Wes Moore uses leadership to restore Swan company’s innovative spirit


Interview by Greg Jones | [email protected]

Wes Moore took over Swan Corp., the business his father Jack founded, at a time when the company was going through a tough spot.

Jack Moore, president of the manufacturer of Swanstone kitchen and bath products, had passed away in 2001. The company continued operations, but over the next few years, there was the Great Recession, as well as changes with the executive team. Survival was a prime concern and innovation — the innovation that Jack Moore used to found the company — was no longer in the driver’s seat.

Moore was named chairman and CEO, and knew he had his work cut out for him.

“Swan, like many building materials companies, was mainly in survival mode to get through the housing bust and really slowed down its innovation,” Moore says.

“In the earlier era, it was OK to bring out new products once a year. That was sort of how Swan did it. It was timed around a big show like the kitchen and bath show.”

But when Moore took over, he wanted things to move faster.

“I really wanted to ramp it up; we’re basically coming out with new products every 60 to 90 days,” he says.

Here’s how Moore has taken the reins of his father’s company and reinvigorated innovation and market presence.

Stay calm, have faith

Whenever there is a change in a company’s management, especially in uncertain financial times, it comes with some trepidation from the workforce. So the CEO’s first assignment is to say it’s time to stay calm and have faith things will be in good order.

“When I first took over, I wanted to give a sense of stability,” Moore says. “We had had some changes with personnel at the top, and my predecessors were right for the time; however, when a company comes through a recession like that, everyone’s a little wary.

“So the first thing I needed to do was give everyone a calming feeling that we’re coming back, and we’re coming back stronger than we ever have.”

Moore knew that it’s about action and not words. His focus on reinvigorating innovation made doubters into believers.

“I think the company and the team that we’ve created really got excited when they started to see that we really meant it and that we were actually coming out with new products,” he says.

The task was to instill confidence that the new leadership was going to restore the company’s innovative spirit.

“That causes natural excitement and people get motivated,” Moore says. “What happens is, as a whole team, once you start seeing other people working that hard and getting that excited, it gets people engaged.”

Moore says a friend of his who buys and invests in companies told him that 25 years of those activities has shown him to definitely invest in people.

“They meet the people, and then they look at the business plan,” Moore says. “He said that anytime he’s ever been excited about a business plan but not so excited about the people, it’s always been a mistake.

“I agree with that. I think that we’ve been lucky in that way, in terms of we’re a very genuine business, and we look for genuine partners.”

Timing was a great takeaway

The speed of product development, Moore found, was a critical point in the turnaround effort. A resident of both St. Louis and San Francisco, he credits his time in the Bay Area for offering a great takeaway.

“Being in the center of the tech universe has been a good influence; you become quite aware of how fast you have to adapt to the market,” he says. “I mean, they have to move every week. We don’t have to do that, fortunately, but they really do.”

The price you pay for failing can often be steep.

“I had a European manufacturing friend who had a very old, established company, but he spent three years in R&D on a product that he was so proud of, and we kept trying to hint to him, you know, it’s nice that you keep working on that product, but you’ve got to be watching the market,” he says. “Sure enough, by the time he got the product out, the market had moved on, and he couldn’t sell it.”

As the old bromide goes, “Timing is everything.”

The above example demonstrates how rare it is to come across an opportunity that stands idle, waiting for you to take action.

“As a past salesman, and I continue to be a salesman, I know that when I go in to see a customer, I want to have something new to talk about.  I can’t just say, ‘Well, have you looked at my sample box from four years ago?’”

Besides seeing what customers are buying, watching the market also involves listening to what the customer wants and offering other products that you think they may need.

“It definitely is like a good marriage — it’s a give and take,” Moore says.

Broadening the presence

While products or services are your company’s lifeblood, you don’t want to neglect other areas that may help drive success.

Moore found it essential to focus not only on residential customers but commercial as well.

“When we look at a product, we hope that it is one we could sell into both residential and commercial markets,” he says. “That’s what excites us a lot.

“We just observed our 50th anniversary, and we have learned a lot over time about our customer base.”

Moore says years ago, buyers with the big retail chains were tough to negotiate with.

That, however, has changed over time.

“I think they are more wary of the Internet as the biggest threat to their market share,” he says.

“In some of my recent meetings with them, they’ve been much more open because they’re trying to compete on the Internet level, so they just want to have more of an offering. They try to encourage you more to increase the breadth of your line — which is something that we’re doing anyway, so that works out.”

Swan Corp. has tried a few low-end products in the past just to hit a different market segment, and even some high-end specialty products, but they were not big winners.

“Our base business, the wholesalers, didn’t react well to that,” Moore says.

“So I think our sweet spot has always been that we have a great sense of design and we’re affordable, and that’s something that we should remember.”

The Moore File

Name: Wes Moore
Title: Chairman and CEO
Company: Swan Corp.

Born: Ashtabula, Ohio. My father was working for a fiberglass tray molder in those days, and so I spent my formative years in Ohio.

Education: I went to Brown University and obtained a degree in English. I had worked in the business, but I also liked to write, particularly plays.

What was your first job and what did you learn from it?

I started in high school working summers at the Swan factory, and my first position was actually to paint parking lot spaces. My father drove up and said, ‘That’s really not a way for him to learn the business.’  It was kind of hot, too. So I went into quality control, and that was a good department to sort of learn from, and then a few years after college I officially joined the business.

Do you have a favorite product, or are there any Swan products in your home that you really enjoy?

My first official job was to set up Swanstone distribution, so I would definitely say Swanstone walls are my favorite, and yes, we have them in our house. I’ve had some in for 18 years and they look just the same as they did when they were

If you could speak with anyone from the present or past, with whom would you want to speak with?

It’s a bit out of the box answer, but I would actually be very interested in being in a three‑way conversation with (psychologists) Freud and Jung. It would be very interesting to hear Freud and Jung and speak with the two of them since they had very different views about psychology.

Wes Moore, the playwright

You might think that while Moore received an English degree from Brown University and enjoyed writing for the stage, it would be curtains for that avocation once he really got into the operation of Swan Corp.

You would be wrong. In fact, his father once said, “I don’t see why you can’t write your plays and be in my business.”

“Some people play golf, and I write plays,” Moore says. “But one thing that I’ve found by writing plays, a lot of it’s about analysis of character and personality, and I’ve found that to be helpful in business.”

Moore has penned eight plays. His favorite is “A Reckoning,” which is about a father-daughter relationship. It opened in 2003 in London, with renowned U.K. actor Jonathan Pryce in the lead role.

“Then I did a couple of others,” Moore says. “Departure” and “Swim Visit” opened in London, and “Finder’s Fee” premiered in Los Angeles.

“I did a Clifford Odets adaptation with John Malkovich and Eli Wallach called ‘A Rocket to the Moon.’ Then I wrote a Jane Seymour television movie, ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’”