W.W. Cannon celebrates 75 years of success and looks forward to 75 more.
By Steve Guglielmo
W.W. Cannon celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2013. The journey that the Dallas, Texas-based distributor has taken since its founding in 1938 has been marked by significant growth, many triumphs and even a few bumps in the road. But one thing has remained constant. The company is guided by a strict code of values and a fierce devotion to both its customers and suppliers. While the industry is in a constant state of flux, this mission stays the same.
The Early Years
Nobody is quite sure what compelled brothers William W. and Jack Cannon to form their own storage dealership. After all, it’s not every day you see two professional hockey players from Canada pack up and move to Dallas, Texas, to venture out on their own. But in 1938, that is exactly what happened.
“They began selling mainly shelving, basically from the back of their car,” says President Greg Brown. “They would sell products that shipped directly from the factories to the customer.”
But if the hockey players weren’t quite sure how to adapt to the material handling industry at first, it certainly didn’t show. Their first supplier was Lyon Workspace Products, already a giant in the industry in 1938 and still a household name in material handling today. By the mid-1950s, the brothers added Borroughs Corporation to their catalog of suppliers.
“Back then, there were a lot of manufacturers looking for distribution,” Brown says. “When they had established themselves, a lot of those vendors began coming for them. They steadily grew into the storage side of the industry and became a real force. They were very strong in modular buildings and we still are today.”
By the 1980’s Jack’s son, Jack Jr., had joined the business, and by the end of the decade Jack Jr. had taken over W.W. Cannon. Even in 1993, when Jack Jr. sold the company to Wes Hale and Fair Industries, Jack Jr. stayed on to keep the Cannon legacy alive. This would prove to be vitally important for the continued growth of W.W. Cannon.
While Jack Jr. was just cutting his teeth at the company, Greg Brown was a bright eyed and bushy-tailed Industrial Distribution student at Texas A&M University, one of the top ID programs in the country. Upon graduating from A&M, Brown, a born and bred Texan, took a job as an account executive in Black & Decker’s industrial construction division in Birmingham, Alabama.
“That job gave me a chance to call on distributor’s reps,” says Brown. “It gave me some good, hands-on experience in industrial distribution and some insight into what the industrial distributor was looking for from the manufacturer.”
After three years at Black & Decker, Brown returned to Texas in 1990 to work for a packaging distributor called Mack-Pack. Brown worked for Mack-Pack, and then, after the company was sold, Unisource for six years, selling flexible packaging equipment.
This experience shaped Brown’s future in two ways. First, it gave him some indispensable experience working on the dealer side of the business and learning to work with manufacturers, rather than for them. Second, it aroused Brown’s entrepreneurial spirit and planted the idea that he should venture out on his own.
“We sold products like the ones that we do today at W.W. Cannon,” Brown says. “While I was working there, I got this idea that I really wanted to own my own business. So I saved all of my nickels and dimes to make that happen.”
A Crash Course
In 1996, with Brown ready to venture out on his own, Fair Industries was looking for a buyer for W.W. Cannon. Brown jumped at the opportunity. As with most entrepreneurs, Brown experienced some early turbulence when he took over the company.
“Entrepreneurs have a joke about having a Harvard education,” Brown says. “A Harvard education is making a mistake that costs you $250,000. I had a couple of Harvard educations pretty quickly in those early years. It was quite a learning curve.”
A steep learning curve is to be expected, especially in this industry. However, Brown had some real advantages going for him. First, Brown had his manufacturer experience with Black & Decker, which put him on a solid footing from the jump with manufacturer relations.
“It gave me a look at what manufacturers can do and how they do it,” Brown recalls. “Plus, Black & Decker is a Fortune 500 company. It was great training and it gave me a good sense of how successful distributors were doing business. I got to see first hand how successful dealers worked with manufacturers to support their products. How they advertised and marketed their products. It was great experience.”
Brown’s sales background, too, was an immediate asset.
“I was a salesperson with very little management experience, more of a dream than anything else,” he says. “But the good part was that I knew I could sell, so I jumped on that side of the business.”
And with the sales portion of the business well in hand, Brown’s third and arguably most important advantage could really shine. See, while he might not have had much management experience, Greg’s wife, Sonia, the company’s vice president, had a real knack for it.
“Sonia has a real managerial personality and she had experience managing in the cosmetics industry of all places,” Brown says. “She really helped me come up with processes and helped me become a better manager.”
But even with Greg’s flair for sales and Sonia’s eye for management, there was still a piece of the puzzle missing. That piece turned out to be a salesman who happened to be a descendant of the original owners.
“Jack Cannon Jr. was still working here, even after he sold the controlling share of the company,” Brown says. “He had some great product knowledge and was able to show me a lot of things that I needed to know about the industry. That was an excellent resource to have. It was kind of like having a built in trainer.”
Despite a couple of Harvard educations and a steep learning curve, W.W. Cannon realized rapid growth under Brown. In 1997, the company opened its San Antonio branch and in 1999, W.W. Cannon was recognized as one of the Top 100 Fastest Growing Companies in Dallas.
“We grew really fast in those first five years,” Brown says. “Really fast.”
One of the reasons for that fast growth was a diversification of products. The company had a long and celebrated history in the storage segment of the industry.
“I wanted to keep that focus on storage,” Brown says. “But coming from packaging machinery, I had a more electro-mechanical background. I wanted to expand in those areas. So I looked at things like conveyors and machine integration.”
Through a connection formed by one of its salespeople, W.W. Cannon struck up a relationship with Gorbel.
“That led me down a whole other avenue that I hadn’t really considered,” he says. “It has been great for us. We’ve become leaders in the cranes and hoists segment of the industry and have really enjoyed a lot of business in that area.”
Another milestone moment for W.W. Cannon was the 2001 acquisition of Dallas/Fort Worth material handling giant W.A. Tayloe. This acquisition expanded W.W. Cannon’s product offerings and footprint in Texas.
“They were Roach Conveyors distributors, which was a line that I was very interested in,” Brown says. “They also had a branch in San Antonio, which we merged with our branch, and had an office in Houston that gave us a presence there.”
Today, systems work accounts for more than 35-percent of W.W. Cannon’s $6 million annual revenue. Storage and handling still accounts for about 60-percent, while the remaining 5 is stacker trucks and walk behinds.
“W. W. Cannon, Inc. will be the preferred material handling and storage equipment solutions provider with the highest level of quality, value and excellence in material handling design, project management, installation and customer service.”
That is W.W. Cannon’s vision statement, located right on the company’s website. While a series of savvy business decisions both before Greg took over and during Greg’s tenure has put Cannon in a strong position to make this vision a reality, Greg knows that his product offering isn’t everything.
“In today’s world, it has become very apparent to me that you have to have people with similar values working with you,” Brown says. “What I’ve come to know is that you’re really hiring people for their integrity and values. I can teach them the industry but you can’t teach work ethic. You can’t teach respect.”
Brown is a very religious man and his faith shapes who he is, both as a person and a business owner. Part of the company’s Mission Statement reads, “Impact every person, customer, vendor and community we meet through the practice of integrity, respect and honor.”
Brown believes that a person with strong morals and a thirst to work will outperform those candidates with an industry background but who don’t share the company’s values 8 days per week.
“We can teach you how to put shelves together or sell product,” Brown says. “The most important part of our enterprise is strong communication, making sure everybody is on the same page, and shared corporate values. If you can find those people, and you can retain those people, well you’re just going to pull away from the competition.”
Today, W.W. Cannon has 15 employees across its three locations. The company hires almost exclusively from referrals. And once they find those people, Brown sets to work identifying their strengths and putting them in the position that gives them the best chance to succeed.
“I’m a big believer in strength testing,” he says. “Finding out what people’s core strengths are. We want to find your strength and put you in a place to utilize those strengths.”
Adapting to the Times
As one of the industry’s most trusted brands and with 75 years of experience to back that reputation up, W.W. Cannon is poised to continue to build on its success for years to come. But Brown, still only 50-years-old, is not content to sit on his laurels and expect the plaudits to simply roll in. No, he has embraced the Internet as a sales tool, completely revamping the company’s website in 2000 to maximize lead generation and is now fully embracing the social media revolution.
“We’re in a great place right now,” Browns says. “We’ve got the right people in place, we’ve got some of the best suppliers in the industry and our numbers show us that we’re in a place to capitalize on all of those things. We expect some strong, positive growth going forward.”
W.W. Cannon has the people, the products, the drive and the leadership to take them boldly into the company’s next 75 years.