Dealerscope 2020 Hall of Fame: Patricia Schoenberg, Spectra Merchandising International, Inc.
Dealerscope 2020 Hall of Fame inductee Patricia Schoenberg formed Spectra Merchandising International, Inc. in 1981, where she currently acts as president. She also founded and is the managing director of IMA-Hong Kong Ltd. But long before she was Patricia Schoenberg, president, business owner, and managing director, she was a secretary for Al Bernard, executive vice president at Argus.
The freshly married 19-year-old packed up her things and moved from Little Rock to Chicago to begin her new life with her husband. She quickly found work and embraced the many changes she was facing with a positive mindset. Once she became somewhat comfortable in her job as a secretary, her life took a turn once again.
Bernard left Argus to form his own company, A. R. Bernard Corporation. He saw a spark in Schoenberg and asked if she’d consider joining him in his new venture, and she agreed.
As Schoenberg describes it, “His [Bernard’s] business plan was to go to Japan, find products from factories and then find a USA customer who could take production direct from Japan.”
After setting up offices in Tokyo, A.R. Bernard Corporation was acquired by Sawyer, a leading photographic company at the time. Then it was on to the next big thing. Always a man with a plan, Bernard formed International Merchandising Associates, Inc. (IMA) with Schoenberg as a junior (and only) partner. Their company grew to be a significant supplier to Sears Roebuck, shipping under their various owned brands.
By her mid-20s, Schoenberg was traveling back and forth to Japan to follow up on the supply side of the business. Bernard, who grew from her boss, to her mentor, to her business partner, could see her exhaustion but encouraged her to push through it.
“His only advice was, ‘be yourself and don’t even think about jet lag; when it is light out, you should be working, and when it is dark, you should be sleeping,’” says Schoenberg.
As time went on, they began to realize that keeping business operations in Japan would be too costly, so Schoenberg began exploring other options. She was given a roadmap to Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, initially just to collect reports. At the time, Sears was looking for CB radios, a new category created by GE, and Schoenberg had an idea. She found a factory that believed in her vision and together, they designed and developed alternatives to (not knock-offs of) the budding category – and Sears immediately took an interest. Just as Schoenberg landed her first big contract, the company was sold once again, and more changes were headed her way.
The Start of IMA-Hong Kong, Ltd.
IMA was sold to Hanimex, Australia, and Schoenberg was asked to run the company and develop and sell consumer electronics. Hanimex had their own branch companies in Europe, so part of her job was to travel to those locations and talk about the USA consumer electronics products (sold under the IMA brand) and make suggestions on what they should buy. As the years went on, and the end of her contract grew nearer, Schoenberg wanted to take the company back into her own hands.
“For various reasons, I decided to try to buy the business back from Hanimex,” says Schoenberg. “I had built the company to $48M, so I needed help. The president of the original company, Craig, Peter Behrendt, was a long-time friend of Al Bernard, so we knew each other well. Craig gave the financial backing, and I contemporaneously transferred full ownership of the company, keeping no stake.”
That company would go on to become IMA-Hong Kong, Ltd.
Taking Things into Her Own Hands
Schoenberg’s first order of business was to fix the production process. She began writing technical specs for all of the products they were buying or planning to buy. Each partnering factory received those specs and was advised that IMA-Hong Kong inspectors would come to test them before shipment could be made. Her process worked, and production was “automatically better.”
But the consumer electronics category was still new, and in a lot of ways scary, and Craig couldn’t ignore the risks. The Board of Directors decided to downsize the company, which meant closing all of the company’s acquired subsidiaries, including IMA. And once again, Schoenberg was faced with a difficult decision. Craig asked her to move out to California, but her gut (and some convincing from Behrendt) was leading her in another direction.
“For what was small money even then, I bought the IMA brand and just the $3M calculator product portion of our business. I took a few of my best employees and formed Spectra. Several key suppliers agreed to ship production on open account, so off I went,” describes Schoenberg.
Not long after, Spectra was taking up eight feet of space in Target, and Schoenberg says it was her team that introduced them to blister packaging. In the beginning, Spectra had to bulk ship the calculators to Chicago and package them there, which eventually evolved to clamshell packaging done at the factories.
“In 1998,” she continues, “we acquired the American Jensen brand license from Recoton. When that was acquired by Audiovox in 2003, the license was transferred to Spectra. Having been quite successful, the contract is still ongoing.” Among many in the industry she says she looks up to, Schoenberg cites both VOXX International Chairman John Shalam and CTA President and CEO Gary Shapiro.
Cultivating a Trusted Reputation
Schoenberg has always led her teams the best way she knew how: by example, with a reputation for being trustworthy, especially in business ethics.
“When I was running IMA, a banker took me under his wing to teach me about Letters of Credit and so much more. He said, ‘Always be honest with your bank. If you know you are going to have a downturn or a big upturn, meet with your banker and advise them.’ I have followed this and have had the same bankers through all of their name changes since 1981,” she says.
Schoenberg has lived part-time in Hong Kong for over 30 years for business reasons, but when she can, she visits her son, Bruce, and his family in Thailand. She’s looking toward the future of consumer electronics with a great degree of optimism and excitement.
“The consumer technology business is too vast for me to comment overall,” says Schoenberg. “What everybody knows is that high tech has led for a long time. Just based on the incredible advents of the last five years makes me so enthralled about what will come in the next five. It is so big that there seems to be enough space for all of us – including those that take existing products and have the tools to make new ones that are better, and probably at a lower price, for the consumer.”