From building submarines to selling vacuum cleaners, Bill Fry (BPA 80) has proven his mettle time and time again as an in-demand management maestro.
Fry has served as CEO of Oreck Corporation, makers of Oreck vacuums cleaners, since 2007. His involvement in the company is yet another step in a long line of company turnarounds he’s helmed that, according to Fry, feature businesses that have strong brand recognition but otherwise have not reached their potential.
Just prior to Fry’s arrival, Oreck was uprooted by Hurricane Katrina and forced to move from their New Orleans headquarters. They also had to relocate their Long Beach factory. Now the company is headquartered in Nashville, with a plant and call center in nearby Cookville, Tenn., and despite unfavorable economic conditions and rising unemployment, has experienced a period of growth that has included opening new retail outlets and hiring hundreds of new employees.
“We knew we had a good work force here,” says Fry of the new facility in Tennessee, which was previously a seat belt plant. “Other sites might have good buildings or a good work force, but to have both of them was a great way to start.”
Though Oreck started in 1963 when founder David Oreck began selling lightweight, upright vacuum cleaners to hotels, the company eventually expanded into retail operations via licensees. By the 1990s, the company began to develop its own retail stores. Under Fry, the company has enjoyed substantial growth of those stores. Oreck has more than 80 company owned stores and 350 franchised stores. The stores dot the American landscape, from big city buildings to small town strip malls.
“It takes a lot of market research,” said Fry of determining where to put the stores. “We generally do better in places where people own their homes, where household income is in the top third of all household incomes. We have stores everywhere from Manhattan to Fargo to Burbank.”
But even while opening more of their own retail outlets, Fry has put a premium on expanding additional retail channels, especially in an economic downturn. To that end, he has engineered new partnerships with select retailers such as Costco and Target.
“The key in the downturn is to capture the loyalty of customers and market share so that you have a chance to grow when things get better,” he said.
He has expanded the product line too. “In the last quarter, we had 30 percent of our sales from new products,” he said. Those products include an ever-widening array of air purifiers, vacuums and other appliances.
Prior to joining Oreck, Fry had overseen a similar transformation for Bell Sports. The sports products company had been a longtime player in the field of sports safety equipment, making their name on a line of racing and bicycle helmets. Under Fry’s leadership, the company acquired the Ridell company, makers of football helmets and equipment. Later they merged with Easton Sports, makers of baseball bats and hockey sticks. After that turnaround, it was on to the next challenge with Oreck.
Fry enjoys the process, and the challenge. “I like companies like Bell, Riddell and Oreck,” he said. “The brands are bigger than the business. I like to build a team and get the business up to its full potential. It’s fun but hair raising.”
Fry attended Ole Miss on a Navy ROTC scholarship. A member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, he credits his time at Ole Miss with playing a crucial role in developing his executive management skills.
“Being on ROTC scholarship, there was an allegiance there,” he said. “My fraternity also came with certain demands, and I was also expected to make good grades. Ole Miss was very helpful to me in being able to manage various demands, set priorities and allocate time and work with a wide variety of people.”
After graduation from Ole Miss, Fry served in the Navy for eight years before continuing his education at Harvard Business School. Five of those years were with the Navy Nuclear Propulsion Program, where he worked on contracts and logistics for ship construction. It was the 1980s, a time of military expansion and the development of the “600 Ship Navy,” so Fry was busy and there learned invaluable skills that would later help him in his career.
Upon graduating from Harvard, Fry took a job with a textile company in Tennessee. Soon, he worked his way up to president of the company and later coordinated a series of acquisitions that transformed the company into a $600 million carpet company with multiple subsidiaries. It was his first big success story, but not his last.
Fry still finds time to visit Ole Miss regularly. He’s been involved as former Chairman of the Business School Advisory Board. In that capacity he has the opportunity to meet with and advise business students.
“I tell the students to find something they are really passionate about,” he said. “If they find something they love, they are probably going to do it well.”
Fry is a shining example of his own advice, and the companies he has helmed have benefitted from his own passion to lead them to fulfilling their potential.