast iron into the ceiling. Rozas explained that he would press the wet guitar wood against the pipe to bend it into shape. “I walked out of there thinking, that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard of, and I’m gonna do it,” White says.
White has not spoken to Rozas since, but he still has the guitar he bought all those years ago. His wife now uses it to teach lessons.
Andrew White was interviewed for the Summer 2009 issue of WV Living, just as the Great Recession was wreaking havoc on the nation. His answers to our interview questions were upbeat but, in retrospect, he suspects that he was faking his optimism.
“I can’t even believe my company made it through that recession,” he says now. “At that time, I had every single guitar order canceled, and all of the customers abandoned their deposits.”
Around that time, White undertook what he calls a “massive effort” to find West Virginia investors. But because White had always refused to follow tradition and trend in his building and design, no one in the state would invest.
It was two years after our interview, in 2011, that he met B.Y. Lim, a wealthy South Korean businessman. “When he was young, an older, wealthy American man came and invested in him and told him that someone had done that for him,” White says. “Mr. Lim told me that part of what he was doing was investing in me, because he felt a responsibility to pay it forward.”
With Lim’s investment, White built a production line that brought his instruments into a more manageable price range, opening up a new sector of the market. “I used to love that I could sell guitars for $10,000,” he says. “I still love it. But one of the more rewarding things that I didn’t expect to come from the production is the level of happiness that I can bring more people for $1,000.”
These days, White is looking to the future, when he will be able to pay forward the faith and patronage Lim showed him. He believes West Virginians should be able to see potential in the new and non-traditional and provide the financial support crucial for new ventures.
“When I am in a position of resources and can help develop another business into a thriving, profitable enterprise, I tell myself to remember to learn. That’s the biggest thing. It’s the investors who aren’t willing to learn an industry that will all go back to coal, back to energy. They have to learn new sectors. If they don’t, we stay the same.”