By Jack Rogers
Ed Coene had an extraordinary life. He packed more accomplishments, sheer joy for living and, of course, rounds of golf into his 83 years than most of us could tally in two lifespans.
Coene began his journey by walking a trail blazed by his father, a veteran of two World Wars. Like his dad, he joined the U.S. Navy after getting a degree in mechanical engineering at Cornell University. During the Korean War, Coene served on a destroyer that patrolled the combat zone and then came home to take the same jobs his father had held with a coal wholesaler, engineer and sales executive.
At age 33, Coene decided to chart his own course. With an engineer’s eye for detail, a visionary’s blueprint of the future, and an optimist’s rock-solid belief that he could get there, he threw himself head first into the publishing business.
Fifty years and a kaleidoscope of entrepreneurial successes later—including two national trade magazines, trade shows, directories, and a thriving online publishing business, with some real estate on the side—Coene is remembered as the rare person who embodied a contradiction.
He was a salesman from an era when what counted was friendship, shoe leather, and a handshake (what Coene would happily call the “gin-and-tonic” school of selling); he was an executive from a time when the boss dictated his letters to a secretary who scratched them out in shorthand. But he also was an entrepreneur with an insatiable curiosity about new things. Coene never circled the wagons around the past and hoped that whatever was changing around him would revert to its original form. He welcomed change and put it to work for his business, always eager to try out new technology, new business models, and better ways to serve the needs of his clients.
“It’s really amazing, with his background as a mechanical engineer and then his career in publishing—you’d think these were completely opposite ends of the spectrum,” marvels Betty Anne O’Malley, a senior sales rep at Today’s Facility Manager. “But Ed loved the idea of technology and how it could improve everything we could offer. When you think about it, he never stopped being an engineer. He was engineering new magazines and new business opportunities, putting them together one piece at a time.”
“For someone who personified an ‘old school’ manner, it seemed like a contradiction,” adds LuAnn Rathemacher, Group C’s production manager, who joined the company in 1986. “He didn’t fight change, he embraced it.”
Building On Innovation, Breaking Down Walls
Group C’s original labor intensive typesetting operation, which used waxed paper to create layouts, evolved into today’s digital workflow. Every step of the way, Coene urged the team to adopt the latest innovations. “Even if he didn’t fully understand a new method, he wanted to know how he could make it work for us,” Rathemacher recalls.
“He was always walking into my office and looking over my shoulder when I was trying out new software,” adds Heidi Schwartz, who joined Group C in 1989 as the first editor of Today’s Facility Manager and then became the company’s Internet Director. Coene was the first person on his much younger staff to grasp the potential of the Internet.
Rapidly evolving technology wasn’t the only change Ed Coene welcomed during his publishing career. He also pioneered a long overdue adjustment in the employment status quo at a time when it might have ruffled the feathers of some of his old school contemporaries. Coene’s daughter, Susan, joined his company in 1986 and became publisher of TFM. She was one of the first female trade publishers in an equipment sector that, in those days, considered women an alien species in the business world. Susan, who inherited her father’s perseverance, lauds him for giving her the opportunity to make her mark.
“My father is a very forward-thinking man and believes that women are just as good as men, and brought me up to believe that. He has no prejudices,” she said, in a 1994 profile of Group C published in the Asbury Park Press.
Soon after Susan joined the company, her brother Ted came on board, working on a portfolio of regional directories and becoming Executive Publisher of Business Facilities. Today, Susan and Ted are Co-Presidents of Group C.
Bright Lights, Big City Beckon
Coene’s independent publishing career could have ended before it really began if he had chosen to become a cog in someone else’s giant publishing machine.
In 1966, McGraw-Hill bought his first magazine (a trade pub called 33, named after the SIC code for metalworking) and made him an offer they thought he couldn’t refuse: an executive position with an office on a top floor of their new Rockefeller Center skyscraper. But Coene had no use for the suits on Sixth Avenue—he had bigger plans.
In a converted house on Shrewsbury Avenue in Red Bank, NJ, Coene opened Bus Fac Publishing Co. Lyle Connor, Group C’s comptroller, was there at the beginning of Bus Fac (pronounced Biz Fac), when it was just Coene and three other full-timers. “The place [in the 1970s] was like a tiny rabbit warren. The sales reps often set up shop in Danny’s, the bar next door,” recalls Connor, who initially handled the typesetting while keeping the books. “I always had to let the bartender know the office was calling, in case one of the wives called the bar looking for them.”
The “rabbit warren” grew exponentially as Coene added new divisions for directories and telemarketing and brought full production and graphics in-house. Bus Fac outgrew several office venues, including what would later become the Town Hall in Red Bank on Monmouth Street. (Bus Fac occupied the section that became the police headquarters). Soon, the company of more than 50 moved into a former A&P supermarket, a building Coene eventually bought.
Through all the iterations of his company, Ed Coene himself was the reliable constant that never changed. He was the father of a family business who also seemed like a dad to everyone who worked for him. He could be the authoritative dad you didn’t want to show your bad report card to, but you craved his cheerful greetings—always given to you personally, usually with a heartfelt inquiry about your dog, your boat, or what was happening in your life. Everyone relished his laser-like sense of humor, even when the bulls-eye of one of his jokes was pinned to your chest.
And like every great father, he didn’t talk down to his kids. “Mr. Coene treated everyone like a peer, no matter how young you were,” Schwartz fondly remembers.
Coene was always Group C’s Chairman of the Board, but he didn’t flaunt his status in public. “At one of our trade shows, an exhibitor gave the keynote address and then signed copies of his book at their booth,” O’Malley recalls. “Ed got on line with everyone else. When he reached the front of the line, he just said ‘I’m Ted and Susan’s father.’”
The sales reps got his special attention, of course, which usually began with “What did you sell today?” Coene always wanted to know where they were going and who they were seeing. He might suggest a modest tweak to the itinerary. TFM’s senior rep, Bob Doran, remembers Coene telling him, “after your call in Virginia, why not drive down to Tampa in Florida?” Before Doran could point out that this “detour” would add about 1,000 miles to his trip, Coene said: “It’s not far—only three inches on the map!” Jim Semple, BF’s national sales manager, says Coene’s marching orders to the reps were three simple words: “Never give up!”
While Coene made sure the sales force stayed on its toes, he kept himself busy thinking about new ways to grow the business. “Ed was always thinking on his feet, planning new ways to make money,” Connor says. “He had big ideas, bigger than others, which is why the competition was always trying to copy him.”
Golf, Gin Rummy, And “Semi-Retirement”
Coene always made sure nobody forgot to have a good time while they were grinding out magazines and meeting merciless deadlines. There was an annual Christmas party that usually lasted into the wee hours and in later years, there was also a company picnic.
Golf was Coene’s lifelong passion (usually followed by countless hands of gin rummy). His Wednesday golf game was akin to a religious rite that was faithfully observed. Connor convinced him to close the Bus Fac office on Wednesday afternoons, presumably giving the staff a chance to pray that the boss mastered his putting game.
Coene’s numerous publishing awards (he received a Lifetime Achievement in Economic Development Award from the National Council for Urban Economic Development in 1999) and a 1952 proclamation from the President of the United States commissioning Coene as an Ensign in the Navy shared a place of honor on his office wall with portraits of golf greats Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. He was a fixture at the golf clubs at Deal and Orchid Island.
Coene never really retired. In recent years, when the weather was fine, we all looked forward to his cheerful greetings when he stopped by the office after a round of golf. We could be certain of three things: his score was low, his spirits were high, and the odds were good that he bagged his fourth hole-in-one (he got his third at the age of 78). Even in “semi-retirement,” Coene protected the interests of the company he founded. Cathy Aste, his last administrative assistant, remembers being summoned to his office to help him finish a letter to both of New Jersey’s U.S. senators.
“It was an impassioned letter about how Big Business and the economy were pushing small business owners out of the picture,” she remembers. “He declared he wouldn’t let that happen to Group C without a fight!”
There wasn’t a cloud in the sky on September 17, 2013. The day was warm but comfortable, with a gentle breeze coming off the ocean. Perfect golf weather, but Coene wasn’t golfing. That evening, after a lifelong skirmish with heart disease, he finally lost his battle with congestive heart failure.
Those who knew him best will always be able to picture a different ending. Coene is lining up his tee shot. He looks up ahead and sees the trajectory that will deliver the ball to the green. He lifts his club and brings it down in an impeccably graceful and powerful swing with a smile on his face.
With a laugh and a twinkle in his eye, Ed Coene makes the perfect shot and the ball, after a single bounce, silently disappears into the cup.
Rogers is editor in chief of Business Facilities magazine, the sister publication of Facility Executive.