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About Shelley Cowan

Shelley CowanThe first family business I knew was my grandfather’s. When I was a child he sold blankets, toasters, trinkets and toys to people who ran concession stands at county fairs throughout Western New York State, Pennsylvania and Southern Ontario.

The stuffed animal you won at skeet ball or nickel toss just might have arrived in the back seat of his Buick. And I might have unloaded and carried it to the Midway.

During the summer, he’d take the grandchildren on his business trips as often as we’d like. I liked it a lot. I saw fairs during setup, tear down and while they ran. I met his customers, all in family businesses themselves. They lived in trailer parks during the season. At night we would sit around a campfire as the grownups discussed the next order and settled the bill.

His job, as he explained it, was to make sure his customers got what they needed, when they needed it. And make sure they never had to worry about it in between. In exchange, he expected to be compensated fairly and on time.

What I most remember is that he genuinely liked his customers and they liked him. More important, they respected him. Even as a child, this was clear to me. Although he always reminded me that they were The Customers, and “could always find someone else to do the same thing,” I understood that they treated him just like he treated them.

This is what I took away: as long as each side is clear on expectations and consistently delivers, running a business can be a lot of fun and a great way to make a living.

My career path took a meandering and almost always fun route. My education and training as an anthropologist sparked an interest in visual storytelling, first with still photography and then film. I worked on commercial film crews by day, and spent my free time helping fellow crew members shoot documentary films. I then moved into the world of advertising agencies, first as a producer of television commercials and next as a writer. After several years of writing, producing and directing commercials and corporate documentaries, I found my way to strategic communications. 

I began writing speeches for corporate executives in 1995, the same year my husband founded Cowan’s Auctions. From the start, we talked about the opportunities he was trying to seize and the problems he was trying to solve. The more I wrote about strategic change, the clearer it became: Cowan’s more or less faced the same issues as the big companies. It was just a matter of scale:

• Differentiating versus the competition
• Understanding customer needs and desires
• Managing customer expectations
• Developing business partnerships
• Creating an efficient supply chain
• Developing new levels of expertise
• Leveraging information and technology
• Helping employees understand and embrace change

By 2013, I was ready for a change, and took on Cowan’s as my sole client. I know.

As a spouse, I’ve been a strategic partner from the start. In deciding to step in at another level, I knew I was walking into a great company with talented, passionate people. But Cowan's is also a small company, with issues that are common to many small companies: Some people wore too many hats. Some opportunities went unclaimed. We execute most things reasonably well, or very well most of the time.  But like every business, there was room to improve. 

In November of 2016, my work was done. My final project was helping Cowan's Auctions find a president, so that my husband could focus on being the CEO.