Insights on business -- and life.
Remembering Dave Cunningham
The end of an era..
by CLN Subscribers (April 7, 2008)
"I had the honor and privilege of knowing Dave Cunningham for
almost 40 years. I worked for, and learned from, him at both
Cunningham Art Products and at Plaid Enterprises. I have also been
doubly blessed to have been a member of his family for the last 17
years as his son-in-law. In all those years I found him honest,
generous, unbelievably imaginative, and genuine. A conversation with
Dave was usually four or five conversations at once. I'm sure God
and St. Peter are scratching their heads and asking each other,
"What exactly were we talking about with Dave?"
"This industry and most of the people in it are better for
having known Dave. I'm convinced that heaven is now a more creative
place. Bill Skinner, Sr. VP Marketing, Plaid Enterprises
2. "Dave was an inspiration, friend, and mentor to so
many in the craft industry. He did as much for this industry as
anyone, and certainly more than most. He always was there to help
anyone who needed it. He had gone through his share of challenges
and learned from them and was eager and happy to help anyone he
could. He never shied away from controversy, was always willing to
share an opinion always with insight, concern for your feelings,
and with good humor.
"If you look at all the products and programs he brought to
market, it is amazing. So many still in place 18 years after he sold
Plaid. He built an organization that has many people still in place
today. Dave was so proud of everyone who ever worked for him and
kept in touch if they stayed at Plaid or went on to other places.
While competitive about most things, Dave was also proud of DKM and
the great job Mike McCooey did continuing the growth of Plaid and
allowing the employees to continue to grow.
"His children worked at Plaid at various times and were
important contributors. All went on to other successes, be it
business or family. His family was all important to him and if you
were friends with Dave you felt like you were part of his family.
"There are thousands of great Dave Cunningham stories. He
was a true entrepreneur and everyone who knew him learned so much
"One day Dave called me and said that the day before he was
thinking about the industry and decided it needed a new trade
magazine. He was going to have John MacDonald start it up and he
wanted me to take a full page add for Maxwell, my company at the
time, for at least the first two years.
"All you could say to Dave was, 'Sure count us in.' I asked
him how much for the full page and he said, 'I have no idea yet, but
thanks for agreeing, because I need your company to be the first; I
figure with that and Plaid, I have enough to get the magazine
started and ask others to advertise.'
"Another time, when HIA and ACCI had each added second
shows, Dave called and said there are too many trade shows and we
are going to do something about it. He wanted my help start a
manufacturers' association: get enough manufacturers to each put up
some money so we can have an initial meeting, put some money in a
bank account, ask the associations to hear what we are saying, and
cut back on shows.
"With Dave it was always exciting and fun to tackle hard
issues, because you knew he would stick with it to the end. We did
set up the association; we got 30 manufacturers to each put up
$1,000; had one manufacturers' meeting; and one meeting with the
chains, independents, other manufacturers, and the heads and boards
of the associations. We got everyone to agree we would support only
two big craft shows a year and cut back on other shows. In the end,
each of the 30 manufactures got back $900.00 of their $1,000.
"We were lucky to have known Dave and treasure the many fun
times with he and his family and associates over the years. Dave was
the first person in the industry Terry and I had dinner with when we
first started dating, and we and always enjoyed talking with him and
Caroline over the years. Like I said, if you were a friend of
Dave's, you felt you were part of his family.
"There are hundreds and perhaps thousands of people
in the industry whom Dave helped and he never worried what was in it
"Shows you need to enjoy every day. I know he did."
Peter Heinsimer, Westlake Associates
3. "My first job was Mr. Cunningham's secretary back in
1982. I was privileged to work with him and he gave me the chance to
sell when he launched Craftrends magazine. He was a genius
and great marketer; the industry owes its early beginnings to his
dedication and inspiration to our business. Plaid was the forerunner
in many products way before the chain stores, and he was a loyal
supporter of the distributors and retailers. He had the knack for
hiring the right people to make it the industry leader then as it is
today. I had the utmost respect for him and was so lucky to be able
to visit with him at the CHA show in February." Marynell
Christenson, Publisher, HomeArts magazine
4. "I knew Dave for over thirty years, worked for him
for almost half of that. In that lifetime, a lot of us who worked
for him became better, happier, crazier, creative people. There was
never a dull moment, never a quiet moment, never a sit-still moment
when you worked at Plaid. We worked hard, played hard, and screamed
and yelled for all to hear that we were Plaid. There was always
something new to be worked on, some new colorful paint, or some new
wang-dangle product line guaranteed to make us all gazillionaires.
Dave made us all believe and we followed him like the Pied Piper.
Some of the products didnt work, but no one on the inside or the
outside seemed to care. Excitement had been created and people still
came to us wanting to find out what was new at Plaid.
"There was another character in the mix, George Boehm. He
was the financial guru and Dave was the creative one. Dave and
George were our leaders. They argued like cats and dogs, but to the
trained eye, they were friends who respected each other and played
off each others strengths, especially on the golf course. George
passed away last year. Somehow I think that they are in the Scotland
part of heaven, playing golf, and arguing about the good old
days." Jane Ann Davis, Bagworks.
5. "Much can be said of what David A Cunningham meant to
the craft industry. But today, with his passing, I can only think
about what he meant to me personally. I know that I am not alone
when I say that DAC was the most important influence to my career.
"More than 35 years ago, just out of college, I walked
through the right door into Cunningham Art Products. Dave hired me,
saw my potential, and gave me a huge amount of responsibility and
creative freedom when, actually, I knew absolutely nothing. Dave
was above all, a risk taker. But he guided me with his inimitable
style, and I learned.
"I not only found a career, I found a family. I came to know
Dave not only as a wise and courageous business man, but as a fair,
unassuming, humorous, and always generous man who put his long arms
around all of us who worked for him. His spirit will most certainly
live on in the family of friends who loved him and were deeply
touched and influenced by him. Perhaps we can pass along a little of
what we have learned to the next generation and so on it
goes." Mickey Baskett, Prolific Impressions
Some personal thoughts Mike Hartnett
David sold Plaid and retired, but that was in name only. He
continued to quietly invest in the industry and mentor his friends
I interviewed David after he sold Plaid and it revealed two of
his most endearing qualities he was self effacing and didn't
dwell on his mistakes. I asked him what was the secret of his
success. He was certainly one of the most successful people in the
industry's history (and still is), but he simply answered, "I
dunno. You know only about 51% of my ideas worked."
And when I asked him what was his biggest mistake, he answered
quickly: "I could have bought Tulip for $300,000." (A few
years later fabric painting became extremely hot and the owner, Dave
Lester, eventually sold Tulip to Bain Capital for a reported $100
million.) Something like that would probably haunt me to my grave,
but for David, he just chalked it up to the other 49% and moved on.
But the truest window into a person's character is what his
employees think of their boss. Plaid's people loved him.
(To read more about David, visit www.caringbridge.org
and type in davidcunningham in the "Enter website name"