It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when Larry Abels, who celebrates 50 years as an ASI member in 2015, wasn’t even aware of the advertising specialty industry. Today, he’s the chairman of Selco (asi/86230), and his son Mark Abels is the president and CEO. But when Larry Abels first started in business in the early 1960s, he sold fine jewelry and watches directly to oil executives, since Tulsa, OK, where the company is based, was at that time teeming with black gold and the companies who flocked there were looking to get in on the action.
“Back then, Tulsa was called the oil capital of the world,” says Abels. “Our offices were very close to the oil area, and executives bought jewelry from us. We were eventually selling $50,000 emeralds and $100,000 diamonds. We were heavily into retail, and had a chain of jewelry stores in the region. We had no idea about recognition or the promotional market.”
But that all changed when an executive asked Abels if they could supply him with 200 Omega watches as a service award. “We had no idea what he was talking about!” says Abels. “But we filled that order and then started doing engraving for incentives and awards.”
Eventually, Abels teamed up with a distributor who sold to the petroleum industry and supplied the client with different watch styles for multiple divisions, all the while realizing that his product line could fit comfortably into the promotional marketplace.
When Selco eventually joined ASI in 1965, the company still offered items mostly in a retail capacity, but gradually devoted more time and energy to supplying distributor clients with timepieces. “We basically introduced watches to the industry,” says Abels. “And we’ve never left.” As a new member of ASI, Selco’s business continued to center on oil executives’ gifting and incentive programs in the Oklahoma and Texas area. Today, while Texas is still the company’s largest market, the client base has expanded dramatically. “It’s now all over the country,” says Abels, “We’re right in the center of all the UPS zones, which is convenient, and we’ve also sold to Mexico and Central America.”
Larry Abels, chairman of Selco, with his grandchildren. Abels has been an ASI supplier since 1965.
By the early 1970s, Selco was completely dedicated to serving its distributor clients. They made their name as a supplier of watches and clocks before changes in the market forced them to give up production on the latter. “We had a lot of clock business early on, with movements from Europe,” says Abels. “But then they became too expensive. We did some of our own production here in Tulsa, but when Asia started we just couldn’t keep up. Now we just focus on watches, and we’re still the only dial manufacturer in the United States.”
Selco continues to offer high-end brands, as well as its own line. “It’s a higher price point for distributors, and sometimes they stay away, but others want to show their client everything that’s available,” says Abels. “We have to make sure our quality is high because if thousands of watches in the same order have a problem, we’re out of business. We’re proud to say that less than 1% come back for service or repair.”
Watches continue to be a sought-after promotional item and incentive gift for a variety of industries, even half a century after Selco first started offering them to distributors, Abels says. “They’re the most-watched wearable,” says Abels. “People look at them about 40 times a day. And if we personalize it, the recipient will never lose it because it’s valuable to them. It’s a piece of jewelry with intrinsic value.”
Today, while Abels is still significantly involved with the company, he spends “as much time as possible” in Naples, FL, and still travels to Asia and Las Vegas each year. “With my IP phone, it’s like I’m sitting in the office in Tulsa,” he says. “I can be anywhere in the world and stay in touch. I can see all the details, monitor cash flow. Our company is much better run than ever before.”