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Bright Idea

Building a business is one thing. Building an entire billion-dollar industry is another. Meet Bob Goergen, an entrepreneur who burns the candle at both ends

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Even among entrepreneurs famous for improvising their pathways to success, Greenwich’s Robert Goergen stands out for the diverse milestones along his journey.

In the 1960s, as a young account executive at McCann Erickson, he pushed Coca-Cola to embrace pop music by signing the Supremes to sing the soda’s praises. In the 1990s, as a seasoned venture capitalist, he transformed a tiny candle company run out of a Red Hook warehouse into a billion-dollar business, Blyth, Inc. Today, he’s a guru of direct sales, urging entrepreneurs to seek their fortunes outside corporate structures.

This month he is being honored by Greenwich Library with the prestigious Peterson Business Award (former recipients include PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi and Bloomberg CEO Peter Grauer), recognizing both his market vision and charitable work.

It’s been a momentous journey for a boy who grew up poor and fatherless in upstate New York. Goergen, today a hale-looking man with a gentle gaze and an infectious grin, credits “a crazy work ethic” with getting him where he is.

“If you’ve got something you need to do, you do it,” Goergen explains. “As an entrepreneur, you set your own goals. I told someone, ‘I can’t complain, I wrote the job description.’”

Goergen’s job description at present is not easily summarized. At Blyth, the company that bears his middle name, Goergen last November passed on the CEO reins to his son Rob; he remains company chairman. His other child, Todd, manages the Ropart Group, a family investment vehicle Goergen also oversees. Much time is devoted to two outside passions: art (he and his wife of forty-five years, Pam, are both collectors and patrons) and philanthropy. (A family operation, the Goergen Foundation raises funds for charity.)

In a small conference room adjoining his corner office on East Weaver Street, expansion plans for the Bruce Museum cover an oval table. Goergen’s ambitions for the Bruce, which he and Pam have actively supported for over a decade, include galleries large enough for exhibits like the one the Goergens helped develop last fall around a favorite artist of theirs, Chuck Close.

“He does mostly portraits, in a very unique way,” Goergen observes. “He’s dyslectic, he’s got face blindness. And so he has come up with a very unique way of doing portraits. He’s world-renowned. He’s unique to overcome those handicaps.”

One can’t help but wonder if Goergen relates to Close because of his own disadvantaged upbringing. “I’m not that great a psychologist,” Goergen replies. “As I look back, I’ve always been something of a leader. I didn’t know what leadership meant when I was in the third grade, right? But even the teachers made me the school crossing guard, stuff like that. Given the circumstances, you either overcome them or get sunk by them.”

There’s no big desk here; he dislikes them. Instead, a small upright table with orderly sheaves of paper stands against one of the walls; the man prefers to work on his feet.

Bronze sculptures of a ballerina and a tennis player catch the eye, as does a poster of a sweaty woman on a locker-room bench under the simple legend, “There is no finish line.” A surrealist painting shows a man climbing a ladder into the clouds. Around him others in business suits sit on chairs, apparently oblivious to his ascent.

A statement on Goergen’s own rise?

He shrugs. He just likes the painting, he explains.