A note to those of you who are quick checking in at work or on your iPhone, this article is considerably longer than a typical First and Goal post.
I recently had an opportunity to talk with Tom Geideman, president and co-founder of SAGE Collectibles, Inc. Unlike most card manufacturer execs, Tom is actually very accessible (his email address is listed directly on the company’s website) and is sincere in his claims to care about what collectors are saying and thinking. Throughout the entire interview process, Tom was very helpful and friendly and provided candid responses to each of my questions. While this was my first such experience, I can say that Tom set the bar for executive response time and completeness very high and far above my expectations. The following is the meat of our discussion, presented in a Q & A format:
Q: What is your first memory of collecting cards?
A: My first memory of card collecting is purchasing trading cards from the concession stand/snack bar at the Little League field. I think I wasn’t even old enough to play yet, and was there with my family for my big brother’s game. I know my parents told me I pretty much learned to read from the back of trading cards. I still remember the cartoons and game-play features on the back of some specific cards.
Q: What are your favorite pieces in your personal collection, your “centerpieces”?
A: My favorite pieces are all Ken Griffey Jr. items. Non-trading card wise I have Griffey’s game-used set 1 home jersey from 1989, his away Reds jersey from 2000 and the minor league San Bernardino Spirit (California League, class A) #30 jersey that he wore only on father’s day (#30 was his dad’s number, 24 was his number).
Q: Which current players are you most excited about in terms of Hobby potential?
A: I really like Toby Gerhart and Colt McCoy. Both players are great human beings and are work-a-holics. McCoy is just a winner who can do everything. Gerhart is fun to watch because he just knocks defenders over on his way down the field.
Q: How did your passion for collecting sports cards turn into an everyday career?
A: I was working at The Upper Deck card store in Anaheim, CA. The founders of Upper Deck formed the basis of the company in that store. My main role at the shop was as a ‘rookie stock broker’ pulling the likes of Fred McGriff and Craig Biggio out of the common bin and speculating on them. I was actually a witness to the two founders of Upper Deck’s business arrangement. It was at the pizza place next door to the shop. I don’t know how legal my signature was though, because I was only 17 at the time. I graduated high school in June and that same month I became the first employee of Upper Deck. The company’s first computer was actually my own computer I got for college (I went to CSUSB while also working at UD) that I brought with me to the office.
Q: Do you find it difficult to balance your Hobby life between personal collector and card manufacturer?
A: Somewhat, yes. When you’re a hard-core collector you get really excited about everything including the uncut sheets, etc. You’re able to let passion and heart drive your thoughts. When you’re a manufacturer you have to look at things from more of a numbers perspective. We end up destroying/shredding a lot of stuff that as a collector you’d think was crazy to do.
Q: What made you decide to try your hand at owning and operating a card company?
A: I was at The Score Board, Inc. as Director of Marketing for the trading card division. The company had just declared bankruptcy, and they asked me to put together a consolidation plan for the card division should the company emerge from bankruptcy. I put together a great lean and mean plan, but the company decided to fold up the entire company anyway. I thought the plan was great and very viable so I called up my friend Robert Sadlak to see if he wanted to get into the trading card business. I knew I wanted to stay in the industry, I just loved it too much. I actually interviewed for jobs at a few other trading card companies during the period between jobs, but they also didn’t see the value of me I guess. I think at the time I would have taken those jobs because it was ‘safer’ than starting up from nothing. In hindsight though I’m very glad it worked out like it did. This is much more rewarding and exciting.
Q: What measures do you take to ensure quality control and overall value to the collector?
A: We are the only trading card company that sends representatives to EVERY packout to ensure the quality in each pack. We’ve done this for every product, dating back to our very first. We also hand-collate our autographed cards and valuable inserts to ensure the mix is proper. We try to balance the cards per box so that one isn’t horribly off compared to another (as much as possible before the machine malfunctions when packaging cause that formula to fall off for a short time until it gets righted). Our patented autograph process also helps ensure authenticity. We also have the most value per box of any product on the market. It’s funny to me that some collectors don’t see or can’t see the value in a $11.99 SRP pack with one autograph per pack compared to the value from a $100 or more pack. They are essentially the same guts of the product, but you get a heck of a lot more from ours. Our $3.99 SRP products (HIT brand) also offer the most autographed cards and total value of any product in its class. We can do this because we’ve structured the company to keep our overhead very low so we can pass that value straight through to the collectors. It means more work for us, but it’s worth it. We also have NEVER had a single redemption card in the history of the company. Even if you don’t like us personally you can be assured that the product has actual cards inside it, not an IOU that expires in a year or so, and that you may or may not get when you send it in for redemption.
Q: What steps do you take to guarantee that every autograph is authentic and inserted into the product (“no redemption cards ever”)?
A: It starts with our patented autograph process. Then we have the athletes either sign in front of us (our first choice always) or in front of an agent. Each player provides a signed certificate of authenticity. We also go through each batch of autographs to double and triple check quality. As a collector myself I hate redemption cards, so if the players can’t get their autographs done in time we just pass them up and move on. It’s funny really (behind the scenes) that the guys who can’t dedicate themselves to signing almost always turn out to be huge busts anyway. If a person can’t dedicate his time to finishing what he committed himself too, he’s usually too flaky to practice and strive to become the best in his sport. The last thing we do is have our representatives at the packaging of the products. We have at least one person watching the feeding of autographed cards in to the packs for each specific line we’re running. The machines are going to mess up, our people are there to correct it on the spot when that occurs.
Q: How do you plan to remain competitive in the sports card market, especially in light of the recent exclusivity of NCAA licensing?
A: It really doesn’t affect us in my opinion. When we put together our initial business plan, it said the industry doesn’t need another Topps or Upper Deck. There were a lot of companies out there who were trying to be bigger than they should have been. We’re designed to stay small and offer great products with huge value. Our business plan also never included college either. In fact I’ve said nobody can even do true college cards. We can’t to Matt Barkley, Mark Ingram, etc. until they turn pro. At that point our athletes are not even college players, they’re pro players on their quest to land a pro team. We’ve shown them in college uniforms, but that is who they were, not who they are at that time.
Q: Where do you see SAGE Collectibles, Inc. in 5 years? 10? 25? Also, how has the current state of The Hobby and the economy affected your business plan?
A: It’s funny that our initial business plan has stayed true and proven itself to be correct. We’re designed to withstand the ebbs and flows of the economy. Companies have come and gone, but we’ve stayed strong. I believe that if you stay true to your roots, and deliver good quality product with great value you’ll stick around. As for longevity I can only give you the same answer I would have given 13 years ago when we started, we’ll stay small, and versatile and will still be delivering the greatest value in trading cards in our products.
Q: Are there any additional markets or new products that you are actively pursuing and/or excited about?
A: Yes, we’re always thinking about new ideas. Hopefully we’ll be able to announce some great products soon. The biggest thing about us though, is that if there isn’t a need for the product we just won’t make it. We don’t have to overproduce to satisfy investors or hit some raw numbers. Profit helps feed my family and put clothes on their backs, but profit won’t stand in the way of integrity and quality of products. That always comes first.
Q: If you could pass along one final thought to collectors, about SAGE Collectibles, Inc. or the Hobby in general, what would it be?
A: We’re small and designed to provide great value in our products. You’d be amazed by how few people are actually working on each specific product. The biggest downside to being so small is that we don’t have the publicity machine that others have. We don’t have the capability to staff and attend card shows to help get the word out. We don’t have the generous advertising dollars that can ‘grant’ you editorial coverage as well. I’d say we’re a hidden gem. Those who think they can only get great value by driving a Mercedes Benz (paying more for the sticker price so they can have ‘the brand’ that’s been advertised to tell them they’re the best) likely won’t see the value in our products. Hard core collectors who work very hard for their money and want great value buy SAGE. We’re fortunate in the fact that our collectors are very loyal to us. We have some great collectors out there. I would like to thank them for being so great and for the feedback they’ve provided us.
Thanks again, Tom, for your time and candid responses. I hope that SAGE continues to be successful and that you can lead by example in the PR department. If every company had a low cost and value-driven business plan and a knack for communication with collectors, I have no doubts the Hobby would only continue to grow, rather than experience some of the set backs we have seen recently.