Gerry Conway – American Entrepreneur

Gerry Conway was the classic American entrepreneur – visionary, charismatic, driven, impatient, and impending. Born in Cleveland in 1931, Conway was the ninth of 13 children. His love of the retail environment, his strong interdependence, and his deep appreciation of people appreciation of people stemmed from his childhood experience: claiming that he has been in retail for over 60 years, working at some of his fathers 200 food stores. After college, Conway and his wife, Marty, returned to Cleveland. He began working for an industrial firm and quickly learned that, while sales attracted him, working in a large corporation did not.
After working at some small firms, Conway decided to found his own company, Gerald A. Conway & Associates, being display-printing broker. One day, a colleague suggested that he sell the plastic parts that retailers used to display signs as part of his printing broker business. The advantage of selling accessories was that he could sell the same product to many companies simultaneously, which was not possible in display printing, for which each printing job was customized. An early product idea was the Arrowhead fastener, which was designed to hold coupons and signs on store shelves.
It was a best seller from the start. During this time though, Conway had struggles with alcohol, stating that it was a problem, but through a self-help program he chose sobriety and regained focus in his life. The following year, his first year sober, his income shot up by about 35 percent-a direct correlation. He celebrated the event saying that was a significant event in the business and for his family. In the mid 1970s, now sober, Gerald Conway and Associates was renamed Fasteners for Retail (FFr) to acknowledge its exclusive focus on display accessories and fasteners within the point-of-purchase industry.

The P-O-P product includes signs, displays, devices, and structures that are used to merchandise services or products in retail stores. The accessory hardware segment was highly fragmented. No single supplier had more than 10 percent of the sub supplier market, and many competed in only a few product categories. FFr was the largest company in this niche, with a market share of approximately 7. 5 percent. The company distinguished itself from its competitors in several important ways. It offered a broad and innovative product line, free samples, quick turnaround on orders, and a liberal sales return policy.
The willingness to emphasize new products also became a defining characteristic for the business. While the company’s early expansion began with imported Swedish design accessories, the product line grew because of Conway’s creativity and dissatisfaction with status quo. Two products in particular, the Shipflat literature holder and SuperGrip sign holders, were critical to FFr’s success in the early 1980’s. In the 1980s, FFr grew consistently and at a steady pace, having five employees and sales of $3 million. As stated above, business began to boom as a result of a expanding product line and larger sales force.
The company grew steadily, adding employees in accounting, customer service, product design, and marketing. Its opportunistic philosophy supported the company’s growth. The business was always profitable, there was no debt, and the company never got tied up in long-term commitments. Production and most warehousing were subcontracted, and office space was leased. The company made quick decisions, and arrangements with vendors were frequently based on handshakes. The flipside of FFr’s opportunism and speed was that it lacked a business plan and strategic discipline.
To keep the company growing, Conway realized that he needed to hire a president with managerial expertise. Although he understood the value of management, he was an entrepreneur, not a traditional manager. The company went through several presidents. FFr, for a time, was a company with an organizational chart but not a lot of organization. That changed in the late 1990’s. In the early 1990’s, Conway and his wife, Marty, joined Case Western Reserve University’s Partnership for Family Business. This led to Conway realizing the importance for such things as an advisory board, which was made up of four independent current and former company CEOs.
It also led Conway to begin thinking of the furture of the company, and the possibility of passing it down to one of his sons. Family involvement in the company began in the 1970s, when the Conway children earned extra money by putting adhesive on the back of Arrowhead fasteners. They had all done odd jobs for FFr, but of the seven children only three worked in the business as adults. Kevin, the eldest, joined in the early 1980s and became an outstanding salesman, Paul, the youngest, eventually became the international sales manager, and Neil, the fourth son, was diagnosed with schizophrenia in college and found work in the warehouse.
Out of the three sons, Paul was seen as the most serious contender, but after some time in the company and deliberation, he decided that being CEO was not for him and went on to become a teacher. Now Gerry was left with a huge predicament. Kevin was out of the picture, his son Stuart had, long ago; decided that he didn’t want the responsibility. None of the kids were interested. Gerry’s problem was not only his lack of succession planning, but also his lack of retirement planning. He had done some retirement planning but the demands of running a business didn’t leave him time to establish an actual plan.
So where does this leave Gerry, his company, and his family’s future? (Source: Poza PG 141-155) My first step of advice for Mr. Conway would be to take step a back. Even though he is experiencing a very rough time right now with his succession planning, it is very important to note what he has done for the company and his family. He has managed to start up a successful business in which his family is involved and with net sales in the millions. He also made sure that he set up certain things like an advisory board for the company, which was made up of his son, brother, and two independent CEO owners.
He and his wife also made family meetings a regular event for everyone to gather at. They even went so far to go over their estate plan to make sure that their children gained a substantial amount of value from FFr over their lifetime. These are all great things that Gerry and Marty did for the family business and they should be recognized. After taking some time to admire their contributions to the company, its time to move on to the next step and tackle the problems head on. Gerry needs someone to take over the company, and his kids were not an option.
After reading the case several times though, I determined that there was someone that Gerry could entrust with the company, his chief advisor and wife Marty. Marty played a very pivotal role in the company, being a person who signed the checks and overlooked the company’s finances. She also had a public role at company functions and was a people booster. She played a more significant role behind the scenes, supporting Gerry as he considered important business changes, such as handling over administrative reins or making personal changes.
Both family members and outsiders described Marty as the glue that worked behind the scenes to hold the family together through the predictable challenges that families who work together faced. (Source Poza PG 154) Marty seems more than qualified to take control of business, which would also give Gerry time to iron out his retirement plan. This would also give Gerry the opportunity to have another talk with his son Paul about running the company. The text states that Gerry was a loner in the way that he ran his business.
Paul may not have realized that he could do the job differently- probably in a more decentralized and collaborative way. (Source: Poza PG 154) I feel that it is crucial that Gerry makes Paul realize that if he decided to be CEO he can take a different approach to running the company, his own. He could run the company and instill the values that he thinks is important into it. After realizing this and the possible opportunity that he his passing up, not only for himself but also his future family, he will have to at least reconsider his father’s offer and most likely come back to work for the company.
If this still does not work, Gerry is left with the option of finding someone else in the family to run the company, find a trusted family friend to run the company, or sell it all together. In conclusion, Gerry Conway has managed to take his company Fasteners for Retail and turn it into a huge family company. He had been with so much with the company and realized that it was coming to the time to pass it on. He tried passing it on to his children, but he failed in all his attempts. Now left with little time and money, Gerry needed someone to run his company. I felt that the answer came in his wife, Marty.
She was his chief advisor at the company and new how to read all the financial data associated with it. Family members and outsiders alike referred to her as the glue that held the company together. With her running the company, it would allow for Gerry to manage all his retirement issues and give his talk with son Paul another shot. After making Paul realize the opportunities that he is passing up, I am sure he will come back to the company and began work. References Poza, Ernesto J. , 2007. Famly Business Third Edition. South Western Cengage Learning 5191 Natorp Boulevard. Mason, Ohio 45040, USA.

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