Opportunity Knocks For Milroy

March 27, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — In 1972, Bob Milroy cashed in on an opportunity he knew was too good to miss.

“I bolted. I got married on a Friday night, drove to Dayton, Ohio, to find an apartment on Saturday, because my furniture was coming on Monday, and I had to start my first career job.”

In less than a week, Milroy dropped out of college, got married, moved to a town his new wife had never even visited, and started a life in the advertising business.

Milroy met his first boss and mentor as a student participating in a Direct Mail Marketing Association seminar. Roy Ljungren, the director of advertising and public relations at NCR Corp., told Milroy that after graduation he would have a job waiting for him.

“Well, I was a junior in college and about to be married, so I said, ‘I’ll go now!’” Milroy said. “’I’ll take a job now and finish up school sometime.’”

Although he cut short his college studies, Milroy was in for another kind of education. Ljungren was a pioneer in the direct marketing business. For Milroy, working at Ljungren’s side was the ideal preparation for a career in business-to-business marketing and advertising.

And it turns out that he came at just the right time. Hit by a shake-up in the early days of the computer industry, NCR had just laid off some 5,000 people.

“It was a huge bloodbath. They were on the edge of bankruptcy,” Milroy said. “But they cut back a little too far in some places, so they had some openings. I snuck in. Cheap labor. But I got to sit at the knee of this guy who is very well thought of in the industry.”

Ljungren showed his faith in Milroy by making him hit the ground running.

“I was 20 years old. And at 20 years old, he said to me, ‘Here are millions of dollars, go spend them wisely. Check in once in a while,’” Milroy said.

After four years of copywriting and ad buying for NCR’s advertising department, Milroy was ready to make the shift to agency work. Although he could have gotten interviews in Chicago and New York, he and his wife, Pat, got homesick for West Michigan. Both Kalamazoo natives, they found themselves making frequent trips back to visit friends and family during their time in Dayton. Since there wasn’t much of an advertising industry in Kalamazoo, Milroy headed north to Grand Rapids.

“So I ended up interviewing here. I probably thought I’d spend two or three years, then go and do something else,” he said. “Now we’re almost 30 years later.”

Jim Alexander founded Alexander Marketing Services in 1965. Like Milroy, Alexander found himself in the advertising business by the odd movements of fate. When he left Purdue University with an engineering degree, the best work Alexander could find was with Blackmer Pump, Power and Manufacturing Co., and that job had nothing to do with engineering.

Alexander was in charge of the company’s marketing and advertising. After a few years, he saw an opportunity, and proved himself a pioneer in the field of outsourcing. He convinced his boss that he should continue to pay him the same amount for his services, but instead of being a Blackmer employee, he would start his own agency. Over the next decade, Alexander Marketing Services became a leader in business-to-business marketing, using Alexander’s technical knowledge to advertise and sell complicated industrial products for companies that were often considered too dull for consumer agencies to take on.

Milroy worked as an account manager with Alexander for 13 years. During that time, the company developed a relationship with Dow Chemical Corp., which continues to be one of the agency’s largest clients. Alexander also opened a Chicago office, to reach out beyond local clientele. In 1989, Milroy became president of the agency.

The company saw steady growth through the 1990s, but began to sputter — along with the rest of the advertising world — toward the end of the decade. The recession and terrorist attacks at the beginning of this decade compounded those problems.

“The advertising and marketing community was absolutely devastated,” he said. “And everybody kind of went into a holding pattern. Tremendous uncertainty. Bad business conditions. Plus the whole 9/11 terrorist thing. We shrank back.”

But two developments in the early part of this decade brought about an upswing for the company.

First, Dow Chemical purchased Union Carbide Corp. The integration of the two companies’ Web sites, printed marketing materials, and public relations campaigns was a boon for Alexander. Around the same time, Alexander Marketing Services was acquired by a Philadelphia-based equity firm.

The company had previously been governed under an employee stock ownership plan. Selling the firm to Alliance Holdings Inc. not only meant a bump in the retirement accounts of Alexander’s employees, but the move also provided new business opportunities. Alliance Holdings’ other companies are mainly mid-sized manufacturers, just the kind of businesses that Alexander has built its business serving. Under the new ownership model, Alexander serves as an internal marketing department for the other Alliance firms. Their success is reflected in the value of the overall holding company, which means that the Alexander shareholders benefit from that work.

After the contraction in the early 2000s, Alexander has rebounded strongly. Milroy said that the company’s revenue grew by more than 20 percent. And while small firms in the consumer advertising industry continue to go out of business or be swallowed up by large firms, Alexander continues to enjoy the niche it has created.

“What’s great about our business is the tremendous variety,” said Milroy. “Today I will spend time on an account that makes teak furniture, casters, pool equipment and food additives. And tomorrow, I might work on one of those and four other ones.”

The fact that Alexander’s clients are not as sexy or exciting as some of the companies represented in the consumer advertising world is one of the keys to Alexander’s success. As Milroy puts it, Alexander takes on clients that other agencies either don’t want to work with, or don’t know how.

“We have the advantage of being a specialist and being able to put technically in-tune folks across the table from folks who have to make more technical or complicated sales propositions. We’re in the minority who focus on that.”   

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