Photo: Southwestern Advantage representatives and local children have fun face painting while work is being done to build a community center in Cancun, Mexico.
Solid principles embedded in the foundation of Southwestern Advantage have kept the company strong through cultural changes for more than 160 years.
Headquarters: Nashville, Tennessee
Executives: Henry Bedford, Chairman and CEO
Products: Educational reference books and software
2015 Revenue: $225 million
In the year 1855, Reverend J.R. Graves started a mail order company selling books, religious tracts and Bibles. Several years later he was run out of his town of Nashville by Union troops for giving Bibles to the Confederates during the Civil War.
He relocated to Memphis, although he also smuggled printing plates from the North into the South in order to continue printing Bibles for Confederate soldiers. When Rev. Graves later returned to Nashville, he realized that young people were finding it difficult in the postwar era to afford a college education.
In response to this need, he restructured his mail order company to a direct selling model focusing on college students as contracted sales representatives, allowing them an opportunity to earn income for their college expenses as small-business owners. Southwestern Advantage is the oldest direct selling company in the United States, and although additional products and the introduction of technology have changed logistical aspects of the business, the structure of the business training and sales program is the same as it was in the late 1800s.
According to Sales and Recruiting Resource Manager Tabitha Taylor, the purpose of Southwestern Advantage is not just to sell books. “The real purpose is to benefit the college students by helping them become the best version of themselves,” she says. “The training they receive and work they do throughout the summer is very rigorous and difficult, but the rewards for their hard work and learning are immeasurable.”
An Incentive Trip with a Mission
At the top of the list of principles the students are taught is giving. Through the years, Southwestern has donated millions of dollars to various organizations, including a drive for the U.S. Marines’ charity Toys for Tots conducted through the U.S. Direct Selling Association at Christmastime. In 2011, Share the Advantage made its debut as a focused charitable program that included a way for the student sales representatives, known as Dealers, to be involved directly. Director of Communications Trey Campbell says, “As part of the program we added a service project to the Sizzler Trips—incentive trips for the students who reached certain goals during the summer.”
The service project is generally one day of a five-day trip and involves the Dealers leaving the luxury resort where they are staying to go into the local area to help people in need. “All of the funds used to help the locals in need on the service day are raised by the Dealers,” says Campbell.
Due to the culture of giving introduced in their training and the generous hearts of the young people involved in the program, Share the Advantage day on the Sizzler trip has become the most eagerly anticipated day of the year, according to Campbell. “At the beginning of their week of training, Dealers are given an opportunity to opt in to the charitable project that will take place during the Sizzler trip,” he explains. “After a five-day training, their 10-12 week summer work begins. Week 8 is designated as service week.”
What that means is the Dealers can choose to give of their earnings from Week 8 in several ways: Donate a percentage of gross profits, make a one-time donation, or donate a set dollar amount for each family that becomes a customer that week. “Of course, they may choose not to participate, but there is such a buzz among the young people about Share the Advantage that everyone wants to be involved,” says Campbell. “They have huge hearts.”
Another way Dealers can participate in the Share the Advantage program is woven into the sales model. “Every time a Dealer sells a monthly website subscription (one of the educational products sold by Dealers) we invite them to give a free subscription to someone who cannot afford it,” says Campbell. “By empowering them to give, they are trained to notice families in need and are motivated to sell in order to be able to enrich someone’s life with their quality products.”
|A student representative spends some one-on-one time with a child in an orphanage in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, reading a Southwestern Advantage published book.|
Since many of the Sizzler trips are in a tourist town in Mexico or the Dominican Republic, one of the challenges is deciding on one service project out of the many needs in the area. According to Chairman and CEO Henry Bedford, staying open to opportunities of all kinds is the key to choosing—listen for them, he says. “We listen to the Dealers as well as talk amongst our leadership team, and each project seems to clearly present itself and take on a life of its own.”
For instance, in 2011, Bedford accompanied the Dealers on their Sizzler trip and met a young girl named Ana in the local town. “Once you wander outside of the resort area, the neighborhoods quickly start to reflect the poverty of the country we are in. That year we were in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico,” Bedford says. “There were six children in Ana’s family and their parents had been killed in a car accident.” Ana’s older sister was doing her best to raise the family of siblings, but they lived in the poorest house in the already impoverished neighborhood. The structure consisted of a tarp and the neighboring wall of the house next door.
Giving Life to a Miracle
“Fast forward three years and we were returning to Puerto Vallarta, so with the help of a local contact I actually located Ana and her siblings,” says Bedford. “The Dealers pooled their funds and raised nearly $70,000 to build this family a new home that is now one of the nicest in the neighborhood.” The day of the Dealers’ service project during their Sizzler trip just happened to be the day the appliances and furniture arrived at the house, giving the student Dealers the opportunity to help set it all up and see the fruits of their giving. And although Americans are not always trusted by the Mexican citizens to follow through with promises made, that community saw a family helped where they needed it the most.
The logistics of completing such a project while not on site can present some challenges, such as finding a trustworthy architect, sourcing supplies and keeping the project moving. “When we decide to do a project in an area, we work to develop some local contacts we can trust,” says Bedford. “And it’s important to understand the culture you are working in. For instance, in Mexico, the architect also serves as the general contractor. If you find an architect you can work with, which can be done through word-of-mouth and viewing past projects, much like in the U.S., then the project will most likely turn out as you desire.” Bedford and his team have learned that in some countries it’s not that easy. For instance, in Guatemala, buildings are built one brick at a time by whoever is available to work. The risk factor is far greater and the project will require closer supervision.
|A local child joins Southwestern Advantage representatives in making their mark on a wall of handprints in Cancun. This signifies a promise to improve the community on a long-term basis.|
But Bedford doesn’t worry about the risk factor too much when compelled to help someone in need. “What we do for others is faith-based, and if we do lose some money, we understand that it is part of the risk we take to help those less advantaged than us.” His philosophy is that things can go wrong in life but it shouldn’t stop people from giving. “If I could share a message with other companies regarding charitable projects it would be this: The rewards for giving to another culture are worth the risks, and we must have faith that doing things out of a good heart causes good things to happen.”
One project that presented some unforeseen challenges involved a school in Cancun. Campbell relates that La Escualita de Sonia (Sonia’s Little School) seemed like the perfect recipient of the Dealers’ hard-earned funds. Her story was that she lived in a rough area and noticed that there was a young man wandering the streets during school times. When she asked him why, he told her that because he was on crutches due to polio the other kids made fun of him, calling him Pedro Crutches, causing him grief. He got into some fights and was kicked out of school. “In Mexico, once a child is expelled they can never return to school,” says Campbell. When Sonia heard this she told him to come to her house the next day. She would teach him. Pedro was excited and asked if he could bring some friends who were not attending school. The next day seven children showed up to receive an education. The word spread and soon there were 20 kids, then more and more until some days more than 100 children were crammed into the school in the little house.
When Southwestern Advantage showed up a year after first hearing about Sonia, they wanted to incorporate into their service project day a visit to see her students. “We simply could not take all 200 Dealers to her tiny home to provide encouragement to the students as they often did for children in orphanages and various schools in the area. It wasn’t practical,” says Campbell. “But Bedford had a better idea—to build a school building for Sonia and her pupils.” Her efforts had attracted the attention of some kindhearted people in the area, and they were working with Sonia to provide whatever assistance and advice they could. The group had already discussed purchasing land for a building but were a little short on funds. “We stepped in and provided the shortfall and were excited to start on the building,” says Campbell.
|A student representative demonstrates educational materials for a family interested in Southwestern’s products.|
But as sometimes happens in life, things didn’t work out exactly as expected logistically. The team is currently back at the drawing board, figuring out a way to achieve similar results to serve the children using a different plan. Providing for the community’s needs remains the central goal. “The project involves many people who have the best interest of the kids at heart,” says Campbell. “That is why we know it will all work out for their benefit in the end.”
Remaining Flexible and Forward Moving
Bedford and his team share this story to reiterate that life doesn’t follow a perfect path. When undertaking a project, to best prepare for a number of eventualities he recommends the following:
- When planning a project, establish relationships ahead of time—allow time to elapse before plunging in.
- Document everything.
- When plans change, give people time and don’t be anxious.
According to Bedford, focusing on the needs of others in every project allows people to forge ahead without being sidetracked by confusion. The day of service acts as an opportunity for learning the many facets of generosity, including the unforeseen circumstances. “And it has added focused purpose to every Sizzler trip, just as the theme of giving, woven through every aspect of our company, allows us to stay focused on why we do what we do,” says Bedford. “We’ve learned that it’s the givers who are the winners.”
Back at headquarters in Nashville, Executive Chairman of the Board Spencer Hays wanted to bring the giving a little closer to home. “He started the Mary Moore Fund at our corporate office to assist employees who find themselves in a rough financial spot due to no fault of their own,” says Bedford. Hays was raised by his grandmother who taught him to always have a little extra money on hand to help those in immediate need. The legacy of giving she left for him has inspired him to share his training to benefit his fellow employees.
“Giving is everywhere in our company,” Bedford says. From the employees at headquarters to the Dealers in the U.S. and in Europe, giving is taught, promoted and never forgotten. Bedford’s vision for the future of Southwestern Advantage is for every entity within its large infrastructure to have a strong practice of giving and to act as an example of generosity to others. “We teach the Dealers throughout their time with us that if they will focus on a life of service, they will get more out of life than they give,” Bedford says. “And those benefits will be of far greater value than anything money can ever buy.”