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
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.
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.”
A Greenwich resident since 1977, Goergen found the town convivial to his family, especially a shared love for sports. He sent Rob and Todd to Brunswick and played tennis with them at the Belle Haven Club. Rob even joined the ATP Tour before following his father’s footsteps in business; he calls his father “a work-hard, play-hard guy.”
“[The kids] got a golf course, tennis courts, a great school system,” Bob says. “They got everything here. It’s terrific.”
For years, Goergen didn’t experience a lot of Greenwich firsthand. He spent more time on airplanes, jetting from Chicago to Oshkosh to Texarkana to look over his various holdings in and outside of Blyth. He calls himself an “operating investor,” as opposed to a passive one. A favorite maxim encapsulates his philosophy on that front: “The best fertilizer is the footprint of a farmer.”
The same idea extends to his other interests. He takes an active part managing his charitable pursuits, whether it be sitting on the boards of his two alma maters, the University of Rochester and Wharton, both of which have reaped the rewards of extending full scholarships to a poor kid from Buffalo many times over, or developing an intensive entrepreneurial program at the latter institution.
There are also art trips to places like Buenos Aires and Berlin. Art is a shared passion for Pam and Bob, something Goergen says has taken the place of tennis as his leg joints have begun to complain. Their collecting tends to be in contemporary art, with a strong focus on sculpture.
“I like sculptures because they are tactile, three-dimensional,” Goergen says. “Sculptures you can touch, paintings you can’t. We’ve got a good balance between paintings and sculpture.”
Pam notes the couple relies on no art adviser, making their own buying decisions. “Ninety percent of the time, we like the same piece,” she says. “We can be walking different parts of the same gallery, and when we meet, we have the same pieces in mind.”
Neither Goergen will talk specifics about their art collection, except that it involves both an outdoor and indoor gallery at their backcountry Greenwich home. Peter Sutton, the Bruce’s CEO, calls the Goergens “generous” both with their collection and their time. The couple supports the Bruce’s annual Icon Awards, to be held this year at Conyers Farm on May 22, and sponsors an ongoing lecture series on subjects like Connecticut impressionism.
“There’s nobody better to have in your corner than Bob,” Sutton says. “He’s wonderfully outgoing and infectiously enthusiastic.”
With all the success of Goergen’s life, one field of endeavor seems beyond his capabilities: retirement. He tried it once in 1986 for what he says was three months.
“It was never three months,” Pam asserts. “More like six weeks. He can’t sit still. He can’t. For some people, retiring means not commuting into New York. But he’s never done that. He’s always had so many other activities, in addition to Blyth.”
Though Pam says she wishes he would take time to smell the roses, Bob prefers to keep his candles burning at as many ends as he can manage.
“I’m not satisfied working forty hours a week,” he says. “When I went to the University of Rochester as a freshman, one of the first things I saw was the college motto, Meliora; it’s Latin for ‘always improving,’ and I thought that was terrific. It’s about never being satisfied with the status quo. I believe that should be true for everybody, whether you want to study more, write better, run faster, whatever it is.”