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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 from him.

"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 for him.

"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 didn’t 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 other’s 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 and colleagues.

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" box.)



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