Front and Center: Seymour Duncan Co-Founder, Cathy Carter Duncan

The WiMN’s Front and Center is a weekly column that showcases accomplished women who work in the music and audio industries. We spotlight successful female performers, manufacturers, retailers, educators, managers, publicists, and everyone else in between. Want to be featured? Learn how here

Front and Center: Seymour Duncan Co-Founder, Cathy Carter Duncan

Having co-founded Seymour Duncan in 1976 with Seymour himself, Cathy Carter Duncan is no stranger to the music industry. For the past 35 years, Carter Duncan has overseen tremendous growth with Seymour Duncan from humble beginnings as a two-person operation, to becoming one of the world’s premier pickup and effect manufacturers.

The WiMN would like to thank Carter Duncan for an providing an insightful interview into the world of Seymour Duncan and beyond. Read it below.

WiMN: What was it like starting your business from the ground-up? What were the challenges and what did you learn?

CCD:  I loved those days! I’ve always loved learning about new subjects, being creative and just plain building things. And in the early days, that meant I had to learn everything! I didn’t even know the difference between retail and wholesale price if you can imagine!

Back in 1976 when Seymour and I were just starting, even simple things like that were hard, if not impossible to find out. I had to stretch from the usual and expected ways of learning by research and schooling, to being willing to ask lots of people, often strangers, really stupid questions. It’s amazing how most people really like being helpful. Pick good people to ask and you’ll get great answers. Then feel free to ‘mold’ the answers in your own way.

Besides just not knowing anything, there were two other big hurdles. The first was a very personal one. I grew up believing that anyone in business was a snake. So when Seymour wanted me to help him start making brass bridges and rewinding pickups, I faced my first ethical dilemma. I remember the exact day, the color of the light, and the giant rock in Topanga, CA, I climbed onto. And there I sat until I put two and two together. I realized that there were no real “how to” books in the library, that I could just create what the company would be and what it would say and do. That was my answer. I was free to establish our core values that we have kept to this day. Quality and respect for everyone and everything.

The last hurdle was money, just as it is for most new businesses. Our dear friend Jamie Shane of Canned Heat introduced Seymour and I, and later gave us $500 to start the business. We lived dirt cheap and poured everything back into buying tools and materials for the company. But that’s cash. The real big hurdle, especially for a manufacturer, is knowing if we were making money or losing money. I love to learn, but I HATED that accounting class I took at Adult Ed for $10. Although I am not sure we would have survived without that fundamental ability to understand an income statement, balance sheet and cash flow. If you want to have a successful business, grit your teeth and just do it.

WiMN: At what point did you realize that your business was successful? Is there a specific moment you can recall? 

CCD: Good news is I love to learn, bad news is I am a little slow. Lucky for us, our core market of replacement pickups was just being born, so we didn’t have anywhere near the kind of rapid success stories you hear about in today’s world. So we just plugged along. Our core values of quality and respect meant that we spent a lot of time sourcing the best materials and developing the best people to wind them. It meant answering EVERY letter that musicians wrote us. That was my job. Seymour would be winding, and I’d go in with a stack of letters. He knew everything. From the solutions to someone’s microphonic pickups, to the tonal effect of a heavy body from Charvel versus an ash. I was his microphone. To this day we love to support musicians and answer all of their questions, whether or not it’s related to a sale.

I didn’t fully understand that this investment (and it was a HUGE time investment) was a brand builder until I gave my business credit card to a young gas station clerk one day in the late ’80s. His response was amazing. It was clear that here was a deep emotional admiration and connection. It flashed on me then: we didn’t just have customers who bought products-they were part of the family. That is a gift to be treasured and respected.

WiMN: What have been some of your favorite moments working with Seymour Duncan over the years?

CCD: I don’t think anyone wants to sit and listen to them all. I am blessed that I can find many small and simple moments that bring a smile. I love to see people we hire blossom and grow.  More importantly for business growers, it FEEDs me ..but it can also be hard work.  Building a company is not for wimps!

WiMN: Who is your favorite guitarist who uses Seymour Duncan pickups?

CCD: Why Seymour of course! He knows great tone and how to make a guitar sing.   Then there’s Joe Bonamassa,  Eric Johnson, Jeff Beck, and I must say that I listened to my share of Dokken with George Lynch.

WiMN: Your company has been around for over 35 years. How do you keep coming up with relevant product ideas?

CCD: As many know, we are very customer-centric. We actively listen to our customers, the passionate community on our forum, and of course, our diverse artists. We also have a system that allows anyone in our company to concept and champion a new product idea. So that means it might not just be initiated by our new products manager or from our fabulous engineering department. It might be Scott in customer service, Alex, head of international sales (whole lotta humbucker), or my and Seymour’s son Derek, with the new 8-string metal series. There are so many more. Dreaming of new products is part of our DNA.

WiMN: Can you share your experience as a woman in the industry? Have there been challenges?

CCD: No matter what your gender, we have all had challenges in our personal and business careers. I have come to view it this way. We can and do influence much of what happens to us in life, but not always. In that case….. it’s HOW we respond that makes the difference. We always have total control over that. This has enabled me to not just overcome and succeed, but more importantly feel better!

WiMN: Do you have any advice for other women in the industry or students considering entering the industry?

CCD: This is a fabulous industry. Almost everyone is here because they LOVE music and music makers. In past decades, if you added some basic skill sets to that passion for music, you could make a nice career.. but not in today’s environment. I believe that if you want to be successful, you will continually develop and broaden your knowledge and skills and especially your ability to execute well. I look for people who are energetic, lifelong learners. Pair that up with honest self-awareness, and you can go anywhere. You will know who you are. Lastly…if you wish to join a company, interview them every bit as much as they are interviewing you.

WiMN: What can we expect from you and Seymour Duncan in 2013?

CCD: I spent 7 years as the Chair before stepping back as CEO in 2011. We spent a lot of the last year investing in ourselves and our team. We are seeing a wonderful sense of vitality that has grown our social presence from less than 20,000 Facebook friends 14 months ago to almost a quarter of a million, with big plans for next year. We have added customer contact team members worldwide to better support anyone who wants to know more about tone. We are just finishing a top to bottom look at our sales channel distribution. Our dealers will be seeing some very interesting new programs roll out after the first of the year. We have really been firing on all cylinders with new products.

We continue to enhance and expand our Custom Shop, with Derek as the head after many years working alongside Seymour and MJ. The Joe Bonamassa signature set is the latest product coming out of them. We have been very successful with our Blackouts Active pickups for metal players and have some great new 8 and 7-string pickups for them. Lastly, we are relaunching our BASSLINES bass pickups under the Seymour Duncan brand. This will roll out with our new Steve Harris signature model. That is what’s coming in quarter 1. Can’t wait to share with everyone what we’ll have in the other quarters!

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