Joseph M. Segel, 88, a prolific entrepreneur who founded home-shopping network QVC and collectibles maker Franklin Mint, along with nearly two dozen other businesses, died Saturday in Gladwyne of congestive heart failure.
Mr. Segel started his first business at age 12, ran four before he graduated college, and never stopped trying new ideas even if his concepts sometimes failed. He was most successful in publishing, marketing, and minting, but he also created photography, aviation, and software companies, and he turned an old retirement home into a top-rated luxury hotel in the Swiss Alps. His most recent business venture, HairRx, a hair care system, was launched in 2018.
“He was universally admired and respected in every industry he touched,” his son Alan said. “He only left a trail of happiness, wealth and success for others. That’s his legacy.”
Mr. Segel was born and raised in West Philadelphia, the oldest of Albert and Fannie Segel’s two children. His father was a partner at a small real estate firm, his mother an active figure in the community.
Though not yet a teenager, Mr. Segel had an entrepreneurial spirit that was in full bloom. He told The Inquirer in 1993 that he started selling business cards to local companies at age 12, producing them from his own junior-size printing press and selling them in packs of 100 for a nickel.
While a student at West Philadelphia High School in the mid-1940s, Mr. Segel started what he considered his first true business — Eastern Advertising Co. — printing swag such as pencils, matchbooks, and key chains for other businesses
Following his early success with Eastern Advertising, Mr. Segel decided “from that point forward that he always had to be the boss,” son Alan said.
After his 1947 high school graduation, Mr. Segel enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania. But he kept up with his businesses, developing a personalized desk sign business and then the Advertising Specialty Institute, a trade association of sorts that also printed a directory of advertisers.
After graduating from Penn in 1951 with a bachelor of science degree, Mr. Segel enrolled at the Wharton School to get an MBA but, according to Alan Segel, he was too distracted with his business endeavors to focus on class. He dropped out, a decision that certainly didn’t impede his future success.
A year after marrying his second wife, Doris Greenstein in 1964 (Renee was his first wife), Mr. Segel saw pictures of people lined up around the Treasury Department to buy the last silver dollars minted by the U.S. government. That would inspire a new business venture. The National Commemorative Society made and sold sterling silver commemorative medals honoring American history events and people. The first medal commemorated five-star Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
But Mr. Segel was disappointed with the quality of work from his subcontractor. So, he created his production company for coins and other collectibles, General Numismatics Corp., which later became the Franklin Mint, which was based in Wawa, Delaware County, and was listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The brand name is currently owned by New York-based Sequential Brands Group.
“QVC was his biggest accomplishment but his pride was Franklin Mint because Franklin Mint was so his baby. He built it from zero," Alan Segel said. “Franklin Mint started with making a few coins literally and he bought a few presses and he minted coins and he looked for a better way to do it. … It evolved totally from the seed of his creative mind and it became quite large, a publicly traded, largest private mint in the world at one point.”
Mr. Segel’s travels around the world on behalf of Franklin Mint and as a member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations General Assembly spurred two other businesses: one successful, the other not so much.
The success: In 1970, he and his wife acquired a shuttered retirement home on the hills of Geneva and turned it into a luxury hotel and spa called Le Mirador. They sold it in 1990 but bought it back in 1993 and extensively renovated it. Five years later, they sold again. Le Mirador remains a luxury boutique hotel.
The miss: Presidential Airways, a private service with five jets and three helicopters that Mr. Segel created in 1975 and sold in 1980.
Mr. Segel attempted to retire in 1983 after developing a PC software testing business, which was subsequently bought by McGraw-Hill. Restless by 1986, he decided to improve upon the Florida-based Home Shopping Network by shipping products within days instead of weeks and disclosing shipping fees up-front. He called the new business QVC Network, the initials for Quality Value Convenience.
He recruited several of the vice presidents he had hired at Franklin Mint to help launch and later manage QVC, based in West Chester.
According to an online biography on Mr. Segel, the first broadcast was carried by 58 cable systems in 20 states and its first year registered $112 million in sales. At the time, there were more than a dozen other shopping channels trying to copy and improve HSN’s success. QVC was the one that came closest and eventually consolidated with HSN under the umbrella name of Qurate Retail Group. The channel now reaches more than 23 million customers worldwide and is one of the largest e-commerce companies in the world.
Mr. Segel retired as chairman of QVC in 1993 but continued to serve as an executive consultant to management for another 20 years.
Even in his so-called retirement, he helped found six other companies, most of them focused on beauty and skin care. Mr. Segel also founded a private equity firm in Boca Raton, Fla., where he and his wife would spend winters. He loved wine and created a guide to restaurants that permitted guests to bring their own.
Alan Segel said that despite his father’s business success, he was more of an introvert and preferred quieter moments with family.
Even when his wife of 54 years was in the final stages of Alzheimer’s and barely recognized him, Mr. Segel would refuse to go out to dinner, instead insisting on having dinner with her every night, his son said. After her death last year, Mr. Segel downsized to a smaller home in Delray Beach, Fla. But as his health deteriorated in November during a family visit to Philadelphia, a doctor suggested he try out an assisted-living facility in Gladwyne.
At the time of his death, Mr. Segel was in hospice care at Waverly Heights.
In addition to Alan, Mr. Segel is survived by another son, Marvin, stepdaughter Sandy Stern, six grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
Contributions may be made to Philabundance, 3616 S. Galloway St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19148, or a charity of the donor’s choice.