Southwestern: Company’s 150-Year-Old Mission Continues to Inspire

Photo: Southwestern group service project in Dominican Republic.

“THE MOST IMPORTANT THING THAT OUR INDIVIDUAL EXPERIENCES WITH SOUTHWESTERN PROVIDED was the development of character—doing what needed to be done whether we felt like it or not.”

“Yes, the planning, goal setting and book-keeping were all good skills, but it was ‘hitting the wall,’ which we all did, that provided the opportunity for our true selves to be identified, developed and forged. We each found ourselves at some point on a curb somewhere, feeling defeated, but we got up and kept going. Now, each of my children know who they are, what they can do and what their purpose is. It’s simply natural for others to follow them because people want to follow commitment and strength like that.”
Steve Barnett, Southwestern Advantage alumnus; husband to Jayne Barnett, Southwestern Advantage alumnus; together they are parents to six Southwestern Advantage alumni

Founded: 1855 (Direct Sales, 1868)
Headquarters: Nashville, Tennesee
Top Executive: Chairman and CEO Henry Bedford
Products: Leisure and Education

Henry Bedford

As the global culture continues to demand a digital lifestyle, where daily purchases can be made without interacting with a single human, Southwestern’s door-to-door sales model sounds as if it’s from another time—and it is. 1868 to be exact. For 150 years, the company has recruited students from colleges across the country to participate in its flagship summer sales and leadership program, Southwestern Advantage. Throughout that time, the mission of Southwestern has remained the same: to be the best company in the world at helping young people develop the skills and character they need to reach their goals. Year after year, approximately 2,000 college students choose to spend their summer months selling the suite of educational materials offered by Southwestern Advantage in neighborhoods across North America. But company executives would tell you that their ultimate product is far more valuable. At the close of each summer selling season, Southwestern Advantage has produced a fresh class of entrepreneurs who are fully equipped with the resilience, leadership skills and on-the-ground experience to impact every sector of the American economy.

“We have a timeless mission,” explains President Dan Moore. “If ever there were a generation of young people that did not need character, perseverance, communication skills, flexibility, adaptability, self-reliance, or service-mindedness, then we’d lose our relevancy. But as long as there are generations that need those qualities, we’ll be here.”

Moore is proof of that mission, having joined the company as a Harvard undergraduate in 1974 and working his way to the top in his 44-year tenure. “I wasn’t born into a wealthy family,” he shares. “(At the time), I wasn’t sure I’d have the money for the second year.” While working as a busboy in the dining hall, Moore was befriended by a senior who shared the experience he’d had selling books door-to-door and how much money he’d earned. “I said ‘if I can do half as well as he did, it’ll take a lot of burden off my family and allow me to be back here again.’ ”

One-on-one sales school training.

Mission Meets Method

In this digital age of online entrepreneurs and social selling, how does Southwestern Advantage’s traditional sales model attract student sellers? “We try to connect what our opportunity offers with the futures students want to have,” Moore says. In practice, this involves sharing the characteristics that employers are looking for, made public by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. “Communication skills, self-reliance, initiative—all are skills that this program grows in students,” he continues. “So a big part of our recruiting approach is to simply expose them to that reality, that this opportunity is waiting for you, and you can do what every other student does, or you can take a calculated risk, and do something that will definitely make you stand out.”

President Dan Moore with student dealer on the field.

Southwestern’s summer sales and leadership program begins with initial recruitment conversations, much like Moore’s in the Harvard dining hall. “We recruit on 205 college campuses nationwide and in 11 countries abroad,” explains Trey Campbell, director of communications. “If a student shows interest in the program, we have them sit down with one of our sales managers or a student manager, who’s returning to the program after a successful summer. We want the program to be right for them and for the students to be right for the program, because it’s not just getting some samples of products and selling it to your friends. It’s actually relocating to another state and living with a host family.”

The next step of the process is critical—a visit with the student’s parents. “The parents endorse their son or daughter into our program, so they’re fully aware of what we’re all about and what their son or daughter wants to do for the summer, even though these students are adults,” says Campbell. “Those parents are their student’s biggest fans and biggest support.”

Once the student decides to participate in the program, he or she attends Southwestern’s sales school, a five-day training program at the company’s headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee. For those five days, these student entrepreneurs learn what it means to operate their own businesses. While they’re required to pay for their transportation to the training, as well as a portion of their room and board for the week, students receive the training, sales kit and samples at no cost. Moore explains the breakdown of this program this way: “The students’ week focuses one-third on selling knowledge, another third on product knowledge and business management, and at least a third on self-motivation, attitude and being prepared for the refusal and obstacles they’re going to face.”

For 150 years, the company has recruited students from colleges across the country to participate in its flagship summer sales and leadership program, Southwestern Advantage

At week’s end, these newly minted student business owners, or “student dealers,” will leave for their assigned territories, move in with host families and put their newfound sales skills to the test. In neighborhoods across the U.S. and Canada, student dealers share the company’s educational books and online subscriptions with area families. Every sale is made in person, with student dealers running their own business on average 70 hours a week, which is about 12 hours a day, six days a week. Even with continued weekly training, the dealers face a vigorous 12 weeks—a goal of 30 presentations per day, repeated rejection and the challenges of working far from home. Approximately 30 percent of the students that attend sales school won’t complete the summer; however, of those dealers that do complete the summer, around 40 percent will return for the next summer and 50-60 percent complete a third summer selling season. The average five-year participant of the program has earned $137,522. Considering the current average cost of tuition, room and board for four years of in-state college is $83,080; these student dealers are coming out ahead in ways beyond the skill set they develop.

“This opportunity is waiting for you, and you can do what every other student does, or you can take a calculated risk, and do something that will definitely make you stand out.”
Dan Moore, President, Southwestern

Student dealers that complete the program have on-the-ground experience they can use to market themselves to potential employers; though many feel so passionate about Southwestern that they pursue careers with the company, working in the field or in other positions across the organization.

An Engine That Fuels Entrepreneurship

The oldest direct sales company in the country, Southwestern Advantage celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, but it doesn’t celebrate alone. Since 1972, 19 additional companies have joined the Southwestern family of companies with most conceived by veterans of the Southwestern Advantage summer program. Chairman and CEO Henry Bedford, who also began his career as a student dealer, witnessed the birth of each new Southwestern company. “When I joined Southwestern full-time, I worked with (then CEO) Spencer Hays,” Bedford shares. “Spencer had a philosophy of wanting to work with students to continue to build new business in Southwestern.”

With 20 companies operating under the Southwestern name and an ongoing commitment to remain an incubator of new business opportunities, the company continues to grow. “We’re like a small Berkshire Hathaway,” says Bedford. “We’re a collection of businesses, in many different industries. We identify an A+ person and know that if the right person is leading a business, they’ll find a way to persist.” Bedford and his team can quantify their philosophy on growth: 80 percent of the businesses that have been developed internally are still in business today. He says, “It’s not a perfect track record, but it’s pretty good.”

Today, that family of companies continues to be fueled by the talent empowered by the summer sales program. In the past five years alone, more than 200 alumni of the program have been hired in positions within the family of companies. And the business hasn’t simply grown by companies or team members. “In 1972, when I was selling books, our entire wholesale business was $12 million after being in business for roughly 100 years,” Bedford says. “As of last year we’re somewhere in the neighborhood of $220 million. It’s been a wonderful evolution of just believing in people. We have such a wonderful situation where a young person can define what they’re passionate about and then have the opportunity to follow those passions right off the bat, right out of school and build what they want to build.”

The Next 150 Years

Looking ahead to the future of Southwestern and the constant push for more online commerce options, it’s only logical to question both the model and the product. Bedford and his team are confident that the personal, face-to-face sales approach that is Southwestern’s hallmark isn’t going anywhere. Additionally, he says, “I’m often asked, “What are you going to do when books go out of style, or people only want digital content?’ My response is ‘we’ll have a party!’ The idea of going to digital content is wonderful. We’d have a simpler inventory system, can be more adept and quick at making changes and edits. It’s nothing but positive,” he says. “Though we find that parents and grandparents still gravitate towards books and we think that will continue for quite some time. But as it evolves, our strategy is to simply follow the market and go where the market’s going. We view books as a medium and the real value is our (proprietary) content.”

Bedford shares that as a company, Southwestern’s 30-year goal is to become the largest private company in the world. “We need to grow at 26 percent each year on a compounded basis to be at $200 billion in 30 years,” he reports. “Over the last five years, we’ve really been contemplating that and working toward it, and that’s the picture that we had in mind. My role as chairman is to help build the infrastructure we’ll need to support that goal.”

As the family of companies pursues growth and adds new companies to the portfolio, Southwestern Advantage remains true to its original mission of building character in aspiring leaders. Books are simply the vehicle to achieve it. “We continue to honor the Southwestern Advantage program as the core business here,” says Bedford. “We all look towards that. It’s the most important thing we do.”

Southwestern Family of Companies

Southwestern Consulting
One-on-one accountability coaching and sales consulting.

Southwestern Real Estate
A residential real estate brokerage.

Southwestern Advantage
Assists college students in offsetting educational expenses through running a business.

Southwestern Investment Group
A full-service investment and financial services firm.

A direct sales company that sells gourmet culinary blends, infused grapeseed oils, dressings and sauces.

Great American Opportunities
One of the oldest, largest and most respected fund-raising companies in America.

Global Educational Concepts (GEC)
As a designated sponsor through the U.S. State Department, GEC recruits International students to come to America for work, travel and training.

Tasty Selections
A manufacturer of high-quality frozen bakery products.

An international executive search and recruiting services firm for specialty positions and fields.

SBR Consulting (U.K.)
London-based consultancy dedicated to liberating sales potential worldwide.

A club that offers its members access to exotic destinations and the ability to expand the current usage and value of their second-home investment.

Southwestern Publishing Group
A well-known cookbook publishing company for non-profits, companies and individuals.

Southwestern Travel
A company dedicated to providing unique travel experiences that broaden horizons and provide a means of self-exploration.

Southwestern Tax Services
Part of the Southwestern Company that provides income tax preparation services to Southwestern Advantage book dealers.

Companies recently added to the family include:

  • Southwestern Coaching
  • Southwestern Speaking
  • Southwestern Training
  • Southwestern Property Insurance
  • BDC – (Business development within Great American Opportunities)
  • QSP – (Fundraising company acquired by Great American Opportunities)
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