About SewTech

'Keep Sewing America,' or ... The Wayne Benton Story
By Helen Hart Momsen

Excerpted from Printwear Magazine, reprinted with permission

In the spring of 1997, Wayne Benton took a walk on the Internet and found the Embroidery List, an e-mail service maintained by Universal Designs in Louisville, Ky. It's a discovery that more than 700 members of the embroidery industry have also made but, for Benton, it was the end of one very long journey ... and the beginning of another.

On that day, he wrote an e-mail and sent it out into cyberspace. He introduced himself to what was then a group of fewer than 200 embroiderers: "Hi, my name is Wayne Benton, and I'm a sewing-machine technician."

Benton asked the scattered, faceless, unknown crowd for direction, for advice. He received over 150 replies by midnight, and that response was the inspiration for his company, SewTech International, an independent service organization with a mission to keep America sewing at an affordable price.

The people he asked for guidance are, for the most part, self-employed and independent. They answered with enthusiasm and encouragement, urging him to start his own business rather than seek employment with an established embroidery-machine company. The response was double-rooted, in its desire to see him re-build the family empire he had lost, and the equal desire to have an independent technician with the skills and honesty to serve their growing embroidery companies. The foundation: A cornerstone of customer service and fair play

Wayne Benton is made up of equal parts maverick and Southern gentleman, and the result is a blend of independence and charm. To begin to understand him, and the business philosophies he embraces, we must take a look at the journey that brought him to a point of near despair, to the day when he made a leap of faith that continues to endear him to everyone he meets.

Charlie D. Benton, Wayne's grandfather, born in the closing years of the 19th century, was the first sewing-machine repairman in the Benton clan. He worked in the textile and cotton mills of Alabama, fixing Singer sewing machines on the side, until an accident which took most of his right hand forced him to hang up his screwdrivers.

This all took place before Wayne's father, Harry Wayne Benton, Sr., was born, a late seventh child who worked for Singer for five years before founding Benton Sewing in 1969. In just three years, Harry Benton built a company that dominated the market in central Alabama, and he did it by providing the best possible service to customers, a lesson that Wayne learned well.

"We were known as the honest sewing-machine company," Benton says. "The customer was always right and deals rested on honor and good word-in other words, on a simple handshake."

Benton Sewing was one of the first independent sewing-machine stores in the country, offering, under one roof, five of the seven major brands. Support and service came with the sale, and Benton's father would pick him up from school and take him on service calls.

"All I could do was watch him, and, unknowingly, learn from the best. The way he interacted with a customer was a sight to see. I never saw or heard a customer express dissatisfaction with my father or his company.

"My father taught me many things. Not only how to repair sewing machines, but how to make the customer the most important thing in our lives. That is really the essence of everything I have ever done."

Benton started working on machines when he was twelve, learning the basics first-how to time a hook, how to set the needle clearance. When the school day ended, he would ride his bicycle to his Dad's store and clean machines. "He would do the repairs as I watched, and then I would do the sew test as he started on the next machine. Pretty soon he was able to leave it all to me. He said I had a natural talent, but I think he was just tired of doing it."

During this time, Benton also maintained embroidery machines for several customers, servicing free-hand Meistergrams as well as other machines. "My father allowed me to build up my own set of customers in this new industry because he didn't think it worth pursuing. About the only bad call he ever made." The memory of these special customers was on Benton's mind the night he typed in the search-word "embroidery" on the Internet.

Benton repaired machines for his father until he enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17. He returned home to join the business again, although he was reluctant to do so. "I had just completed some of the most exciting years of my life, traveling the world, and I was just not ready to return to that small 'Bama town. But I am glad I did. It is the most rewarding thing I can think of, coming to the rescue of someone who depends on their equipment to make their living. It's a good feeling. A most satisfying job."

The rise and fall of Benton Sewing

After Benton started the company in 1986, it expanded and added the repair of industrial equipment to its services. Benton Sewing opened stores in Birmingham, Ala., and Columbus, Ga. It had satellite locations in six smaller towns, and traveled all over the South tending to its customers.

"We held the first million-dollar warehouse sale in the country, which led to several years of this type of show nationwide. We were the first to open an educational department to further help our customers and the industry as a whole.

"But that all changed when I left the company again in 1991. I decided it was time for me to move on, so I left. Two people were hired to replace me, and things went smoothly until my father came down with cancer and lost a kidney. During that time, and the year that followed, my replacements started looting the company."

Benton was asked by his father to help with the yearly inventory, and it was then that the dream of Benton Sewing became a nightmare. "How do you tell a dying man that all he's worked for is gone, that his wife is without any way of supporting herself, and his children's inheritance is lost? It was a very dark time."

After the death of his father, Benton sought employment with others in the sewing industry. He was determined to rebuild what his family had lost, and went to work for the Vanity Fair Corp. as a mechanic in its Lee Jeans division. "Although the machine operators weren't paying customers, I always treated them as if they were," Benton says. And, to this day, the customer is still his top priority.

Benton thought he had found a place to stay. "But NAFTA soon ended that," he says. "I was cast adrift with no safety net, and only about eight months of money to hold my family until inspiration might strike. I realized at that point the only thing I could do was find a place where my talents could be used to provide for my family. One day, while looking on the Internet, I found the Embroidery List." 

The Internet became his safety net, the source of his inspiration, and the rest is history.

A legacy reborn

Benton's June, 1997, e-mail asked for advice. It was a humble and charming plea for guidance. He had the talent, he had the drive, but he couldn't see the direction. He soon discovered that the embroidery industry was much larger than when he left it. And the positive response to his message indicated to him that the equipment-service aspect of the industry was becoming a problem for customers and manufacturers alike. "Here is my future," he thought as he read the avalanche of encouragement. "Here is the future of my children. There is a need, and I can fill it."

Benton's mission statement was formed that day from the commitment to service and customer satisfaction that his father had taught him. So often we mourn the doors as they close, without looking for the windows that invariably open. What Benton saw as an inheritance lost was only the material trappings of the empire that his father had begun, and he had helped shape. The true legacy rested in the skills his father had recognized and fostered in him. It lived on in the work ethic Benton had absorbed as a child, and a dazzling belief in the inherent goodness and honesty of himself and his fellow man-a belief he truly thinks can survive in today's business world.

"If I can offer to the embroidery industry the same type of professional service we offered to the customers of Benton Sewing, if we can go further than any other company in servicing our customers, then I should be able to build on my family's legacy to the benefit of this industry."

SewTech International

On Dec. 7, 1997, just six months after his first e-mail, Benton again wrote to the Embroidery List: 

"In June of this year I decided (with a little help) to offer my services to all of you in the hopes of helping our industry with its repair woes, and perhaps carve out a future for a 4th generation of Bentons in the industry."

Benton's dream was well on its way. He had a "young but very determined company." No longer a local technician, his territory reached from New York to New Orleans, and from Miami to Chicago. His "thank you" to the Embroidery List was loud and clear. His recruiting call for "techs who want a job with a growing company" indicated his intention to keep America sewing for a long time.

SewTech International works on every brand of embroidery and sewing machine. Many embroidery shops have more than one make of machine on the premises, and SewTech is determined to correct the problems this condition creates in the tech-support arena.

One of SewTech's strategies is called the "Service Sweep"-two or more shops in a given area are all it takes to start one. The company maps out a territory where there are scheduled service calls and preventive-maintenance appointments, then notifies the customer base. If anyone needs a tech while SewTech is in the area, the response is faster and less expensive than through conventional service channels. If an embroidery shop decides it wants to be included in the "sweep," it gets its preventative maintenance at a good price. (Living up to his commitment to keep travel costs to a minimum, Benton admits to even having ridden a bicycle to one call. Yes, it was a local call.) (...)

©1998 National Business Media, Inc. Used with permission.

Part II
The Wayne Benton Story
By Helen Hart Momsen

A continuum:

Fair play and customer service Benton believes in paying top dollar to his employees and charging his customers a fair price, and he is convinced that can be done without making a 300 percent profit. 

"SewTech faces the same problems as the major players," Benton points out. "We have expenses from the time a technician walks out the door until he gets back. Motels, gas, breakfast, et cetera. But we believe we can do all that and not gouge the customer."

One of SewTech's strategies is called the "Service Sweep" - two or more shops in a given area are all it takes to start one. The company maps out a territory where there are scheduled service calls and preventive-maintenance appointments, then notifies the customer base. If anyone needs a tech while SewTech is in the area, the response is faster and less expensive than through conventional service channels. If an embroidery shop decides it wants to be included in the "sweep," it gets its preventative maintenance at a good price. (Living up to his commitment to keep travel costs to a minimum, Benton admits to even having ridden a bicycle to one call. Yes, it was a local call.)

"Tech-for-a-day" is another innovative program SewTech offers. If you need extra machine or maintenance training, a technician for a full day in your shop will provide that, as well as smoothing out tension problems, curing thread-break woes and addressing hooping problems. Combining Service Sweeps and Tech-for-a-day, SewTech makes repairs, maintenance and continuing education an affordable alternative rather than a luxury.

Benton believes in education for the technician as well as for the customer. "There are industries out there that retrain their techs every few years," he says, "and often the training lasts six months before the tech is allowed to be 'independent.' Six weeks is the longest in our industry today. We want to change that."

SewTech's maintenance philosophy Benton readily admits that his company suffers from PMS: preventative-maintenance syndrome. "I like to occasionally remind my customers that their production is based entirely on the very machine that they are using-and often abusing, slightly but steadily-every day. If the tech doesn't tell them, their machine will, eventually. As we all know, planned obsolescence is a reality in everything produced these days. In other words, anything man makes will break."

Many of today's consumers are leery of "service contracts," seeing them as a bid for more money, as yet another way they are being asked to "bet against disaster." Benton believes that with a true service policy, you should get what you pay for, and then some. 
"A service contract should be all-inclusive; you should be able to just pick up the phone. I want the customer, but at a price they can afford. I want to put to use in this industry what my father and grandfather taught me: an honest day's work for an honest day's pay."

Benton preaches the religion of maintenance with a fervor that underscores his desire to prevent instead of to fix. Thus, he is a great advocate of education. "That segment of our industry has expanded rapidly, but I am afraid the industry as a whole and the educators in particular have failed to educate the buyers in proper 
maintenance. In no way am I downplaying their contributions to the industry in this regard, but the machine manufacturers teach what they know, their specialty. I want to teach mine."

Benton believes "free training forever" should be standard practice for equipment manufacturers. This philosophy is bound to raise a few eyebrows and start a few debates, but he firmly believes an embroidery company should be able to send an operator-even an owner-operator-to training over and over again. In order to facilitate industry education achieving such a lofty goal, one of Benton's long-term plans is to produce a preventive-maintenance video tape for each machine brand; perhaps even a CD-ROM with audio-visual clips, as well.

"I know the owners of any profitable shop just hate to take time to do maintenance; for the most part, their machines are running great and have been for some time, so why should they stop production? The machines are made so well that they can take this miniscule abuse daily, which actually lures owners into lax maintenance habits. After all, they just got one more hat done before shipping time. All shop owners can identify with that, and I'd estimate better than 90 percent of them have been guilty of improper maintenance-whether because of not knowing or because of heavy production schedules. The level of knowledge average owners have of their equipment is directly related to the amount of repairs and problems they've experienced. I know of many machines that have run well for so many years with so little maintenance that eventually, and with each successive employee, preventative maintenance disappears. I actually have one customer whose most senior operator had never been instructed to oil the hook-for months no one ever performed this most basic maintenance procedure."

Perhaps the day will come when a machine that's been properly maintained and serviced-with appropriate documentation to prove it-will be of more value than one without such a record. Perhaps a dated sticker on the face of the equipment and a detailed service record will make the difference-"buying used" will no longer have to mean the same thing as "buying blind."

SewTech's future

In addition to Benton's plans to produce maintenance-training videos, his company is in the process of opening a training center in Alabama, with courses on the maintenance and use of every machine, along with one of every machine available for training and demonstration. He also foresees a seminar center to teach the technical side of embroidery, and a true repair course for an owner or his chosen employee.

Because SewTech services such a variety of machines, parts inventory has not been a company feature, but Benton still advocates reasonable prices for parts: "Even if we only educate the customer to find them cheaper. There is no point in gouging a customer on parts. A hook with a wholesale price of $19 should just not cost the end user $78." 

A parts inventory at SewTech is not out of the question, but the answer is more complicated for SewTech because of the repertoire of machines involved.

Benton's ultimate goal is to provide a "tech in every town." He hopes to accomplish this by having a technician responsible for maintaining a territory, making the service calls close and therefore even more affordable. SewTech firmly plans a future with over 300 technicians on board to service the embroidery industry. "With the amount of research and development going on, this industry is nowhere near where it's going to be," he predicts. SewTech wants to be there for that burgeoning industry, with affordable service, education and, most of all, accountability. "Everyone should answer, and be responsibility for their actions-technicians, as well as the guys in the suits," Benton says. "Accountability is important."

On the subject of responsibility and accountability, Benton remembers the recommendations and encouragement he got from the Embroidery List over a year ago. "The best things are things like the List. It is good to air grievances-keeps people honest."

As SewTech International continues to grow, it is becoming one of "those": a growing company on the rise. But as he moves forward in the world of embroidery, Benton carries with him the work ethic and commitment to customers that he learned from his father and grandfather. It is, perhaps, the most important and enduring part of the legacy that the Benton family built.

The journey that ended when Wayne Benton faced the passing of both his father and of Benton Sewing turned into the beginning of a journey of hope the day he typed the search-word "embroidery" on the Internet. One hundred years after the birth of Charlie Benton, we applaud his grandson, Wayne, and the birth of SewTech International.

"Keep Sewing America" is Benton's signature line, when he posts e-mail. And, with this third-generation sewing-machine mechanic on watch, we are sure to be sewing for a long time to come. In the closing years of this 20th century, Wayne Benton brings to the still-learning and fast-growing embroidery industry a message of hope and fair play. It is a welcome message indeed.

About the Author: Helen Hart Momsen is a nineteen-year veteran of the embroidery industry. In addition to contributing to the embroidery trade press and speaking at industry events, she runs Hart Enterprises, an embroidery company that also markets a line of embroiderable accessories (Mountain Canvas Works), and Hart Forms, order and job-tracking forms specifically designed for embroiderers.