Michael McWhorter is one of a kind in North Carolina this week.
McWhorter, co-owner of Burgaw-based Mojotone, was named North Carolina Small Business Person of the Year by the Small Business Administration. The announcement was made Tuesday by SBA Administrator Isabella Casillas Guzman.
“Our 2023 State Small Business Persons of the Year have given their all to achieve their American dream — to own and build a strong, resilient business; create jobs; increase competition and innovation and power America’s historic economic recovery,” Guzman said in the release. “These incredible entrepreneurs show the vibrancy and grit of our nation’s small businesses. From Main Street to manufacturing hubs and tech centers, they are powering our economy. We hope their stories inspire and motivate the next generation of entrepreneurs.”
Mojotone is an entrepreneurial dream come true for McWhorter and his business partner Andy Turner. When he was a student at Wake Forest University, McWhorter played in a band and worked part-time for Turner, who owned an instrument repair shop in Winston-Salem. After graduation from college, McWhorter joined another band, enjoying the musical experience but also gaining business experience managing the ensemble. Turner started his own business buying and selling surplus components.
One day McWhorter got a frantic call from Turner, who said he had bought the entire inventory of vintage guitar and amplifier components, as well as vintage amp cabinet hardware, from a bankrupt California company, Mojo Musical Supply.
“It was a whole train car of stuff,” McWhorter said. “I jumped in, found an old RJR Tobacco warehouse in Winston Salem. Our original plan was to surplus it all out, but we turned on the [old company’s] 800 number and the phone kept ringing.”
The partners took orders during the day, grabbed a quick supper and headed to their warehouse in the evenings to pack those orders, which they shipped out the following day. They were wholesalers for customers who were largely music stores and instrument repair shops. But the new business had to work to get its Mojo back.
“We were on a COD basis with all these companies because they didn’t trust the Mojo name,” McWhorter said. But that changed, given his business and customer-relations skills, Turner’s mechanical expertise, and the pair’s hard work.
In 2005, the young Mojotone followed the sound of ocean waves to the coast, finding a home in Burgaw. Since then, the company has evolved from being primarily resale to doing more manufacturing.
“One item is guitar pickups; we have a line of over 60 different models,” McWhorter said of the device that’s embedded in electric guitars and converts string vibrations into electricity. “We make those under our own brand and for some other companies under their brand. That may be our fastest-growing division. We just released an acoustic guitar pickup and we’re working on pickups for banjo, dobro and mandolin, using the same technology.”
Mojotone also makes amplifiers that its cabinet shop crafts under the Mojotone name and also for other brands.
The company is an important contributor to the Pender County economy, employing 65 people who manufacture, source, sell and ship guitar and amp components to an international customer base. In 2000, the company’s first year of business, McWhorter and business partner Andy Turner logged $300,000 in sales. Mojotone is now at more than $7 million in annual sales, and saw double-digit growth the past three years, according to McWhorter.
McWhorter was nominated by Paige O’Neill, international business counselor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington Small Business & Technology Development Center (SBTDC). In the application, one thing the SBA wanted to know was how nominees had responded to adversity. McWhorter provided two significant examples.
“The first was Hurricane Florence,” he said. “We were closed for several weeks because Pender County was flooded. Our building was fine but there was home damage and car damage. We didn’t have power for a week and a half. Every employee had a different situation, and we had about 60 employees. We managed to keep everybody employed, with a paycheck coming in, even if they couldn’t come to work.
“Another challenge was Covid, managing all our employees. We actually grew during Covid, mostly because people were at home playing their guitars or modifying their guitars and their gear.”
Acknowledging that his success has resulted from the contributions of many, McWhorter said, “This award is a testament to all the employees at Mojotone. I am nothing without all the great people who work here. They are absolutely passionate about music and making things.”
He also cited the wealth of resources – most of them free of charge – available to startups and young businesses in the Wilmington area, among them the SBTDC and the Economic Development Partnership of N.C., which have helped Mojotone expand their customer base internationally. Then there is the Small Business Center at Cape Fear Community College, the training programs offered by the college, and UNCW’s MBA program, which volunteers to help small businesses with specific projects.
McWhorter and his counterparts across the country will travel to Washington D.C. at the end of April for a two-day awards celebration and workshops. It’s all part of National Small Business Week April 30-May 6.