President Gerald R. Ford was in office, America was celebrating its bicentennial and Rocky was a knock out at the box office the year Sweda Company LLC founder Marv Ruwin first opened the doors on his 300-square-foot facility in Los Angeles, California. Having retired after a career that included years as a Navy technical advisor in Asia, working on the THOR missile program and managing a Singapore assembly plant with more than 1,000 employees, in 1976 Ruwin saw huge potential in creating a company that combined Asian-manufactured products with Western marketing techniques. And he was right.
The company Ruwin envisioned and subsequently built has grown into one of the industry’s top suppliers offering more than 18 categories of promotional products with offices in the U.S. and overseas. This year the company is celebrating its 35th anniversary with a special event planned for the Specialty Advertising Association of California (SAAC) show in August and other celebrations throughout the year.
Although Ruwin passed away in 2008, he set the company up for success at every turn—particularly in the area of smart hiring decisions. In 2001 he employed Jim Hagan, a young go-getter with a background in semi-conductor sales who was eager to learn and grow with the thriving company. “Marv exposed me to all facets of the business,” says Hagan, who worked in nearly all areas of the company before being promoted to president in January 2007.
While in the process of rolling out a new order processing system toward the end of the year, there was a major technology glitch. “It was an implementation that did not go smoothly,” explains Hagan, adding that it hurt the company’s ability to service its customers. He says the team stabilized the situation, then he and Scott Pearson, vice president of merchandising, as well as the Sweda sales team hit the road to meet with as many customers as they could to explain what happened and try to make things right.
“Although it was a very humbling experience I think it was appreciated that we were there, listening to their concerns and addressing them,” he remembers. “At the end of the day it was up to us to prove that we could not only handle their orders but exceed their expectations. And, I believe, today we are definitely doing that. The loyalty our customers showed us was overwhelming. We are grateful for partnerships and look forward to another 35 years together.”
Sweda used the unfortunate event as an opportunity to step up its game in just about every area. In mid-2008, the company relocated to a 351,000-square-foot facility in nearby City of Industry, California, and, in the past three years the supplier has streamlined its procedures to gain tremendous efficiencies by locating all of its operations under one roof. It’s also rolled out a number of new initiatives, programs and services to create a distinction for the line including the adoption of the tagline Simple, Style, Smart that sets the tone for a positive customer experience.
The term “simple” refers to the capabilities that support customer success and make life simpler such as Sweda24, 100-percent guaranteed 24-hour service on hundreds of products, plus three-day shipping at ground rates, online order management to view, track and verify orders and a supportive marketing and sales team called SwedaCARE. “Our focus is to try to be as simple to do business with as possible and ensure that the customer has a positive experience every time,” says Hagan.
The term “style” reflects the company’s commitment to innovative, quality products including colors and designs to fit today’s trends. The company also offers more than 200 patented and proprietary product designs as well as more than 50 products that are biodegradable, recycled, reusable, natural and clean-energy manufactured.
The third term, “smart,” reflects Sweda’s ongoing ability to add value for its customers.
Through initiatives such as this and others the company has evolved broadly over the past 35 years. “Marv built a great company and we’ve taken it to an entirely different level by expanding our product categories, expanding our relationships overseas and capitalizing on our relationships with our vendors,” says Hagan.
In its early years the Sweda line focused almost exclusively on electronics. Today the line has been expanded to include a wide variety of hard goods such as writing instruments, drinkware, bags, key tags, picture frames and stationery, to name a few.
At The PPAI Expo, the company again made news with a big introduction of new hard goods under four new brand names: Oakley, Calloway, London Fog and Blue Lounge. Sweda introduced Leatherman brand products last August. “It’s another huge initiative for Sweda and a big shift in what we do—like nothing we’ve participated in before,” Hagan explains. “I think our customers will be pleasantly surprised.”
Taking on new challenges is not a new role for Sweda. In 2009 the company also took a bold step as being one of the founding members of the Quality Certification Alliance (QCA), an independent product safety accreditation organization. Certification is granted to companies that complete an independent third-party audit and comply with stringent standards based upon federal and state laws, international standards and industry best practices. While Sweda was among those who took the lead, Hagan says the risk wasn’t about being first—the risk was not doing something about product safety, social accountability, quality assurance, supply chain safety and environmental stewardship.
Although it’s been a tough year for most businesses as the economy struggles to recover, Hagan says it’s been a very strong 12 months for Sweda. “We’ve exceeded our expectations for 2010 and exceeded where we ended 2008. We’ve come full circle,” he says, crediting the 215-strong Sweda team and specifically Pearson, Cindy Qin, chief financial officer and the addition of Kellie Claudio, director of business development, last March.
Looking forward at 2011, he says Sweda is positive about continuing strong sales while remaining cautiously optimistic and is not afraid to add resources when needed.
While Hagan has taken the company through some of its toughest times in recent years, he says the experiences made the company stronger and better. Getting through, intact, Hagan says he’s proudest of the company’s culture and the people working there.
“The teamwork and integrity we have are part of our core values and we really believe in those. We all recognize that we’re only as good as the people we surround ourselves with.”
He adds that he’s also pleased with where the company is at this point in time and is especially excited about the new initiatives planned for 2011. “I think Marv would be proud of where we’ve taken Sweda,” he says.