THE WOODLANDS, TEXAS – The Conn’s of today bears little resemblance to its 19th century Texas precursor, although the company’s major appliance focus can be traced back to its beginnings in the plumbing business.
The first incarnation of Conn’s appeared 124 years ago, as Eastham Plumbing and Heating, founded by Edward Eastham in Beaumont, Texas in 1890.
The business succumbed to the Great Depression in 1931 and had changed hands twice when appliance salesman Carroll Wayne Conn, Sr. was brought in to run it in 1933, with an option to buy. One year later – 80 years ago this year – Conn exercised his option and subsequently changed the name of the company to Conn Plumbing and Heating.
In 1937, he added refrigerators to its offerings, and gas ranges would soon follow, marking the company’s formal entrée into majaps.
Within three years, Conn moved the business to a building and storefront he purchased at 268 Pearl Street in Beaumont.
Enter his son, C.W. Conn, Jr., who joined the company in 1953 after serving in the Korean War. Six years later, the family business expanded to a second Beaumont store, which was located in a converted dairy barn.
The company took its next major step at the start of the following decade. Discerning a customer need for dependable, quality service, C.W. launched a repair service and maintenance operation in 1962 called Appliance Parts and Service.
With products and services now under its belt, Conn’s had established two of the three foundations of its business model.
The third and perhaps most critical leg would come in 1964, when the younger Conn cofounded Conn Credit Corp., a consumer credit company that would provide financing to Conn’s customers who needed help purchasing needed products for their homes.
By 1966, the company was operating four stores and had total annual sales of $4 million. That same year, C.W. was appointed president and COO of Conn’s, and would continue to serve in that role for the next decade.
The company’s first foray out of state came in 1969, with the opening of store in Lake Charles, La. It was followed by a second store in the Bayou state later that year.
The pace of store openings accelerated in the next decade. In 1975 alone, Conn’s opened stores in Port Arthur, Orange and Baytown, Texas, as well as an additional Louisiana location, in Lafayette. The later was soon followed by a second Lafayette store, as well as new stores in New Iberia and Opelousas, La.
That year also marked the passing of the elder Conn, and his son’s succession as chairman.
Under C.W.’s direction, the company entered Houston in 1983 and quickly developed the metro area into a major Conn’s market.
Ten years later, in 1993, Conn’s opened its first store in San Antonio and celebrated another major milestone by hitting the $100 million-mark in annual sales volume.
In 1994, C.W. was succeeded as chairman/CEO by longtime team member Thomas Frank Sr., whose father worked as a salesman there.
The business, now helmed by Frank, continued to expand aggressively, and in four years had more than doubled its sales, to over $200 million, in 1997.
Now a significant regional player in retail, the company entered another major market in 1999 with its first Baton Rouge, La., store, and over the next nine years backfilled Texas by entering the Austin, Corpus Christi, Dallas-Ft. Worth, and McAllen markets, and opened its first Oklahoma store, in Oklahoma City.
By 2008, total revenues were approaching $1 billion and the company was at the top of its game, but all that was about to change with the coming recessionary storm.
The following year, poor health forced Frank to step down as chairman/CEO and to relinquish the board seat he had held since 1980. Frank had occupied every key management position at Conn’s since joining the company in 1959, and was “instrumental” in its success, said succeeding chairman, Dr. Bill Nylin, and left “a legacy excellence and performance.”
Nylin, who earned a doctorate in computer sciences from Purdue University, had variously served as president, COO and executive vice chairman of the company.
Succeeding Frank as CEO was his son, president Tim Frank, who had previously held the posts COO and retail senior VP.
Over the next two years the new senior management team hit rough seas, as a combination of tight credit, underperforming stores, a promotional product mix, widening losses and imminent loan default nearly sank the business.
Enter Theodore Wright, a veteran of Deloitte & Touche, president of major car dealer Sonic Automotive, principal of his own farm machinery rental business, and a Conn’s director since 2003. In 2010 he succeeded Nylin as chairman, and the following year assumed Frank’s roles as president/CEO.
With no time to spare, Wright executed one of the most dramatic turnarounds in retail by closing underperforming stores, overhauling the credit operation, refinancing debt, and trading up to higher-margin goods.
One year later, by late 2011, the company was back in the black and comp sales were soaring. With the ship of state steadied, and new financing in place, Wright was ready to resume Conn’s expansion, albeit with a new mattress and furniture-focused merchandise mix, and a new store format, dubbed HomePlus, with which to showcase it.
Conn’s opened the first new prototype in 2012, and has been working to convert the store base to the larger, more productive format ever since, through a combination of remodels, relocations and new locations. The latter include a spate of new states, including the first Arizona and New Mexico stores in 2012, and entries this year into Colorado (Denver), Nevada (Las Vegas), Mississippi (Jackson), Tennessee (Knoxville, Madison and Memphis) and South Carolina (Florence and Greenville).
The company currently operates 89 stores stretching from the Southwest to the Southeast, and believes it can more than quintuple its store base with its proven mix of in-house distribution, delivery, product repair and readily available credit, with which to choose from an expansive assortment of step-up home goods.