XCEPTIONAL MUSIC CO. LLC
President: Ray McKewon.
Headquarters: Fairbanks Ranch.
Year founded: 2000. McKewon made the business into a full-time pursuit at his retirement in 2005.
Company description: Event producer. A sister company, Xceptional Productions LLC, offers sound and lighting services.
Key factors for success: McKewon lists client satisfaction, world-class music, concert quality sound and spectacular light shows.
The music bug bit Ray McKewon hard.
It was 12 years ago when McKewon was asked to play the guitar in a band at a company function. “Pressed into service,” were the words he used when recounting the story. McKewon was executive vice president of Accredited Home Lenders Inc.; he was a businessman who could play only a few chords.
But he realized he loved it. The feeling of playing in a band, he recalled, affected him like an “incurable virus.”
Now 64 and retired, McKewon produces shows — with all kinds of music — for corporate, private, civic and charity events. He also plays with a band.
His business is the Xceptional Music Co. LLC. A sister business, Xceptional Productions LLC, deals in sound and lighting.
McKewon’s company recently helped “Marching Towards a Cure,” the gala benefiting the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute. The evening incorporated several songs from “The Music Man.” Other aspects of the gala were thematically tied to the 1957 Broadway show.
The businessman’s planner has four big events in December. In all, McKewon says roughly half of his business is concerts, while 30 percent is charity-related and 20 percent is corporate and private.
The company does 15 charity events per year. Xceptional frequently donates its services to a charity.
The company is in its fourth season of producing shows on Catalina Island, and plans to do the black-tie New Year’s Eve show there. Catalina can be a logistical challenge, McKewon admitted. When something goes awry, you can’t run over to Home Depot to buy something that will fix the problem.
McKewon came to show business after a career as a venture capitalist, mortgage company executive and U.S. Navy officer.
He started his Navy career as a diver during the Vietnam War. He retired from the Navy Reserve in 2001, as a captain.
In the private sector, he was founder and managing partner of the Enterprise Management Co., a venture capital firm. He helped finance Souplantation, now Garden Fresh Restaurant Corp., and Immunetech Pharmaceuticals, which became Dura Pharmaceuticals and is now part of Elan.
McKewon also let a few opportunities get past him. He recalled a chance to fund one company that would compete with the post office, and a second company that would compete with Price Club. He said no to both. The companies eventually grew into Mail Boxes Etc. (now The UPS Store Inc.) and Costco Wholesale Corp.
In 1990, McKewon and mortgage banker Jim Konrath co-founded Accredited Home Lenders Inc. They eventually took it public. The company had 3,000 employees in 2005, the year that McKewon retired. In 2007, McKewon came out of retirement to help sell the company to a Texas-based investment fund.
Today it’s all about music, from the Roaring ’20s to Lady Gaga.
Then as now, there is an aspect of salesmanship and motivation to what he does.
Seated recently in the recording studio of his Fairbanks Ranch home, McKewon spoke of structuring a presentation for a charity dinner that will evoke a response from potential donors. Planning is key. McKewon said he will ask for seven or eight sessions with a client in order to make the client’s event exciting and effective.
Sara Wilensky Napoli, president and CEO of the San Diego Police Foundation, said McKewon understands how music and emotion work to further the goal of raising funds for philanthropy.
“He understands the psychology of motivating people,” Napoli said.
McKewon introduced concert elements such as live music, lighting and special effects to the foundation’s annual “Friends of the Badge” event at the Valley View Casino Center. “The donor experience went to a whole new level,” said Napoli, “and so did the funds raised.”
Wayne Griffin, president and CEO of the Catalina Chamber of Commerce, said McKewon is able to deliver quality acts with “terrific production value.” Xceptional Music Co. has worked its way up from six concerts a year to nine. Most are on a public stage.
Managing musicians is different from management in business or in the military. The personality is more artistic, maybe more volatile, McKewon said. Some musicians have trouble showing up at the right time … or the right day. But onstage, they can be “magnificent,” McKewon said.
It’s something you learn to work with, he said.
On the side, McKewon said he is trying to help more than one aspiring performer break into the music business.
“Nobody knows how that business works anymore,” he said. Music labels are no longer the formidable forces they were. Today, fame comes after millions of hits on YouTube, or appearances on the “Late Show with David Letterman” or the televised singing shows.
Talk to Ray McKewon long enough and you realize that he relishes being onstage with professional musicians.
He works to build his musical chops, filling a week with as many as seven lessons. That includes three guitar lessons, two voice lessons and one lesson in reading music.
Can he play the biting electric-guitar riffs that made Eddie Van Halen famous?
“I can do them,” McKewon said.
“Real slowly,” he added.
Is he having fun?
“I can’t believe I get to do this,” McKewon said. “I pinch myself every day.”