COVER STORY – Visionaries

Posted on Nov 1, 2012 :: Cover Story
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Style is integral to the success of Séura, and that’s evident right down to the employee kitchen in the Green Bay facility. It’s a formula that’s worked: In the eight years since Gretchen and Tim Gilbertson founded Séura, the company has grown exponentially – and sales are up 67 percent this year.

Séura of Green Bay has a lot in common with the products it makes: It’s hidden from view in plain sight until flashing into focus.

While the electronics manufacturer has made a name for itself in the industry by producing innovative products – such as televisions hidden within mirrors, waterproof TVs and outdoor televisions – many people still don’t know about the cutting-edge technology coming out of its Green Bay facility.

Tim Gilbertson, who owns Séura with his wife, Gretchen, shares the story of how a designer with Palmer Johnson, the Sturgeon Bay yacht builder, called looking for more information about the company’s waterproof televisions. “I told him I would be happy to meet with them in person and they said, ‘What airport will you be flying into?’ I then told them I was just down the road in Green Bay. They were stunned.”

Given the company’s European-sounding name – it’s pronounced seer-ah – and what it does, it’s common for people to not realize they’re located in Green Bay. But as Gretchen Gilbertson puts it, that may just be the company’s signature advantage.

“We’re small and dynamic and can easily adapt to the feedback we get from our customers and the market,” she says, adding the company’s sales are up 67 percent from where they were a year ago. “I also think when people find out we’re from Green Bay, it evokes trust and quality.

“When we started, we were advised to move to Chicago or a larger area, but we are so happy we stayed.”

Taking an idea and running with it

Both Gilbertsons were working in product development at different companies when they saw something on a home tour that caught their eye – a crude version of what would become their first product – a TV within a mirror. “We really embraced the concept and worked to refine it,” Gretchen says.

“With our backgrounds, we were able to pull together the right people and get it developed,” says Tim, who helped launch an under-the-counter refrigerator at his previous employer.

Mark Burwell of eHub in Green Bay has served as a mentor and cheerleader for multiple entrepreneurs, including the Gilbertsons. He says the duo is “putting down footprints” for other entrepreneurs to follow.

“They are truly role models in the entrepreneurial world when it comes to technology transfer – which takes technology and ideas from others and creates something completely new,” he says. “To me, they are the true definition of entrepreneurs – they are creating value through innovation and aren’t afraid to take a risk.”

The first Séura TV-within-a-mirror debuted at a national trade show in 2004 and immediately caught the industry’s attention. The product was featured on TV design shows – HGTV’s Candace Olsen has used it multiple times on her shows – and in magazines, including Better Homes and Gardens. In 2005, the company launched a commercial segment targeting the hospitality sector.

“Hotels are always looking to differentiate themselves. They talk about different thread-count or mattresses, but that’s not as easily discernible as a TV-within-a-mirror,” Tim says.

And it’s not just four-star, high-end hotels looking to Séura. Comfort Suites in Green Bay purchased multiple Séura products as part of its recent renovation.

The original product was designed for people who want style and functionality, but also information, Gretchen says. “It’s the TV for him and the decor for her,” she laughs. “But seriously, the original product wasn’t designed for people who are crazy about TVs. It’s for busy people who may only have those 20 or 30 minutes in the morning while they’re getting ready to catch the news. We have one in our bathroom and that’s how I watch the news and find out about the weather and how to dress the kids.”

And like other manufacturers, Séura is expanding its product base. From that original TV-within-the-mirror concept came waterproof TVs perfect for the shower or built in the wall behind the kitchen sink, lighted mirrors and its latest product offering, outdoor TVs. Along the way, Séura has won multiple new product awards from the electronic system industry trade organization CEDIA, including its recent best new product award for its line of Storm outdoor TVs.

“We continue to broaden the product and expand into new markets. We really listen to customers and what they want,” Tim says. “There’s a whole vision here that bridges the gap between design and technology.”

The outdoor TV feeds into the latest trend of people investing more in their outdoor space. “People see their yards as an extension of their homes. They’re investing in nicer patios, outdoor kitchens, fireplaces and if you’re spending that much time outside, you may want your TV out there too,” says Gretchen, adding the TVs can withstand temperatures from -30 to 140 degrees.

If you don’t think they can’t handle Wisconsin winters, think again. The Green Bay Packers have installed several Séura TVs as part of the latest expansion project. “The technology inside these TVs is incredible,” says Tim, adding that they are engineered to protect against harsh outdoor conditions such as rain, snow, wind, insects and dust. With the contaminants completely sealed out, Tim says they are unable to obstruct the television’s electronics.

They are also humidity-proof, which is essential in places like the southern United States where people can spend almost the entire year enjoying their outdoor living spaces without a parka, Gretchen says.

Another popular model is Séura’s Hydra waterproof televisions. They can be added to showers as well as built right into the wall behind the kitchen sink. Again, Gretchen says the idea is to put televisions where people can get the most use from them.

“If you’re busy, you can catch up on the news, sports or weather while in the shower or while you’re working in the kitchen,” she says. “People also don’t like to have their televisions stand out and this is built right into the backsplash. It’s not sticking out.”

The Hydras are especially popular in hotels since it’s another factor that can distinguish one hotel from another, Tim says.

As for the lighted mirrors – another Séura line and one that has nothing to do with televisions – hotels and health care providers (St. Elizabeth Hospital in Appleton installed them in its new birth suites) are the main customers, although they can be used in residential building too. “People need light by their mirrors and this is just another option; you don’t need to have the sconces or overhead lights,” Gretchen says. “It’s built right in.”

Focused on the personal touch

When the company began, the Gilbertsons handled production in the garage of their Little Chute home. Within a few months, they outgrew that space and moved into a facility in Ashwaubenon. Then in 2008, they moved to a new, airy office and production facility in Green Bay’s I-43 Industrial Park (the couple now lives in Green Bay). The open concept office space is bright thanks to plenty of windows, and low walls make it easier for employees to collaborate. The manufacturing facility sits behind the office and most products are made to order with Séura offering few off-the-shelf models.

“It’s that personal touch. We assemble the product for the customer and to their specifics,” Tim says. “Our ability to customize our products to meet our clients’ needs is one of our differentiators.”

The company employs 17 full-time workers between the office and manufacturing staff and adds temporary workers as needed.

While Séura products have gained attention in the home design sector, there are still plenty of people who have no idea their products exist, Gretchen says. “That’s a challenge – getting out the word about what we do,” she says.

The company has independent sales reps and also displays at trade shows to catch the attention of designers and architects, who can then share information about their product with their customers.

“The typical Séura customer is very discerning and wants something their neighbors don’t have,” Gretchen says.

As for the price tag, the TV-within-a-mirror starts out at about $1,999 while the Storm TV starts at $4,900. As for size, bigger is better with sets above 50 inches being the most popular.

Like many other businesses, the economic slowdown affected Séura as people cut back on their discretionary spending. But as the economy begins to pick up – especially construction – Séura has grown right along with it.

“The economy is getting better and we’re also doing a better job of raising awareness about our products,” Tim says. “Diversifying our product portfolio and introducing new products also helps.”

As for what’s next, Tim is looking to Séura’s customers. “They keep telling us what they want and we do what we can to meet their needs,” he says.

About the name

From the company website: Séura gets its name from French painter Georges-Pierre Séurat. Best known for his iconic “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” Séurat started the pointillist movement in painting. By altering the eye’s perception of a picture with tiny points of color, the method mimics the images produced by the pixels of a television.

About Séura

Headquarters: Green Bay

Company leadership: Tim and Gretchen Gilbertson. Tim focuses on operations while Gretchen focuses on strategy and branding.

Employees: 17

What they do: Develop and manufacture a variety of electronic products, including TVs-within-a-mirror, waterproof television sets, lighted mirrors and outdoor television sets.