The national conversation about women leaders in corporate America, recently rekindled through a book written by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, could learn something from Irene Seaman.
Seaman, after all, worked two jobs for more than four decades: By day she ran the books at her family's business, Seaman Corp., and by morning, evening and night she raised five children in her CEO-of-the-household role.
Today Seaman Corp., co-founded by Irene Seaman and her husband, Norman Seaman, in 1949, in their basement with two sewing machines, is a $100 million coated-fabrics business. The firm, now run by one of the couple's five children, Richard Seaman, manufactures fabrics and coating formulas used everywhere from roofs to truck tarps. It's based in Wooster, Ohio, and has another facility in Tennessee.
Irene Seaman, now 90, ran the accounting department at Seaman Corp. for more than 30 years. She was also something of a do-everything assistant for Norman Seaman, and she served on the company's board after her husband died in 1978 at 54 years old.
At home, meanwhile, Seaman had dinner on the table by 5 p.m. She even recalls that many nights, after the kids were in bed, she would do one last task: iron clothes for the next day.
Still, Seaman doesn't consider herself a pioneer in the women's movement to balance family and work. “I enjoyed it,” Seaman says of the double-duty. “Though it was a bit much. It was hard work.”
Seaman, who lives in south Sarasota County, recently sat down with the Business Observer to talk about her life, career and business lessons learned. Here are excerpts of the conversation:
Survival days: Seaman's father died when she was 10 years old, in 1932. Her mom went to work soon after, and Seaman began working herself when she was 16. She was a housekeeper and then worked at a department store in her native Akron, Ohio. The family struggled at times. “It was hard for us,” says Seaman, “but we managed.”
Entrepreneurial dreams: Seaman, then Irene Sax, married Norman Seaman in 1944. He was a U.S. Air Force pilot at the time, who flew a B-24 Liberator in heavy bombing missions in World War II, says David Seaman, one of the couple's five children. The young couple moved to California after the war, where, in 1947, they launched their first entrepreneurial venture together. It was an ice cream truck they called Seaman's Tasty Freeze. Irene Seaman's two favorite memories of that business: One, they cut the windows out of a milk delivery truck to create the stand, and two they mixed their own flavors.
Be prepared: The Seamans soon moved back to Ohio, where they started their next business, sewing lace for baby doll diapers, with two sewing machines in the basement. The business would soon expand to include other fabrics, like vinyl films. Irene Seaman received customer payments, made deposits and paid bills. She takes pride in the fact that she always secretly held on to cash — separate from the books — to cover unforeseen emergencies.
Hire smart: A top business lesson Seaman is a common one: To hire people smarter than yourself and let them do their job. “We had great people who enjoyed working for us,” she says, “and we treated them well.”
Just did it: Seaman has no regrets about living such an active business-family life, though she realizes she “missed out on a lot of things,” like playing golf with friends and socializing. “I didn't have time to get tired,” says Seaman. “But I never neglected my kids in any way, shape or form.”
David Seaman might run his own startup business, but he still answers to mom.
That's partially because Seaman's mom, Irene Seaman is an investor in Sarasota-based Aqua Mizer. Founded by David Seaman and his business partner Mike Sisti, the firm developed a line of adjustable toilet flush systems it says can reduce water usage in toilet bowls without impacting performance. Irene Seaman, who helped run a fabrics manufacturing business for 40 years, is now retired in Sarasota.
Irene Seaman provides her son more than a check. She also provides advice and direction. “While the business methods have changed dramatically over the years, the basics remain in place,” says Irene Seaman. “There is still no substitute for experience.”