About Shelley Cowan
When I was a child, my grandfather was a traveling salesman. He sold blankets, toasters and toys to people who ran concessions at county fairs in western New York, Pennsylvania and southern Ontario. He kept them stocked throughout the summer, and he often took one of his grandkids along.
Sometimes we showed up while his customers were setting up at the new location, sometimes when the fair was in full swing. The stuffed animal you won playing Skee-Ball or the toaster from the nickel toss might have arrived in the back of his Buick. And I might have unloaded and carried it to the Midway.
His customers lived in campers during the season. At night we sat around picnic tables or campfires while Grandpa took the next order and settled the bill. As he explained it to me, his job was to make sure they had what they needed when they needed it – and didn’t have to worry in between. For delivering his end of the bargain, he expected to be paid on time and treated well.
What I most remember is that he liked and respected his customers, and they liked and respected him. Even as a child, that was clear. I lost him too soon and didn’t think about my carnival days for many years, but I took this away: running a business can be a lot of fun and a great way to make a living, as long as each side is clear about expectations and each side delivers.
This lesson led me to a career that continues to be curious and fun. My training as an anthropologist sparked my interest in visual storytelling, first with still photography and then film. I started as a production assistant (gofer) in Detroit. Between the auto companies and advertising agencies, Detroit supported lots of film crews. I learned about storytelling on the weekends, by volunteering to help fellow crew members on their documentary film projects.
I moved on to one of Detroit’s biggest ad agencies, W.B. Doner, where I produced television commercials all over the U.S. and Canada – and continued to learn about storytelling.
Cincinnati’s smaller market required a new approach; I soon became an official ‘writer.’ I wrote, produced and directed TV commercials and corporate films for businesses large and small. I became a ‘communications strategist’ when I got a job writing speeches for corporate executives who needed to talk about strategic change. I had no idea such work existed. This was in 1995, the year my husband founded Cowan’s Auctions. From the start we talked about his customers, the market, what he wanted to accomplish and what he needed to avoid – the same issues my C-suite clients faced. It was just a matter of scale.
I opened my consulting practice in 2000, with a focus on strategic change communication. By 2013, I was ready for a change, and took on Cowan’s Auctions as my sole client. I know. As a spouse, I knew I was walking into a great company with talented, passionate people – and issues similar to those I saw in big companies: Some people wore too many hats. Most things were executed reasonably well most of the time, but not always. There were always new opportunities on the horizon and always room to improve.
During my time with Cowan’s I opened the Cleveland office, troubleshot operations, and brought in an organizational development expert to help us lay the groundwork for a succession plan. My work was truly complete in 2019 when Cowan’s, along with Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, was acquired by Hindman, LLC.
New work awaits.