Wednesday, February 18, 2009
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Face to Face: An Interview with Drew Conway

The Drew Crew

Our writer sits down with Drew Conway, Wellesley resident, philanthropist, and entrepreneur extraordinaire.

WellesleyWeston: Hi, Drew…I’ve heard quite a bit about you. You’ve started two successful companies, and you’re about to launch a third. You have five kids, ages 13 to 25. How hard is it to balance work and family life here in suburbia?

Drew Conway: Well, I was the first one in my family to go to college. I came from a long line of cops and priests. In fact, my father was a New York City cop. He’s gone now, but he was and still is my role model. No matter how hard he worked, he didn’t miss out on any part of our childhoods. He coached, he went to all our games...and I do the same. I don’t want to miss a thing that my kids and their friends are doing.

WWM: How is that possible? You’re the CEO; don’t you have to be on top of all things corporate, all the time?

DC: I do most of my work right here, from Wellesley. And let’s just say I’m an efficient traveler. I like to keep my trips short, two nights or less, and I make sure that I don’t travel every week. I like to maximize family time.

WWM: Let’s back up a little bit. You’ve started two—well, two-plus—remarkable companies, whose corporate headquarters were or are right here in Wellesley. Tell us about those companies, and then let us in on what the new one is about.

DC: The first company I started [Registry Incorporated, later renamed Renaissance Incorporated] specialized in business and technology consulting. It was a great organization. We believed in treating our employees as if they were customers. As a company, we gave to over one hundred and fifty charities. We had a program called “touching people where we live.” There were 42 US offices, and through this program, each office could choose a number of small, community organizations to support. Then the company would follow up, and further support those organizations.

WWM: What happened to Renaissance? Sounds like a great place to work.

DC: At our peak, we had over six thousand employees worldwide, and it was a great place to work. That was very important to me. Once it went public though, running the company just wasn’t as much fun. The company that bought it broke it up into pieces, and the corporate culture, which had been focused on respect, empowerment, and philanthropy, was lost.

WWM: What was your secret to creating and nurturing that kind of corporate culture?

DC: The secret is simple: you consistently hire great people. And you do have to grow a corporate culture from the ground up; I don’t think it’s something that you can retrofit into an existing company. The company and the culture need a stable, strong foundation, just as a building does. You can’t try to do it all on your own. You’ve got to have a motivated group that shares your vision and takes pride in making the company better, as opposed to simply ‘doing their jobs’ and then just leaving.

You’ve got to hire great managers who share your vision and concept of how the company should work. A great company comprises great people. Really, there aren’t any shortcuts. There’s no formula. Different CEOs have different personalities, different approaches. Mine was: you foster an ethical culture, you keep people—especially key employees—talking about it, and that culture gets preserved and passed on. You end up with a place where every employee can stand up and be proud of what the company is doing.

WWM: Why don’t more companies seem to get that right?

DC: I think a lot of companies are more focused on short-term goals. Fast growth is what people want, so they don’t spend enough time and resources on the company’s cultural foundation.

WWM: You make it sound easy, but we know better. Can you also tell us another secret? How do you make those consistently great hires?

DC: We had a multi-phase interviewing process for every employee, not just those at the top. The candidate would meet with a variety of groups and individuals a total of six times, and none of us would share our thoughts [about the candidate’s suitability for hire] until the end of the process.

WWM: After Renaissance was taken apart, you started another company called Sagent Healthstaff, also headquartered in Wellesley. So, are you a serial company-starter?

DC: Well, the baby boomers are aging, and they need more health services. There are fewer nurses, but demand for them remains high. I do think that it’s a good idea to start a company while that company’s industry is in a growth phase. Two years ago, I started another company that’s part of the Sagent group as well: Sagent Partners, which provides IT [Information Technology] consulting to the federal government and government contractors. That company now has sales offices in L.A., Austin, and Virginia, but its corporate offices are here in Wellesley, too.

WWM: Why do you choose Wellesley both as your home, and a place to do business?

DC: Wellesley’s a beautiful town with a very good school system. I think the people here are interesting and friendly, and Wellesley has a nice, close-knit business community. Having my office here allows me to have flexibility when it comes to attending the kids’ sporting events and other activities at school. Frankly, I’ve never been a big fan of a long commute and spending all that time in traffic. It’s very unproductive.

WWM: Tell us about your newest Wellesley-based venture. It’s not quite so corporate, right?

DC: Right, it’s an exciting change for me; my first retail company. It’s called Island Issue. We make men’s and women’s sportswear “for those who enjoy life.” It’s geared toward travelers, especially those who go to resort areas. The clothes are easy to pack, and made of luxury fabrics like 100 percent organic cotton and merino wool. It’s a fresh, new, versatile brand with a good value-to-price point.

WWM: Okay…but what about your theory that it’s best to start a company when the industry is in a growth phase?

DC: Well, it’s true that starting a clothing company right now, while we’re in the teeth of a recession, might not be the best idea! But everyone needs a challenge and sometimes, starting up in a recession can be good. Customers may reassess their current suppliers. A new company has no market share to lose. During a recession, shoppers need a compelling reason to buy. Our clothing is made to be self-wicking, temperature controlling, and natural. That’s of great appeal right now.

Besides that, our goal is to build a fun, highly-regarded, interesting company that people will really want to work for. We’re going to be a young, innovative company. We’re going to feature our own, limited-edition prints on the clothing and as artwork, to give away as gifts to retailers, rewarding them for trying our products in their stores. Our goal is to distribute Island Issue clothing through specialty retail shops, over the Internet, and by building partnerships with resorts. We want to use existing retail channels, not create new ones.

WWM: How did you come up with the Island Issue concept? It’s so different from the Renaissance and Sagent Healthstaff models that you worked on before.

DC: All of us…my wife, my kids, were on our boat in Martha’s Vineyard, and we were thinking how neat it would be to start a clothing line just for times like that, featuring comfortable natural fabrics in soft island-y colors. Starting this company has been a great way for me to engage my kids. They’re a wonderful resource—the boys and the girls—for trends in clothing. And we can employ them and their friends, and provide internships. It’ll be there for them when they graduate; maybe they’ll still want to be involved. Community service is important to us as a family, and it’s an important component of every company that I’ve been involved with. So as we go forward, Island Issue will have that social give-back component, as well.

WWM: Who are your target customers?

DC: Every guy who has a favorite sweatshirt that he loves. Every woman who wants a stylish, comfortable wrap that can go everywhere she does. We want Island Issue clothes to be those pieces they reach for again and again. We want our customers to feel like they’re on vacation when they’re wearing our clothes.

WWM: And what about the corporate culture? Will Island Issue have one similar to Renaissance?

DC: We definitely want to find ways to use the company in a positive way, getting kids involved, sponsoring events, and donating to good causes.


WWM: Where can our readers find Island Issue?

DC: Locally, we’re going to be available at E.A. Davis. It’s a well-established store, very well run, has an innovative and creative high-end selection, it’s customer-centric, and at the same time, it’s really community-oriented. We think E.A. Davis is a great fit for Island Issue clothing. We premier the spring line there on February first.

WWM: Any more tips for those who might be starting their own company anytime soon?

DC: I don’t like hierarchies. They create barriers and walls. In these companies, we don’t have titles or cards. That inspires loyalty, nurtures people, and reinforces what’s important. One of the great responsibilities of running a company is offering opportunities for personal and professional growth to all of the employees.

WWM: I always like to ask about what people are reading, or to suggest some relevant books. Since we’ve been talking about business, what books can you recommend on the subject?

DC: I can think of three that stand out. One of my favorites is The Art of War by Sun Tzu; it’s an interesting approach-to-management book. Another one that we used in the early years at Renaissance is Jack Welch and the GE Way by Robert Slater. And here’s one that’s a must for any sales organization: Strategic Selling by Robert Miller and Stephen Heiman.

WWM: Thanks Drew, it was great to have met you. Looking forward to seeing “Hermie,” the Island Issue crab, around town.

 


 

 

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