Our Towns

Winner Family’s Influence Seen Across City of Sharon

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SHARON, Pa. – Remember The Club?

The affordable and simple-to-use cylindrical tempered steel tool was everywhere on television and in movies following its launch in the mid-1980s. Anyone who watched TV couldn’t miss it, whether on advertisements or in crime dramas.

Invented by the late entrepreneur James E. Winner Jr., it continues to account for more than half of the sales for the company he founded, Winner International, which still makes and markets it.

In fact, sales of the device are up this year by “single digits but high single digits,” the president and chief financial officer of the company, Jerry Trontel, points out.

Often when people get a new car, its alarm system encourages a “false sense of security,” Trontel says, and they abandon a mechanical antitheft device such as The Club. “But then they’ll come back to it when they realize that a layered approach is better and recommended by police agencies,” he says.

Winner International is just one in the group of companies the Winner family operates that are based in downtown Sharon.

The impetus for Winner International came when the company founder’s car was stolen, recalls Karen Winner Sed, his daughter and today CEO of Winner International and the Winner Companies.

Her father, at the time working for Sensormatic, “took that very personally,” she says. Sensormatic manufactured the electronic tags clothing retailers use to prevent theft.

“After that, he went on and decided that this would not only just not happen to him [again], he could create a product and a company so it didn’t happen to other people,” she continues.

Winner International today markets more than 100 consumer products under The Club brand that range from padlocks and The Club Personal Vault car safe to tire immobilizers and variations based on the original Club.

“Over the years they’ve made it stronger with tempered steel, more key codes to make it more secure, better weld seams, longer to fit a more diverse amount of vehicles,” Trontel says. “So we’re probably on version 6.0 maybe of what we started. We continue to make improvements to make it better for the consumer.”

The Winner Companies includes The Winner, the women’s clothing store that occupies most of the Winner building downtown; restaurants and hotels such as the Buhl Mansion downtown and Tara – A Country Inn in Clark; and Winner Water, a joint venture with Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus that focuses on cleaning up acid mine drainage, says Winner Sed.

The company owns warehouses and other buildings in the downtown, including an office building that underwent “extensive renovation” recently as well as the building where the James E. Winner Jr. Arts and Culture Center is housed.

Winner Companies leases two buildings on the former Westinghouse property and it plans to develop the remainder of the site, Winner Sed says. A maker space is planned for one, an incubator for the other.

“We’ve done a lot of work there,” Winner Sed says. The first tenant in the incubator will be Blissed Out Design, now in the Center@LindenPointe in nearby Hermitage, she confirms. Blissed Out makes decorative tiles.

“Our intention, our goal, is to bring people like that to start filling this area,” she says.

The Winner clothing store, the most visible of the Winner properties in downtown Sharon, has in recent years been rebranded as “Gown Town.” The majority of its business is sales of gowns and some customers drive five hours to find “that certain prom gown,” Winner Sed reports. The store registers the gowns so two young women from the same high school don’t show up at their prom in identical attire.

“We really do the most business in gowns. What we find is that if you come [here] for your homecoming gown, you’re coming back for your prom gown,” she says. “We’re finding that a few years later you’re seeing the same girls coming back for their wedding gowns.”

The third floor is devoted to bridal gowns and related wedding items.

Winner Sed’s interests beyond the Winner Companies and Winner International include WaterFire Sharon, the downtown festival in its third year, and the Hope Center for Arts & Technology, which will provide job training.

After coming to downtown Sharon in the late 1980s, Winner says she, her father and other Sharon businessmen discussed the potential of “this beautiful [Shenango] river running through downtown. How many downtowns would love to be in that situation?” she asks. “So that has always been out in the front of our minds, and one of the things that came out of that was WaterFire.”

WaterFire, which will run three weekends, is “just one thing,” she says.

“I guess we’ve always subscribed to Dr. Richard Florida’s idea about the creative class, and how it would be the creative class that would spur economic development,” she continues. “We always thought that if we could fill the downtown to bring the local artists, the regional artists and their products, that we could recreate the downtown based upon the arts.”

The Hope Center will focus initially on training people for jobs as medical technology assistants, says Winner Sed, who sits on its school board. Its focus was determined after interviewing employers to learn their needs and employment forecasts.

“The Hope school and all Manchester Bidwell schools follow Bill Strickland’s model that you train people for jobs that are waiting for them,” she remarks.

For those involved in promoting economic development and the Shenango Valley community, the role that the Winner family and companies have played in Sharon is unmistakable.

“I can’t even imagine what it would be like without the Winners,” says Randy Seitz, president and CEO of Penn-Northwest Development Corp. three years. As he assesses their role, Seitz mentions “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the scene where George Bailey, with the angel Clarence, tours his hometown had he never lived.

Robert McCracken, executive director of the Shenango Valley Chamber of Commerce, calls the Winners’ role “vital,” in the past and continuing today.

“They’ve always been ahead of the curve in their thinking,” McCracken says. In the 1980s, Jim Winner bought a closed department store building turned it into The Winner, a “very successful off-price women’s store before the term ‘off-price’ was invented,” he notes.

The companies also took several downtown buildings and converted them to luxury apartments before people started thinking about living downtown. They sold one to Noise Solutions, “providing a brand-new employer in the community,” he adds.

Winner Sed is chairwoman of the Sharon Regional Health System board of trustees. The family’s foundation contributes to several causes.

“So they’ve had a tremendous impact in the Shenango Valley over the years and continue to have an impact today,” McCracken remarks.

“And, of course, you can’t forget The Club.”

Pictured: Winner International has played a key role in bringing jobs, stores, events and people to downtown Sharon, say President and Chief Financial Officer Jerry Trontel and CEO Karen Winner Sed.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.