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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Building a Brand
If Goergen had followed a straight path, he would have wound up, of all things, a nuclear physicist. That was the plan at the University of Rochester, where he graduated in 1960 on a full scholarship. He got his degree in physics, even doing some lab work for Kodak as an intern, then switched ladders for the first of many occasions, getting his MBA from the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School on another full scholarship.
After came more ladders, with Goergen climbing higher each time before letting go. First, a stint at Procter & Gamble, followed by his Supremes success at McCann Erickson. At P&G, it was the corporate structure that didn’t agree with him; at McCann Erickson, it was the Mad Men lifestyle.
“The first lunch I had, one of the account executives had a martini with lunch. I thought, I can’t function with a martini at lunch.”
So Goergen moved on, first joining the nation’s top consulting firm, McKinsey & Co., to become one of its youngest principals, then to the investment bank Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette (DLJ), where he eventually became a partner. “I guess if you looked at my résumé in those days, you would say this person has an attention-deficit problem,” he says.
All the time, he impressed people with his drive and likeability.
“He was great with people, which was very important,” recalls Don Clifford, a former senior partner at McKinsey. “At times, you had people at McKinsey who were so brilliant, but not so empathetic. Bob was both.”
“He tends to stick up for people,” notes Fred Lane, a junior DLJ colleague who now manages Raymond James’ Consumer & Retail Group. “He tells you what is and what isn’t. He’s very open.”
Goergen credits an understanding spouse for supporting his journey, but Pam admits to doubts. Certainly she minded when he left McKinsey, being from the consulting world herself and finding a natural social fit there. But she learned to cope.
“What drove him was he wanted to have independence,” she explains. “Independence comes from working for yourself, not just advising, but accumulating wealth. He wanted to improve business situations, and share in their success.”
At DLJ, Goergen oversaw a venture capital operation called Sprout, from which would sprout the next phase of Goergen’s professional life. In 1976, Goergen, by now both a partner in Sprout and an independent investor, led a team to buy the Valley Candle Co., a Brooklyn business then catering largely to churches and bodegas.
Goergen divided time between venture capital (both with Sprout and solo) and candles, developing Valley into a national brand through a focused campaign of acquisition and product development. The development of citronella candles in the 1980s (for keeping bugs away from patios) led into the fragranced-candle business. By the 1990s, the company, now known as Blyth, was on its way.
“We basically invented fragrance candles,” Goergen says. “And we had a great ride. We were a $50 million company in 1990, and a billion-dollar company in 2000. Believe it or not, we had a 50 P/E ratio.” Forbes magazine, in a 1996 profile on Goergen and his company, credited him with inventing his own recession-proof market niche, dubbing it “razor blades that burn.”
Of all the many Blyth acquisitions, the most important would be a tiny ancillary business Goergen didn’t even know about when he purchased its parent, Colonial Candles, in 1990. A direct-sales outlet, PartyLite sold candles door-to-door, like Avon or Amway. It was so obscure Colonial’s CEO didn’t know much about it. Neither did Goergen, at first. But he saw promise.
“They were only doing business in three or four states,” he says of PartyLite. “I said: ‘Gee, if we can nurture this, with new products and money and the proper leadership, I think this could be a hundred-million-dollar business.’”
PartyLite would prove more. It would become Blyth’s future. In direct-selling, Goergen discovered a natural synergy for his entrepreneurial instinct, something to tap into and fuel new growth for his company. He would call his direct-sellers “proselytizers” who introduced fragrance candles into untapped markets and built a case to interested neighbors at home parties. Goergen became both captain and cheerleader.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for individuals to make extra money,” he says. “If they are really good at it, they can make it a career.” By the end of the 1990s, Blyth’s transition had become a matter of necessity, with pressure from chain retail outlets like Walmart and Chinese imports. Today, Blyth does all its business through direct sales.
“Direct selling is an entrepreneurial business 100 percent,” says Rob, Goergen’s son and successor. “We don’t have to go through brick-and-mortar. We like to be the masters of our own destiny. We sink or swim on the quality of our messaging and our products.”
Running such a company requires a unique management style. Jane Casey, Blyth’s vice president of investor relations, has been with the company for eighteen years in a variety of roles, including HR.
“Bob’s very nontraditional,” she says. “He’s told me: ‘I’d rather hire 6s and 7s and get them to work as 8s and 9s than hire 10s.’ Because they can be prima donnas. He fosters camaraderie. He will take chances on people in roles they may not be traditionally suited for. He looks for people who are going to be collaborative, resourceful.”
Tyler Schuessler began working for Goergen in 1998. At the time, she was director of development at Greenwich Library; Goergen was cochairing the library’s capital campaign. After the campaign raised $12.5 million, Goergen asked her to come work for him.
Today Schuessler focuses on one of Blyth’s newest ventures, ViSalus, a fitness-supplement brand that follows the same direct-sales approach of PartyLite.
“Bob doesn’t strive for perfection,” she says. “He tries to get 85 percent right, because he knows we can correct as we go. We don’t want perfect to be the enemy of progress. That allows him to take risks on people.”