Seaver Company / i-gogsBy Daniel Vance • May 2014 • Category: Feature Story
Back: Larry Seaver, Curt Seaver; Front: Allison Seaver, Dean Seaver; Photo: Kris Kathmann
Le Sueur-based sunglasses business sells and services nearly 4,000 retail accounts in about 30 states.
In September 1982, the late Dean C. Seaver, founder of Le Sueur-based Seaver Company, was driving home with a friend from a golf tournament in the Twin Cities. That friend, Frank, was the golf pro at the Le Sueur country club where Seaver was president. They had just won the golf tournament.
Only a month before, after starting his own brokerage business selling to the drug, c-store, and grocery trades, Seaver had bought into an unnamed sunglasses line. He said to Frank, “I need to come up with a name for it. I have to call it something.” In seconds, Seaver saw the green Izod logo on his friend’s polo shirt. That gave Seaver an idea.
“I think I’ll call it i-gogs,” he said.
Today, Seaver Company sells millions of pairs of i-gogs into almost 4,000 retail outlets in 30 U.S. states, including far-off spots like Salisbury, Maryland, and Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Its customer base includes every Menard’s, Gander Mountain, and Hy-Vee location, and more than 1,000 Kwik Trip, Holiday Station Stores, and Freedom c-stores. The company overall has about 100 employees, with nearly all out in the field ordering product and/or stocking shelves for retailers who appreciate the helping hand. The company also owns a display-building business, which serves the i-gogs line and selected retailers.
The current i-gogs line has everything from camouflage, goggles, polarized, shooting and power sports, performance, and women’s and children’s sunglasses to reading glasses.
Founder Dean C. Seaver lived long enough—he passed away in 2010—to realize how fortuitous the moniker i-gogs would become in an Internet-crazy world that had not only an Izod, but also an iTunes, iMac, iPod, iCloud, iHeartRadio, and iPhone. Today, four close-knit Seaver family members co-own the business, and other family members play large roles.
Said 54-year-old Dean Seaver, son of the founder, to Connect Business Magazine, “My dad started the business in August 1982. He had been in the wholesale pharmaceutical business throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, starting as a salesman with McKesson & Robbins, who was at the time the world’s largest. He then became a sales manager and an operations manager for the Minneapolis and St. Paul divisions, and helped consolidate the two divisions in 1969.”
The elder Seaver was ambitious, but loyal to the upper Midwest. He could have moved up the McKesson ladder to outposts in San Francisco or Houston, for example, but chose to stay closer to home.
As a salesman, he had “owned” his territory covering most of the Dakotas, and was one of McKesson’s top 10 salespeople nationally. While covering the Dakotas, the elder Seaver became friends with many drug store owners, who would later grow their businesses into larger entities. Back then, the social activities of many smaller communities revolved around drug store soda fountains.
“My dad left McKesson in 1969 to run Northern Drug out of Duluth,” said Seaver. “That was an independent wholesaler involved in the drug store trade, which included pharmacy and over the counter products. When I was young, my father would take us to gift shows, where they would be selling everything from Timex, West Bend Clocks, Foster Grant sunglasses, and school supplies to haircare products.”
In 1977, the elder Seaver left Northern Drug to start a snowmobile and boat business in Le Sueur, the city where his brother was a hospital administrator. After selling his snowmobile and boat business, called Minnesota Living, and working as an insurance agent a couple years (now the Canopy Group), the elder Seaver started his own brokerage in August 1982 to take advantage of his vast network of hundreds of independent pharmacists in a five-state region. He began representing five companies, including two vitamin lines, and bought in on an import shipment of sunglasses, which he called i-gogs.
The elder Seaver was passionate about everything, said Seaver, including all his friendships, golf, family, faith, and everyday work. “He was one of those guys who would tell it like it is,” he said. “He wouldn’t try to sugar coat.”
After only six months of selling i-gogs, the elder Seaver saw promise and threw everything into the sunglasses line. He dropped all but one of his other lines. He had an i-gogs logo designed and the name “i-gogs” trademarked.
Said Seaver, “My dad had a van, and wrote orders and delivered out of the van. That’s how we did it back in the day. He knew so many people from his drug store connections. We became the secondary supplier to all his buddies, who were committed to their wholesalers.”
After graduating from Minnesota State Mankato in May 1983, the younger Seaver joined the fledgling, eight-month-old company. His father offered him an advance on commissions, nothing more, and he had to purchase his own $10,000 van for sunglasses deliveries. Those first eight months were especially brutal.
He said, “I was a commission-only independent contractor working for my dad, and selling direct, store to store, to grocery stores, c-stores, drug stores. The only way our business could grow was through 100 percent cold calls. You learned really quick.”
For one memorable call in 1986, Seaver heard through the grapevine that Food ‘N Fuel was leaning toward carrying a competing sunglasses line. Immediately, Seaver drove more than two hours to the company’s headquarters in Montevideo, asked without an appointment to see the owner, and persuaded him to carry i-gogs instead. The other line, said Seaver, had enticed the owner with wheel barrels of front-end cash while having a history of neglecting service and display quality.
The number of independent grocery, drug store, and c-store businesses had dropped dramatically by the mid-’90s and Seaver Company was faced with adapting or dying—or so many people in the industry thought. It used the old-time business model of offering direct store delivery and personalized service. The company solution to these changing times wasn’t to do away with the model, but to enhance it—to do better what they had been doing.
Seaver said, “In 1995-98, and I’m not kidding, 90 percent of all our product was sold through direct store delivery. We were the Frito Lay of the sunglasses industry. We had three-quarter ton vans with product and fifteen salespeople in five states. We were road warriors, covering the Dakotas, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Northern Illinois, and Upper Peninsula Michigan. Some of us were staying 130 nights a year in motels.”
Now the company does less than 10 percent of sales through direct store delivery. The remarkable transformation occurred from the late ‘90s through 2005. Now only three convenience store chains request direct store delivery. Menard’s and Gander Mountain, for example, have individual stores that send in weekly electronic orders off scanner data, which then get shipped via UPS and with Seaver Company employees following up to stock and service. About 150 UPS orders leave daily. The company employs a modified sales system for some other accounts—similar to what beverage companies do—in which an i-gogs advance person writes orders and another follows up to stock and service accounts.
Seaver Company also works with three wholesalers servicing another 1,000 c-stores: Farner-Bocken (Iowa), AMCON (Nebraska), and Chambers & Owens (Wisconsin).
The secret to the company’s success has been this army of retail sales support people covering every one of the company’s nearly 4,000 retail accounts. Theirs is an old-fashioned sales model, one used into the 1970s or so and abandoned by American companies, back when service was king and relationships trumped price.
Said Seaver, “The core of our business is our people. It’s all about the people. We have four or five pillars (revenue streams) of our company that support us, but they each begin and end with the people going into the stores. We are doing it and no one else is.”
Seaver mentioned one recent program in which the company shipped out new double-tower sunglasses displays direct to every Menard’s retail location. Seaver sent 37 salespeople into thirteen states and had the displays stocked and up in fourteen business days in 300 Menard’s outlets. Not one display arrived damaged, and each held about two hundred pair of sunglasses.
None of Seaver Company’s sunglasses business with Menard’s (or with any other customer, for that matter, including Byerly’s or Lund’s) is seasonal. It’s all year-around sales, with fresh i-gogs displays released periodically and most restocked with electronic orders taken from scanner data. I-gogs displays, in most accounts, are either the highest gross profit line per square foot or one of the highest, he claimed. A pair of i-gogs sunglasses sells from between $15 to $30.
One of the company’s larger accounts, Gander Mountain, has up to ten Seaver racks in each store, including ones containing sunglasses made by Seaver Company especially for Gander Mountain. One such product, “Fish Eyes,” could be Gander Mountain’s highest profit per square foot item.
He said, “I use the way we do sales as a selling point. Everybody thinks our service is so innovative, but we have been doing it this way for 32 years. We do what we’ve always done. We do it old school.”
The company sells “far more than a million sunglasses and less than ten million,” said Seaver, from a wide array of product manufactured in a couple dozen factories in Japan, Taiwan, and China. (Seaver visits overseas about twice a year and attends worldwide industry trade shows twice a year.) Product design usually begins in the U.S., with finishing touches performed overseas. The company deals with hundreds of frame designs at any one time.
Being labor intensive has become not only a sales advantage to Seaver, but also a barrier of entry to other sunglasses companies wishing to replicate i-gogs’ success. Sometimes, due to high labor costs, Seaver Company won’t break even on an account for two years. Not many companies are willing to take on such risk. “Most people try to do as much as they can with as few bodies as possible,” he said. “We go against the grain. Our customers don’t leave us. We save them money handling a very labor intensive item.”
When asked, Why not expand into other lines besides sunglasses? he said, “Why? When I know how much I make on my item, why would I take on something else and make less?”
The four co-owners of Seaver Company are Dean, his sister Allison, brother Larry, and younger brother Curt. Allison oversees the logistics of scheduling more than 80 representatives into all i-gogs retail outlets. Larry oversees the display design and manufacturing division, which has greatly helped company growth the last decade. Curt is the sales manager and key account representative for major Midwest customers. Theirs has been a family business in the purest sense. Dean’s wife has been office manager for 31 years, and daughter, Sandra, serves as the company CPA. Dean’s son Nick covers three states as a sales supervisor and nephew Josh works for Larry and is an MSU engineering student.
Seaver joked, “My wife signs my checks after my daughter approves them.”
The tight-knit family environment has been woven together by a shared Christian faith, which Seaver said played a central role in their business decisions and been a reason for being in business.
He said, “We just try to work hard every day, and be diligent every day. But we’re never satisfied with the status quo. We have stayed with what we do well. We will continue with our service program as long as we can afford it. We just have to find ways to afford it.”
For years, Seaver Company, which has about eighteen Le Sueur employees, has had a reputation for being under-the-radar and going incognito—much like Secret Service agents wearing dark i-gogs. As for the company going incognito, a visitor can’t even find a sign out front that identifies what goes on inside.
Said Seaver, “Maybe that’s just our personality. We aren’t big trade show guys either. That’s because our business primarily isn’t done there or here. It’s mostly done face-to-face out in the field. It’s done old-school. That works for us.”
“When we first started out in business, people usually asked me two things. They first asked what I did for a living. Then they asked if I sold to certain accounts,” said 54-year-old Seaver Company President Dean Seaver.
He added, “As for the first question, after I told them I sold sunglasses, they would always ask what else I was selling. I would say, ‘No, I just sell sunglasses.’ They were like—good luck with that. And as for the second question—when we were just beginning, SuperAmerica was king of the convenience store industry in Minnesota. People asked if we were selling Super America yet, and I would say we hadn’t because we weren’t big enough. We had seen other companies outsell what they were capable of fulfilling and we didn’t want to do the same. In today’s world, I don’t know how far we are to selling to Target, for instance, but we haven’t tried. Not that selling to them isn’t on our radar, but right now we don’t have that capability.”
Seaver Company for years purchased sunglasses racks from the aptly named Sunglass Display Company, based in southern California. When that company’s owner hinted at retiring, Seaver Company saw an excellent opportunity to control the cost, quality, and supply of its sales racks, its primary point-of-purchase marketing tool. Sunglass Display Company at one time supplied sunglasses displays to Walmart.
Seaver Company purchased the business in 1997 and soon brought everything home to Le Sueur, where this 15,000 sq. ft. division now operates under the leadership of Dean’s brother Larry and accounts for up to 10 percent of company sales. Today, the display company division builds 3,500 to 6,000 display units annually, mostly for i-gogs, yet does have one large southeastern distributor buying displays without sunglasses.
THE ESSENTIALS: Seaver Company / i-gogs
Address: 200 Minnesota Avenue, Le Sueur, MN 56058