Seton - The “More Smiths than Jones” Story...
Founded in 1956, the Seton Nameplate Corporation was established by Fenmore R. Seton in the US, now forming part of the Brady Corporation and serving as one of the leading suppliers of health and safety products in the world.
However, it hails from much humbler roots. Seton himself started out as a young entrepreneur at the age of just 14. Young Fenmore would spend his summer days walking the Connecticut coastline selling popcorn and peanuts, trading this stock for lifestyle magazines during the long winter months. Despite coming from a family of lawyers, it was clear Seton had a flair for business.
"I would go down to a popcorn stand and they would sell me 20 or 30 bags of popcorn," he explains. "The guy was selling it for 15 cents from a stand and he sold them to me for nine cents, and then I put them in a basket and walked up the sand on Sunday afternoons until all the bags were sold." And all of this during one of the toughest economic times the US had ever seen. "I just had a knack for doing these things," he adds.
Fenmore would go on to graduate from Yale - one of the most prestigious Ivy League schools – in 1938, before answering the call of duty in one of his country's darkest hours after the attack on Pearl Harbour. He joined the Army Air Corps as a radar officer and witnessed first-hand the carnage of the Allied invasion of Normandy, as well as the struggle for land on the Western Front and the Battle of the Bulge. Having survived all this, Seton decided the time had come to make his mark in the world of business.
Taking inspiration from a book by Irving Graham on starting a mail order business, he set about building his empire with his wife of eight years, Phyllis. "I read the book and I was fascinated," he recalls, "opportunity knocked, and we were listening!" What happened next was truly remarkable. They then devised a plan to start a mail order company that would sell exclusively to called Smith having discovered the sheer volume of people out there with that surname. The Setons reckoned there were more Smiths than Browns and Joneses combined. Without the aid of the complex customer databases and mailing lists we might use today, the couple pored over social security records, phone directories and anything else they could get their hands on to target affluent households with the family name 'Smith' across the whole of America.
Phyllis designed a Christmas card showing Santa with a white beard fringed in black and die-cut to spell out the name "Smith" in cursive letters. They ordered 25,000 of them from the local printer at four cents a piece and created a direct-mail package that included a sample card, price list and letter that exclaimed "Santa is a Smith! Just look at his beard!"
Using the information they'd gathered, the couple tried to deduce which potential customers lived in middle or upper-class neighbourhood based on how "nice-sounding" their street names were. It was a gamble that paid off; after hand-mailing 1,000 of the packages to their selected households, orders came in for all the remaining 24,000 cards with full payment up front - in just four weeks. But this would only be the beginning of greater achievements to come in the years that followed.
Seton went into the nameplate business in 1952, making doorbell name plates as a way to make money outside of his day job. The first major client came two years later in the form of an air-conditioning contractor that needed specialised plates for their installations. Soon the Setons were holding nationwide contracts to do the same for many more firms in the same industry. The enterprise went from a part-time spare room operation to a financially mobile company serving over 100,000 business customers - with more than 100 of these clients listed in the Fortune 500. Slowly but steadily, annual sales grew to approximately $5 million by the 1970s, with the Setons clearing margins of around 20 to 25 percent per year.
All of this success was based not only on Fenmore's determination to succeed, but also his dedication to serving his customers. He and Phyllis believed instinctively that business should not be about creating what you want, but what your customers need. "Our approach was that we would not try to shape our customers to our product line, but rather that we would create a product line to exactly meet the desires, needs and engineering standards of those we served," he concludes.
In 1981, Fenmore kept his promise to his wife of retiring before 65, selling the business to W.H. Brady Co. Under the continued management of Dick Fisk - who would later become company president - the group expanded its range, providing a direct mail ordering service to businesses all over the world. Having joined Seton in 1979, Fisk knew the business from top to bottom and would leverage the incredible power of the Brady Corporation to push it even further into the international market. From its base in North Branford, Connecticut, the Brady-owned Seton Nameplate Corporation continues to lead the industry in the provision of health & safety products, selling everything from safety signs, to fire prevention equipment, to CCTV security cameras.
Fenmore Seton himself sadly passed away aged 85 in May 2003, leaving behind him a wife, daughter and two grandchildren. In his retirement, Seton served as the head of Rehabilitation International, an organisation which helps improve the quality of life for disabled people. In 1992 he was given the Presidential Distinguished Service Award for his work in this field.