October 18, 2013 | last updated October 18, 2013 3:25 pm

S&S Worldwide sells with community in mind

S&S Worldwide has more than 200 employees for its global operations, which are based in Colchester.
The Schwartz family members, (front row, from left) Spencer, Ava, Teddy, and (back row, from left) Maddy, Remy, Hy, Carla, Stephen, Adam, Robin, and Nell.
S&S sells arts and crafts and sporting goods products geared toward recreational, health care, and educational markets, following its mantra, “Making it Easy to Help people Play and Learn.”

For Stephen Schwartz, the most challenging part of his job – adding new customers and finding great people to run the family business – is also the most rewarding.

His company, S&S Worldwide, Inc. based in Colchester, sells arts and crafts and sporting goods products geared toward recreational, health care, and educational professionals.

Investing in people and supporting a corporate culture based on collaboration, community, and creativity is a significant responsibility that also gives him an incredible sense of purpose, said Schwartz, the company's chief executive.

"S&S is a family, and families are at the best when there's an open line of communication," said Schwartz. "We're all in this together, and our ongoing success depends on happy, productive associates."

Like many notable companies, the story of S&S Worldwide began in a small shop. In 1906, Aaron Schwartz, a Russian immigrant, opened S&S Leather in New York City.

The fledgling business hit the big time with its flapper-inspired hair curler. Millions were sold in discount chain stores like Woolworth's and Kresge's, which is now K-Mart.

The merchant resettled to rural Colchester and, by the mid-1930s, company leaders were focusing on the vocational rehabilitation market and developing products for children.

S&S Worldwide likes to tout its "Make it Easy to Help People Play and Learn" company mantra, and that continues with a fourth generation for the global distributor.

CEO Schwartz, 70, gets to work with two sons, Adam, 45, and Hy, 43. The elder Schwartz has five grandchildren, although the oldest is 14 years old, so there are no plans on whether they might join the company someday.

"It's premature to think they would participate," said Schwartz.

Schwartz had less of an option when he was forced to take over the family business in 1969 after his father died suddenly. Schwartz was just 26 at the time and had to quickly learn how to run the company.

Schwartz's two sons took over day-to-day operations of the family-owned business in 2006, with Adam serving as vice president of operations and supply chain and Hy as vice president of marketing.

In 2007, Adam and Hy became co-presidents and were tasked with growing the company's recreational, education, and health care markets.

The brothers didn't have plans to take over the company.

Adam earned a law degree from UConn and worked as a professional actor in New York City. During his career, he also earned a bachelor's degree from Harvard University and a master's degree in English from Oxford University.

Hy worked at Christie's Auction House and focused on a career in art, before he returned home to the family business.

Today, S&S Worldwide has 200 full-time employees and 100 temporary workers, which the company uses during the busy sales season.

The brothers describe running the company like managing a large family; it's about relationships that have their ups and downs. The three family members eat lunch together daily and use that time to talk about what's going on in the business.

Disagreements and confusion are inevitable, but the strong relationships, mutual respect, and passion for what they do balances out the challenges that come up, said Adam.

"We have a sense of the customers and what their needs are," said Adam. "So we're able to better serve them. It's the same way with our employees.

"We treat our employees like they're part of the family," said Adam. "They know we value their input."

Hy meets with department leaders regularly to discuss company goals, employee concerns, and business ideas.

"We always want to hear from our associates," said Hy. "Making our associates No. 1 makes S&S a special place to work."

The company offers a variety of feel-good benefits from flexible work schedules, day care reimbursements, wellness programs to annual corporate BBQ parties, birthday recognition, and community events that give back to local groups.

By developing and leading employees so that they are empowered with the resources they need to serve the community, S&S Worldwide is focused on growing its customer base and bottom line, said Hy.

"Our associates are empowered to go above and beyond to truly wow our customers each and every time," said Hy.

S&S leaders say associates have longevity with the company. Approximately 65 percent of the company's workers have remained with S&S for more than five years.

More than 45 percent have been with the company for more than 10 years, 25 percent for more than 15 years, 14 percent for more than 20 years and 9 percent for more than 25 years.

Through the Great Depression, two World Wars and numerous economic downturns, S&S has adapted by having a family-first attitude that includes employees, customers, and community leaders.

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