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Listening skills speak volumes about this CEO

Rochester Business Journal
January 24, 2014

Printing industry veteran Stuart Boyar heads Cooley Group. (Photo by Kimberly McKinzie)

Stuart Boyar’s foray into the commercial printing industry resulted from a failed attempt at being a photographer.

Nearly four decades ago, the Rochesterian packed his belongings and headed to Atlanta, where he found a job traveling to rural areas to take photos of used cars for Auto Trader magazine. After four hours of driving back roads and being accosted by dogs, Boyar had had enough, turned in his camera and made his way to a recruiting agency.

Later that afternoon he found himself in the business forms and printing world with a sales job at NCR Corp. The job would lead him to his current role at the helm of Cooley Group Inc.

“I had no clue about this industry. I didn’t even know business forms existed,” says Boyar, 59, chairman and CEO of Cooley. “That’s where I started in the printing world—on a whim.”

Boyar was a quick study, which proved advantageous when he landed the job at Cooley in 1982. In his three decades with the commercial printer, Cooley has grown to 33 full-time employees at five locations across New York, including 15 at its headquarters on Linden Avenue.

Boyar says the company annually posts $10 million to $15 million in sales and is the 25th-largest forms/printing distributorship nationwide. He expects 15 percent growth in 2014.

Cooley’s success is a result of its employees’ loyalty and its founder’s vision, Boyar says.

“Our company is not about management but about each and every person who works here,” he says. “Everyone has a vested interest in the success of our operation. They take great pride in this, and our clients are the beneficiaries.”

The company

Clarence Cooley founded Cooley Business Forms in 1945 after a stint as a reporter for George Eastman’s Kodakery magazine and a job with Gilman Fanfold Co., which was purchased by Moore Business Forms.

Cooley Business Forms was one of the first forms distributorships in the nation, and Cooley was a founding member of the National Business Forms Association.

He was a forward thinker who in the 1950s initiated a program of employee ownership in which he gave his stock in the company to employees on a regular basis. Upon his death in 1985, the employees purchased the rest of the company from his estate.

In 1998, Cooley Business Forms changed its name to the Cooley Group to recognize its diversification and expanded product line. The company provides consultation, products and support in client brand awareness and image.

Its four primary services are printing, promotional products, specialty printing and branded apparel. The company also offers direct mail and electronic products and services.

Cooley has more than 8,000 customers, and the majority of its business comes from clients in New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, though the company has customers throughout the country and in Canada.

Boyar joined the company in 1982 when he returned to New York with his wife after nearly six years working for NCR. He had worked his way to district manager at NCR, but when he arrived in Rochester he decided he wanted to try something new.

Boyar’s father helped him with his job search by photocopying the Yellow Pages. He sent 102 resumes to area businesses, including three to printing companies. The only responses he received were those from the printing companies, including Cooley.

Career start
Boyar’s 102-resume experience was not his first attempt at finding a job without much luck. He recalls what it was like to look for work just after college.

“I had this feeling I was going to be able to rule the world as I came out of college, so I applied for job after job after job,” he says with a grin. “And was rejected by job after job after job.”

Finally he saw an ad for a job at the Present Co., a store that sold home products and had several locations in the Rochester area.

“I was going through the interview process, and the interviewer said to me, ‘With your education and your experience, you’re worth $1.65 an hour,’” Boyar says. “It’s a sobering experience, but it taught me an awful lot.”

Boyar learned humility.

“This taught me that nothing would be automatic and that I needed to work extremely hard to get ahead,” he says. “If you want something badly enough, you need to scratch and claw and find a way to be successful.”

It was a valuable experience, he says, and one he has never forgotten.

Atmosphere
Boyar’s strengths as a manager are his ability to listen and not overreact and to offer creative marketing and sales services, he says.

“While I often have a definitive opinion about several things, I feel that it should be used for guidance and direction, and the individual needs to take ownership for executing the results,” he says of his leadership style. “You can lead someone to water, but you can’t make them drink.”

Cooley controller Andrea Pulcini calls Boyar laid-back and says he has great ideas.

“The hardest part of working here and having all these different people is the different personalities,” she adds. “And he finesses it quite well. He gets the job done.”

Executive Vice President Jim Bonaventura says Boyar is pragmatic and makes decisions based on what is best for the company.

“He’s great at playing devil’s advocate. It might be one of his greatest management styles,” Bonaventura adds. “His management style is far different from my management style, and that’s probably a good thing. I am more shoot-from-the-hip, get it off my desk, let’s go.

“Stuart is a little more deliberative and very pragmatic. That’s excellent for our organization, to have someone like that at the top.”

Bonaventura describes the corporate culture at Cooley as structured chaos.

“It’s been an evolution. As business has changed and the speed at which we transact business has changed, it has become more and more complicated to make a difficult set of business transactions look easy,” he explains. “Picture a duck, very placid above the water and paddling like hell under the water. That’s what it’s like on a daily basis.”

It can be crazy, he adds, but fun.

Adds Pulcini: “It’s like a family; it’s not like going to work. You’re basically getting together with your family every day and getting the job done.”

Having an ownership stake in the company means employees take pride in the workplace and the job they do, Boyar says. It is one reason the company has been successful.

Employee ownership also means staffers are less likely to make long-distance calls on the company’s dime, for example, or borrow products for home, Boyar adds.

“They look at the company as theirs,” he says. “They realize that the profits at the end of the year don’t go to somebody in Florida who’s sitting on his yacht and collecting the money. They go to all of us, and we elect what we want to do with them.”

Bonaventura says the company’s success is twofold.

“Externally, it’s personal relationships that each of our sales reps have with customers,” he says. “Internally, it’s the sense that we all have that we’re all in the boat and we all have to pull the oar: We’re all in this together, so let’s roll up our sleeves and do what we have to do.”

Continuous learning, keeping up with technology and teamwork also play a role in the company’s success.

“Even though it is an overused word, our employees truly work as a team on most accounts,” Boyar explains. “We collaborate with one another on effective solutions we may have used with someone else, and are not afraid to reach out to our manufacturing partners or peers in our industry to ask them for suggestions or to join us on sales calls.”

Bonaventura says the company differentiates itself from competitors by staying agile.

“I think one of the great things about our organization is, although we’re one of the largest organizations of our kind in the country, we’re still nimble enough to do essentially whatever the customer wants us to do,” he says.

The company does not have a lot of hierarchy, Bonaventura says, and that benefits both employees and customers.

“You can go to the president of the company and make a suggestion or have a request, and we can act on it quickly,” he says.

Goals and challenges
Cooley employees have their eyes on the future, and expansion is one of their goals. In October the company acquired Proforma I.F. Print Services, its largest local competitor. The acquired company’s four employees were added as brand consultants.

Boyar says short-term goals include integrating the merger and continuing to expand its offices in New York. Long-term goals include expanding from a regional company into more of a national firm.

Cooley will do that by adding offices, resources, partners and services, Boyar says.

Despite Cooley’s successes, the company has not been without challenges. During the most recent recession, the industry lost a large number of distributorships as well as suppliers.

“The Cooley Group was very fortunate as our business stayed even during this period and we didn’t lose our market share,” Boyar says.

The company used the time to re-evaluate its operation and tighten things up by focusing on its core products. In 2010 Cooley spent a year rebranding its operation with a new logo, tag line, and marketing and sales focus.

“This brought everyone at Cooley closer together, re-energized our entire operation and prepared us effectively for the future. That turned out to be a good time as a result,” Boyar says. “Most people look at the recession as a negative; we look at it as a positive.”

Boyar says his industry and technology as a whole are changing rapidly and there is a great deal to learn because of this.

“While we feel we are always tackling these changes, ultimately it can be a challenge to implement everything we have learned as quickly as we would like to,” he laments.

Boyar’s biggest frustration is in the vetting of Cooley’s independent partners. Since the manufacturing of the firm’s products is completed by partners, the companies must be reliable and cost-conscious.

“We periodically have some projects that require us to seek assistance from a supplier who we may not have as long a track record with and who may not have the urgency to detail and delivery like we do,” he says. “Until a project is 100 percent complete, several nights with little sleep become the norm to ensure our customers are completely taken care of.”

Despite the challenges, Boyar says, he gets a good deal of satisfaction working with a salesperson on creative and effective ways to get the company’s message across to clients.

There is a lot to like about his job, he says, including working with some of the best talent in the industry, watching a brand consultant secure a difficult account through hard work, and providing great opportunities and jobs for people. Being president of Cooley has been an enormous challenge, but Boyar counts the role as one of his biggest accomplishments, he says.

Boyar says his father always told him that everything in life should be done with moderation, that nothing is good in excess.

“This doesn’t mean you can’t take some chances; they just shouldn’t be done blindly,” Boyar says. “Calculate in advance your highs and lows, and your chances for success will be greatly improved.”

At home
Boyar and his wife, Vancy, have lived in Pittsford since the 1980s. The couple has two sons, Jeffrey, 25, and Philip, 23. Favorite family memories include the annual trips the foursome has made to different parts of the country, including national and state parks.

“We have been very fortunate to be able to have seen most of the country and a few countries abroad as a result,” he says.

Boyar says family is what is most important to him.

“My wife, Vancy, is the one person who has changed my life,” he says. “Vancy has kept me focused on separating work and home as much as possible.”

She is supportive and has allowed him to grow in his position at Cooley, he says.

In his spare time Boyar enjoys hiking and snowshoeing, camping, sports and collecting and drinking wine. He also is involved in various community organizations, including serving on the board of directors of Jewish Senior Life.

His Jewish heritage is an important part of his life, Boyar says, in particular because his mother is a Holocaust survivor who lost her family in the concentration camps during World War II. She learned how to struggle and survive while remaining an optimist, he says.

“She has taught me to find solutions to problems and how to appreciate whatever you may have in life,” Boyar says.

Boyar’s father was a social worker who touched many lives, he says.

“He was a tremendous listener, compassionate, and understood what made people tick,” Boyar explains. “He taught me to hear what the person in front of you is saying and never overreact or judge.”

Longtime friend Jeff Ureles describes Boyar in much the same way Boyar describes his father.

“He’s one of the most engaged people I know,” Ureles says. “When Stuart is listening to something, he’s fully listening to what you have to say. When he’s looking to share information with you, he’s clear and he’s a terrific communicator.”

Boyar is a curious person, Ureles says, and is not afraid to get involved in things on any level.

“He’s a tremendously fair person. He’s not judgmental,” Ureles says. “That listening capability is really key to (his) fairness. That, for me, is one of the things I admire most about him.”

Boyar does not believe in regrets.

“Life is full of unique experiences, and everything happens for a purpose,” he says. “We can’t look back; we need to only look forward.”

Stuart Boyar
Position: Chairman and CEO, Cooley Group Inc.
Age: 59
Residence: Pittsford
Education: B.S., marketing and advertising, 1976, Kent State University, Kent, Ohio
Family: Wife, Vancy; sons Jeffrey, 25, and Philip, 23
Passions: Family, traveling, hiking, sports, wine, community activities
Quote: “Life is full of unique experiences, and everything happens for a purpose. We can’t look back; we need to only look forward.”

1/24/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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