Joseph Segel, the founder of two well-known companies that became entrenched presences in many households, the Franklin Mint, which made and distributed commemorative medals, and the QVC home-shopping network, died Dec. 21 at a nursing facility in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania. He was 88.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said a son, Alan Segel.
Segel was a “serial entrepreneur,” his son said, who began his career in printing and advertising and went on to launch more than 20 companies. He founded the Franklin Mint in 1964 after observing public demand for old silver dollars.
With his new company — originally called the National Commemorative Society — Segel sold limited-edition coins and other objects, often made of precious metals. He began with a commemorative medal honoring Gen. Douglas MacArthur. After some initial stumbles in manufacturing, the idea began to catch on with the public, much to Segel’s surprise.
“I saw the main business as a clearing house for foreign coins, and the selling of collecting accessories,” he told The Washington Post in 1972. “It grew much faster than we expected.”
He hired the chief engraver of the U.S. Mint to design coin-like medals — including a complete set of U.S. presidents — and changed the company’s name to the Franklin Mint. He opened a manufacturing plant outside Philadelphia that soon became the largest privately owned mint in the world. It was the only private mint in the United States that produced coins for foreign governments.
By advertising in magazines and the Sunday supplements of newspapers, the Franklin Mint became a household name. More than 500,000 people subscribed to its monthly magazine, which announced forthcoming coins, medals, silver spoons, plates and other materials.
Each commemorative item was produced in limited quantities: For instance, after a series of coins made from silver that had been to the moon was minted, there would be no more. Resale values rose, matched only by the Franklin Mint’s revenue and stock price.
Subsidiaries opened in Canada, France and Great Britain, and the company’s clients included the White House Historical Association, the United Nations, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
By 1972, the Franklin Mint had annual sales of $75 million. Company stock originally offered at $6 a share was worth more than $430 within a few years. Segel, who never collected coins himself, became a multimillionaire before stepping down from his leadership role at the company in 1973. (Since then, the Franklin Mint has changed hands several times.)
After other business ventures saw varying degrees of success, Segel founded the QVC network in 1986, with headquarters in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He had seen a cable program presented by the Home Shopping Network – “I thought it was horrible,” he said – and decided he could do a better job.
He raised millions of dollars, hired television executives and made deals, largely with the Comcast cable network, to carry QVC programming. (QVC stood for “quality, value and convenience.”)
His son said he issued detailed memos about QVC’s programming, signed “Chief Nitpicker.” Segel emphasized that QVC presenters should explain their products’ utility and value and should shy away from loud, abrasive selling practices. Shipping would be prompt, and there would be no hidden charges.
QVC’s first broadcasts were carried on 58 cable systems, reaching about 7 million people, then quickly expanded. The company had $112 million in sales in its first year.
In a crowded field, QVC became TV’s No. 3 home-shopping destination, after Home Shopping Network (HSN) and Cable Value Network (CVN). In 1989, Segel engineered a deal in which QVC bought the larger CVN for about $380 million — once likened to a snake swallowing an elephant — then replaced CVN’s programming with QVC’s.
In 1991, QVC launched a new network dedicated to fashion, and the company’s annual sales reached $1 billion, putting it on almost equal footing with HSN. QVC was sold two years after Segel left as chief executive in 1993. (QVC and HSN are now owned by the Qurate Retail Group.)
Joseph Myron Segel was born Jan. 9, 1931, in Philadelphia. His father had a small real estate business, his mother was a homemaker and community activist.
Segel was 13 when he formed his first company, a printing and advertising business in his family’s basement. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1951, then dropped out of the university’s Wharton business school – where he briefly taught – to concentrate on his growing business empire. By 1960, he consolidated several of his printing and advertising companies under the name National Business Services.
In the early 1970s, Segel bought a small Swiss hotel, which he expanded into a resort hotel known as Le Mirador. He sold it in 1990.
His other businesses included an executive jet service and companies to preserve color photographs and evaluate computer software programs. He stayed with QVC as a consultant into his 80s, while launching other businesses, including several connected to beauty and hair care.
Segel lived in Florida for a number of years before returning to the Philadelphia area. He seldom gave interviews, preferring to spend his time looking into business opportunities or tinkering on mechanical projects.
His first marriage, to Renee Segel, ended in divorce. His wife of 54 years, the former Doris Greenstein, died in 2018. Survivors include a son from his first marriage, Marvin Segel of Manhattan; a son from his second marriage, Alan Segel of Newtown Square, Pennsylvania; a stepdaughter, Sandy Stern of Delray Beach, Florida; six grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
When he ran the Franklin Mint, Segel made a change in the way the company produced coins and medals. He broke with the tradition of the U.S. Mint, which printed the reverse image on coins upside down.
“We started out with upside down reverses because U.S. coins, and the coins of many other nations, are made that way,” Segel said in a 1967 interview with the New York Times. “However, we eventually came to realize that upside down reverses serve no useful purpose, and are a distinct handicap to collectors who keep their specimens in albums.
“So, we are going to break with tradition and campaign for right-side-up reverses throughout the world – for all issues of coins, tokens and medals.”
That campaign did not succeed. U.S. coins are still minted with the reverse image upside down.