ASPIRE 2017 – William E. Conway

A lifelong learner

William E. Conway, chairman emeritus and director at Fairmount Santrol, is this year’s recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award.

Relationships are a key component in any line of work, but perhaps even more so when you’re the head of a business, says William E. Conway, director and chairman emeritus at Fairmount Santrol.

“The most important thing is to develop the relationships — the mutual trust and confidence of people — on both sides,” Conway says. “Be a good listener. Ask questions, get responses from people on the shop floor or out in the field as to what you’re doing and what you could be doing better. Simply be aware of the opportunities and requirements that those people sense.”

Conway served as chairman and CEO at Best Sand from 1978 to 1984 and Fairmount Minerals from 1984 to 1996. He founded Fairmount Santrol in 1986 and has been its chairman emeritus since 2010.

One of the pivotal opportunities in his business career took place in Australia. He had worked for Pickands Mather & Co., an iron ore mining company, for a number of years when he was asked to open a mine in Australia in the 1960s.

“That experience I had in Australia gave me a taste of running my own business,” Conway says. “I started it from scratch. I had negotiated a joint venture agreement with Japanese steel mills to open this mine. And then the boss, John Sherwin, suggested I run it.

“I had to negotiate, with a lot of help, with the local government agencies, local banks and the labor unions and hire a whole organization and build it up. In many respects, I had a lot of fun running my own business, but somebody else was paying all the bills.”

He came back to the U.S. and continued to work for Pickands Mather, as well as Diamond Shamrock, but found the corporate world “a little confining.”

With the help of some of his contacts, Conway eventually purchased Best Sand and began a prosperous leadership career in Geauga County.

The ability to build and utilize a strong network of advisers who you can call upon when you need support is one of the keys to being an effective leader.

“I had one situation where I was going down the road on a project and one of my advisers said, ‘Bill, why do you want to do that?’” Conway says.

“I thought about it and said, ‘I’m not sure that’s a good idea after all.’ I got so caught up in making things happen, which is a big part of being entrepreneurial, and sometimes, you’re going down a road with something you really don’t want to happen.”

Conway also credits his father for instilling in him the importance of continuous education.

“He never went beyond eighth grade, but was self-educated in many respects and was always a great believer in learning,” he says. “He encouraged our family to go to college and reach high.”