Stanley Fenvessy’s contributions to operations still loom large nearly ten years after his death. During the late 1960s, and up to his death in May 1994, Fenvessy transformed the back-end operations of catalog and direct marketing — then thought of as ancillary to merchandising and marketing. “Before Fenvessy, a lot of people thought of operations as a cost component, that it didn’t add value,” says David Himes, senior vice president of business process outsourcing for Greenwich, CT-based logistics provider NewRoads. “Stanley helped changed that.”
Indeed, during his 28-year reign at New York City-based Fenvessy Consulting, Fenvessy had direct impact on fulfillment and customer service at more than 500 direct mail shops worldwide. His book, Fenvessy on Fulfillment, is still considered the industry bible for operations, more than 15 years after it was first published.
“He was a character,” recalls operations consultant Bill Kuipers, a former client and later principal in the firm, who along with Bill Spaide reestablished Fenvessy Consulting under a new name, Spaide, Kuipers & Co., in 1994. “He was interesting, caring, innovative, and effective. He took a genuine interest in everyone he spoke with. He helped everyone from the CEO down to the picker/packer.”
Colleagues recall Fenvessy as meticulous in his preparation and written communications. “Stanley had a penchant for preparation, rehearsal, client strategy, and meticulously well-written proposals, reports, and articles,” says Curt Barry, president of Richmond, VA-based operations consulting firm F. Curtis Barry & Co. “He demanded and got your very best effort.”
Like a powerful Broadway critic, Fenvessy was thorough and thoughtful in his reviews. A Fenvessy specialty involved touring a distribution center for a day and giving a report card at the end of the session. “Top management and owners of direct marketing operations sought out his opinion and listened closely to his recommendations for handling growth, customer service, recruiting, training, systems, benchmarking, and cost controls,” Barry says.
When he conducted an industry survey on returns, Fenvessy got buttoned-up firms such as Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman to give him their returns metrics, thus giving instant credibility to the study.
“He knew strategy. He knew tactics. You don’t run into a guy like that very often,” says Bob Hutchinson, then of New York-based accounting firm Deloitte & Touche, who formed an alliance with Fenvessy in the early 1990s.
“He had the capacity to look at something from a broad perspective and make sense of it,” says Jules Silbert, a former partner of Fenvessy and former executive vice president of marketing at Brylane, now retired. “One time, Stan was talking to a client and trying to convince them to hire this operations guy as head of distribution, but the guy was expensive. Suddenly, to the surprise of the client, Stanley rapped his knuckles on a nearby metal table and asked, ‘Do you hear that? It’s opportunity knocking.’”
Fenvessy was unorthodox too. He stressed that call center managers should avoid putting drawers in the desks manned by customer service representatives. Why? Fenvessy contended that CSRs would dump problematic files into the drawer. Thus, minor problems later grew to bigger problems from irate customers wanting resolution.
Other times, Fenvessy was larger than life. “It was Stanley who urged Lillian to change her name to Lillian Vernon,” recalls Fenvessy’s widow, Doris. “He’d say, you should change it, it’s the name of your business after all.”
Chuck Tannen on Stanley Fenvessy
“When I first met Stanley, I was the publisher of (now sister publication) Catalog Age. He insisted that I meet him at his home for a breakfast meeting — so that he could size me up. Later that morning, I ran into his wife Doris in the hallway and she whispered in my ear, ‘He likes you.’ We got to be friends, and I wanted him to write a book on fulfillment.
“People often think writing a book is going to take less time than it does. But Stanley was different. He was really disciplined. He wanted to write in 26 weeks. I didn’t think it was possible to write the book that quickly. But despite his hectic travel schedule, Fenvessy wrote every Friday from his weekend home in New Jersey. Twenty-six weeks later — to the day — he came walking into my office with a completed manuscript. He was that kind of person.”
[Later in 1993, Fenvessy was also instrumental in helping Tannen get the NCOF conference, and ultimately, Operations & Fulfillment, off the ground.]
“I saw the need for operations people to share information with each other, and that’s something they weren’t getting at the Catalog Age show. The operations people were really frustrated and weren’t learning at a show geared for the front end of the business. When I spoke with Stanley about starting a conference just for operations people, he got very enthusiastic. And when Stanley got enthusiastic, he was like a freight train. You couldn’t stop him. There wasn’t a bigger booster of the (NCOF) conference. At the same time, Fenvessy was on the board of the Direct Marketing Association. It probably ruffled some feathers over there that Stanley was involved in a competing conference. He was a great help.
“I was always impressed the way Stanley helped the smaller catalogers who often times couldn’t afford him. He’d say, ‘Well, why don’t I take a look at your operation; we could work something out.’ Stanley was one never to hold back advice. He was a wealth of information. He was a brilliant guy and a unique personality.”