Innovate or Die: Sellars brothers’ creativity drives problem-solving innovations

Last updated on July 1st, 2019 at 02:11 pm

Could you have ever guessed that when you are using a Bravo kitchen paper towel or Toolbox shop towels that they were manufactured right here in Milwaukee by Sellars Absorbent Materials Inc.?

Sellars was started in 1985 by its president and founder, John Sellars, in his Milwaukee home. John was soon joined by his brother Bill as vice president of technology and manufacturing and later by his sister, Kathy Huntsinger, as human resources director.  His brother Tom; wife, Liz; and parents, Bob and Libby, provided financial support and guidance.

After a successful career as a managing director of Piper Jaffray in Minneapolis and the co-founder and chair of the nonprofit Concerts for the Environment, Tom moved back in 1999 to help grow the family business, serving as chief executive officer and chairman.

The Sellars brothers have been creative forces in driving ongoing innovation, which has enabled the business to grow much faster than its competitors. The company’s “Green Innovation” technologies utilize sustainable manufacturing, which includes the use of recycled materials in the manufacturing of its high-quality products, with unique dispensing innovations that compete with virgin material-based products. 

With innovations led by John and Bill, Sellars has 24 U.S. patents and 23 international patents, in addition to many trade secrets.

The Sellars brothers are hard-wired to be both entrepreneurial and creative. But what if you do not have such a creative background, and still want to lead an innovative company? There are a number of practices you can imbed into your company’s culture to ensure it makes creative decisions.

An article in the November issue of the Harvard Business Review identified several ways true creativity and innovation can be achieved in new product innovation:

  1. Change your perspective: We all suffer from “functional fixedness” (i.e., the beliefs and habits that we acquire in our professional discipline). Tom could see the opportunity in a segment of the paper products market primarily because he was an outsider.
  2. Step backward: We all love to be a Monday morning quarterback. But looking backward has its advantages. So take time out to take a hard look at what you have been doing and ask if there are alternative ways to approach the problem you’re trying to solve. The famous chef Ferran Adria would often close his restaurant for months to reflect on new approaches to his culinary creations. We don’t all have that luxury, but we can reduce the speed-to-market and take the time to test, reflect on and improve what we will be offering to our customers.
  3. Smarter testing, not faster: It’s far better to roll out products that are “just good enough,” rather than more ambitious solutions that require detailed and often final prototypes. It’s far better to develop a modest prototype or use digital tools to simulate how a product or service would work; or even a video demo, which is almost as effective in testing with customers as an actual prototype, which often gets very expensive.
  4. Spend time understanding the problem to uncover new solutions: I spent two years in the Peace Corps in Kenya. Most of my students and their families had no access to bank accounts and that forced them into an entirely cash economy. Needless to say, that was a great barrier to the growth of small businesses. Fast forward to 2017, when James Mwangi, founder of the Equity Bank, concluded that his bank’s very purpose was to solve a social problem – “lack of access to financial services.” His solution was first to create many small bank branches and put them in the back of Land Rovers that drove from village to village. That enabled more than 30,000 small retail outlets across the country to accept deposits and disburse cash. When cell phone technology became prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa, he introduced secure mobile payments. There are now 122 million active mobile money accounts in sub-Saharan Africa – more than any other region in the world!

The Sellars brothers and their team many times used their core strength to identify a product that could better solve a problem. They created “Green Innovations” with their paper and nonwoven materials and their dispensing, and they are an industry leader in e-commerce, with same day shipping.

If through innovation, dedication and teamwork, the Sellars brothers can build an internationally successful startup out of a garage in Milwaukee, then that is inspiration for all of us!

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Dan Steininger
Dan Steininger is the president and founder of BizStarts. He is also the president of Steininger & Associates. The firm focuses on teaching the tools of innovation to drive growth for companies in all sectors of the economy. Steininger is a former president and CEO of Catholic Financial Life and a graduate of Marquette University and Boston University's School of Law.