Truly Dedicated To Service
Top: Mark Abels, front row, second from right, and Selco employees share in the company's recognition as Member of the Week by the Tulsa Regional Chamber.
For Mark Abels, MAS, entering the promotional products industry wasn’t something that happened unexpectedly, but rather, it was something he’d been working toward all his life. Abels is the owner and CEO of Selco, formerly Seligson Company, a family-owned supplier in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and a role that he was appointed to when he was just 30 years old. But growing up around the family business—Selco was founded by Abels’s grandfather, Jack Seligson, and later taken over by his father, Larry Abels—he not only knew what was needed to carry on the business, but to carry it forward as well.
“I always knew,” Abels says of joining Selco. “It had been my plan pretty much forever, as long as I can remember. By the time I’d graduated [college], we really needed to restructure and figure out who we were going to be moving forward, and not change leadership but build towards that transition.” After working for a market research company for several months after earning a degree in management information systems from the University of Texas at Austin, Abels joined Selco full time in 1993 and started running the company as chief operating officer in 1998; he succeeded his father as president in 2000. Seeing as both the company and his father were going through a transitional period—Larry started a new boating business in Florida and was investing his focus there—the younger Abels led Selco through a renewed focus on watches, which is what it specializes in today as a manufacturer of custom-made watches and watch faces.
But the company didn’t start out specializing in watches, neither was its early focus on producing and customizing promotional products. In Selco’s early days, the business was based in Oklahoma City, which is where Abels’s grandfather settled when he came to America from Poland. Abels’s great granduncle owned a jewelry store at the time in Fort Worth, Texas, and he helped Abels’s grandfather open a store in Oklahoma in 1935, which grew into a chain of fine jewelry stores. During the stores’ first 15 years, some of the most frequently requested items included customized crystal, jewelry and watches for companies to use in recognition programs, which led to the formation of the custom division. “I don’t think any of it was very formal, but in the late ’50s, they created a division called Selco Incentive and tried to formalize the process,” says Abels.
Above: A then and now look at Larry and Mark Abels.
When Abels’s father joined the company in 1962, the custom division was renamed Motivation, Inc., and by 1965, it started focusing more on watches. And when the elder Abels, who is currently the chairman of the board for Selco, took over in 1976, he entirely restructured Selco’s operations. By 1980, he had sold all of the retail jewelry locations, which included about 59 stores and salons, to national jewelry retailer Zales. The company had also moved to Tulsa, quickly downsized from 400 employees to eight, and also began focusing on clocks in addition to watches. For the next 30 years, Abels says, Selco operated as a manufacturer of clocks and watches. The risks taken by Abels’s father were steep, but they paid off. By the mid-1980s, Abels says the company was growing at an annual rate of 25 to 30 percent.
“I think there were a lot of things going on, from the watch niche that, really, in 1980 didn’t have any competition, versus the competition we had in jewelry stores,” says Abels. “The stores were spread out across 15 states and dealing with mall owners and rent, and malls were consolidating and becoming more powerful. Just looking at the opportunity of focusing on watches, we saw our future. The promotional products industry was fast-growing because the distributors just hadn’t thought much about watches before. It was something new for them.”
When Abels took over the business, he streamlined Selco’s focus once again. In 2009, Selco began to exclusively produce watches, and in 2010, the company bought S&S Watch Company, and in 2020, it acquired Belair Watch Company. “Watches tend to get in [incentive] programs and companies don’t like to change them; that doesn’t mean we don’t try to come up with new and better items, but you can have a watch stay in a program for 25 years. It’s not unusual,” says Abels.
Above: Mark Abels and his wife Tami dressed for the occasion at Selco's 80th anniversary, which had an '80s theme. Above, right: A photo from before Mark Abels joined the company, taken during an awards weekend and banquet for top salespeople called The Order of the Selco Crest. From left: Lee Segell, Janice Segell, Eunice Seligson (Mark's grandmother), Jack Seligson (Mark's grandfather and the founder of Selco, formerly Seligson Company), and Mark's parents, Felice and Larry Abels.
During the 28 years that Abels has been involved in the family business, he has dedicated his efforts to volunteering in the industry, and to learning from other industry professionals. Abels—who is recipient of PPAI’s 2021 Distinguished Service Award, an annual honor presented to Association members who consistently contribute their skills and expertise toward the betterment of the Association—began volunteering for PPAI in 1995, when he served as a workshop assistant with PPAI Facilitators. He served in a number of leadership roles over the years, including chair of the PPAI Marketing Information & Research Committee from 2008-2010 and chair of the PPAI Suppliers Committee from 2013-2015. He was advisory chair of the Conventions Advisory Council from 2002-2008, advisory chair of the Awards Advisory council and advisory chair of the Technology, Terminology & Standards Council in 2002-2003. In addition, he was a member of 12 PPAI committees from 1998-2018 and served on the Leadership Development Workshop Task Force in 2009. Abels also served on the board for his regional association, Promotional Products Association Southwest, from 2010-2011. He was named a PPAI Fellow in 2016.
Speaking on her experience working directly with Abels on PPAI’s Market Research Committee, Abels’s nominator, Moumita Das, PPAI’s former research manager, said, “I had the pleasure of working with Mark in 2018 when he served on the Research Committee (formerly Market Research Committee). As a veteran volunteer and former chair of the committee, Mark quickly demonstrated exceptional leadership, providing a lasting impact for the Association. He consistently went above and beyond and set the example in advancing the committee’s work and mission.”
Lisa Beck, a former longtime staff member at PPAI who wrote a letter in support of Abels’s nomination, described him as “the epitome of a distinguished servant to the promotional products industry.” She added, “His servanthood is exhibited through years of thoughtful and passionate service in almost every PPAI volunteer capacity available. Mark has unselfishly led volunteers through productive discussions and developed opportunities for the Association to aid member companies while exuding trust and leadership with everyone he serves with. Anyone who sees Mark in action sees that the industry is always foremost in everything he does.”
Among the positives Abels experienced from participating in volunteer positions with PPAI, he says, was the ability to learn from those more experienced in the industry. “I learned so much and really got exposed to something that I didn’t understand.” He recalls an experience volunteering on the Suppliers Committee that involved an open discussion with distributors. “When you get everybody into the room, and you’re open and you’re talking, and you’re not trying to sell anything, and they’re not trying to sell anything, and you’re trying to solve the industry’s problems, good things happen. You learn to understand each other better and you’re not guessing as much.” He adds, “There’s knowledge in the room and you can learn a lot from it. I think that’s probably where I started to figure it all out. You don’t have to be an expert to do any of this.”
Like his time spent in the industry, volunteering and helping others seemed to come as part of the plan. Years before volunteering with PPAI, Abels spent many days during his childhood helping his grandfather with the family business, organizing and mailing jewelry catalogs, and assisting with other tasks around the office, where it all started.
Danielle Renda is associate editor of PPB.