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 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 adapt the answers in your own way.
Besides not knowing anything about most everything, 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 our company would stand for and do. I was free to establish our core values that have guided us ever since. And that is that thinking about musicians, whether they are our customers or not, comes first. Look at the great gift they give all of us every day, they deserve to be fully supported! Summed up, its quality and respect for everyone and everything.
The last hurdle was money, just as it is for most new businesses. It’s not just getting your hands on some startup capital, it’s also understanding the financial aspects of your business. Our dear friend Jamie Shane of Canned Heat first introduced Seymour and I, and later gave us $500 to start the business. We lived dirt cheap (but fun!) 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: 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, as well as truly inspirational moments. Like seeing Seymour have fun playing on stage with Jeff beck , Eddie Van Halen and many others at the great NAMM parties we had in the past (when there were no fire marshals, nor autograph seekers)! I love to see people we hire blossom and grow, and in turn see the company mature and grow. It can be hard work and is not for wimps, but it FEEDS me!
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 and Megadeth..
WiMN: Your company has been around now for over almost 40 years. How do you continue 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 team, capably lead by Max and Mark, or from our fabulous engineering department, Kevin, Wayne and Steven. It might be Riley in customer service, Alex, head of 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. They are all passionate ‘gear heads’.
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 need to continually develop and broaden your knowledge and skills, 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 2016?
CCD: I spent 7 years as the Chair before stepping back as CEO in 2011. We spent a lot of the last few years investing in ourselves and our team. We are seeing a wonderful sense of vitality that has grown our social presence tremendously and our newly launched web site draws almost 1 million unique visits each month. 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, including our new award winning pedal line. Find out more about Seymour Duncan at www.seymourduncan.com.
WiMN: What are you looking forward to most at the 2016 She Rocks Awards?
CCD: 2016 will be our 40th birthday, and I can’t think of a better way to kick it off than celebrating it at the She Rocks Awards! I will be surrounded by people who are passionate, talented, have a deep love of music and are leaders in their fields. And best of all, it will be all women!! I really love seeing women recognized for their talents. Thanks Laura.