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 New York, Pennsylvania and Ontario. He kept them stocked throughout the summer, and he often took one of his grandkids on business trips.

Sometimes we arrived while customers were setting up, sometimes when the fair was in full swing. The stuffed animal you won at Skee-Ball might have arrived in the back of his Buick. I might have 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, his job was to make sure they had what they needed when they needed it. For delivering his end, he expected to be paid on time and treated well. 

What I most remember is that he liked and respected his customers, and they felt the same about him. I lost him too soon, 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 was ever-changing and fun. My training as an anthropologist sparked my interest in 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. On weekends I helped fellow crew members shoot their own documentary films.

I moved on to one of Detroit’s big ad agencies, W.B. Doner, where I produced television commercials all over the U.S. and Canada – and learned more about how to tell a story.

Cincinnati’s smaller market required a new approach so I became a copywriter; I also produced and directed TV commercials and corporate films. I started calling myself a ‘communications strategist’ when I got a job as a corporate speechwriter. Who knew such work existed!

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 my husband’s company, Cowan’s Auctions, as my sole client. 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 and new ways to improve.

During my time with Cowan’s I opened the Cleveland office and recruited an organizational development expert to help us lay the groundwork for a succession plan. The work was complete in 2019 when Cowan’s was acquired by Hindman Auctions.