The July 2021 edition of South Sound Business is the Legacy Business Issue. Here is the second in a series of features about local businesses steered by second-, third-, or fourth-generation leaders. Read the first story here.
If you’ve ever bought a souvenir at the Space Needle, Grand Canyon National Park, The Statue of Liberty, or an airport gift shop, there’s a good chance Smith-Western Co. in Tacoma had something to do with it.
But you’d never know it, because Smith-Western is a souvenir wholesaler, branding its customers, not itself. Customers span the country and the globe.
What began in 1947 with Kyle Smith Sr. selling postcards from his car trunk of Washington and Oregon attractions he had photographed has grown to include coffee mugs, shot glasses, key chains, refrigerator magnets, ballcaps, statuary, and much more, according to Smith’s son and company president, Kyle “Skip” Smith.
“My whole life’s work has been to be a good steward of my father’s company and to continue his dream, if you will — that’s my job,” Smith, 71, said of his father, who died in 2014, followed by his mother, Betty, in 2018, who was company bookkeeper in its early years. “It’s more than an earnings statement … it’s what my heart and soul has been all about all these years, and to pass it on. My job is to have been a good steward of Smith-Western and ensure its longevity to the next generation.”
Skip’s wife, Gayle, has retired from the business, but was chief operating officer. Their daughter, Libby, is wholesale division manager/ national account executive and has been on staff for 15 years, Skip said.
Smith’s father, a soldier at Fort Lewis, and mother met and married before he went overseas during World War II. When he returned, the couple settled in Tacoma, where she had grown up, and built their company. While Skip had grown up around the business, his career path was uncertain. He was considering law or banking after graduating college in economics.
Soon after graduation, his father showed him the company’s books for the first time and explained Smith-Western’s then 25-year foundation. Skip recalls his father saying Skip had to want to run the business, not do it for Dad. After a few months thinking about it, Skip joined the company in January 1972. He became president about 20 years later.
“There are a lot of things I could have done, but I’ve never looked back,” Smith said. “It’s been the best decision I ever could have made.”
Working in the tourism industry is fun, and customers have become dear friends, he said. Unfortunately, the pandemic slammed tourism, and slashed Smith-Western’s revenues by 60 to 70 percent from 2019 levels. Staff numbers fell from about 40 then to about 14 this spring. But Smith is anticipating a big tourism rebound post-pandemic and hopes to soon begin rebuilding staff .
He praised his staff’s talent, including determining the types of souvenirs that will sell for clients, and creating their designs. Other clients have their own artwork and rely on Smith-Western to apply them to products. All souvenirs — “We call them treasures,” Smith said — are manufactured overseas, something his father began around 1960. Some Smith-Western clients are overseas, too, including the Singapore Zoo.
Smith-Western’s Space Needle statues have been good sellers here. In Florida, hot sellers are oven mitts at Kennedy Space Center that look like astronaut gloves and are packaged as Astro Mitts. The company has sold many thousands of the mitts there over 20-plus years, Smith said. Smith-Western’s hottest treasures these days? Bigfoot merchandise.
“This line is appropriate in almost any state in the U.S.A. and is our top-selling line of merchandise at this time — from the Pacific Northwest to the East Coast!” Smith wrote in an email.