Bob Coughlan – Runner-Up – 2006 Business Person of the Year

Bob\'s Book Club

How Bob Coughlan—with the help of siblings and 300 others he works with each day—has turned a bankrupt book business into a publishing powerhouse

Photo by Kris Kathmann

Last fall, some friends in Bob Coughlan’s ballroom dancing class mentioned they were taking a weekend trip to Philadelphia for a teacher’s conference. Coughlan, the great-grandson of T.R. Coughlan, who founded Mankato Kasota Stone in 1885, immediately offered his input on the couple’s itinerary while in the city of brotherly love.

“If you’re going to Philly, you have to go see the Philadelphia Museum of Art,” he told the couple. “My grandfather supplied the stone for that building.”

Coughlan could give similar instructions to friends traveling to most major cities in the United States: Chicago, New York, Minneapolis and St. Paul. For well more than a century, stones quarried in Mankato have traveled cross country, originally in huge blocks carried on rail cars, now in precisely cut and individually labeled blocks loaded onto semi-trucks. And where those stones have gone, so too has Bob Coughlan.

“Every time we traveled, we’d go see a building made of Kasota stone,” Coughlan laughs. “That’s what we did.”

That’s what Coughlan still does. Except that now, when traveling with his family, he stops at all the libraries he can find and looks for familiar titles on the shelves. As co-owner and CEO of Coughlan Companies, which now includes Coughlan Publishing and Mankato Screw in addition to the original Mankato Kasota Stone, his travel plans have expanded to encompass the children’s books published under his direction in Mankato. “We take pictures of me in front of the libraries in every town,” he admits. “Then we go look and see if they’re using our product and how they’re displaying it. It’s a lot of fun.”

When Bob and his brothers bought Capstone Press in 1990, it was a bankrupt business with big plans but no action. Although the Coughlans—Bob, Bill, John and James—had plenty of business experience after taking over the family quarry in 1983, publishing was a completely new venture. Bob credits his brother John for creating a vision for the company, but admits that, “there was definitely a learning curve for all of us.”

Now the Coughlans are ahead of the curve. Their publishing business has blossomed into six different companies, each with its own identity, having published a combined total of more than 5,000 titles in the past thirteen years. In 2005, approximately 580 books were added to the list—a number that has increased almost every year.

Bob Coughlan is delighted by the company’s success. But he quickly shifts the spotlight away from himself and onto the rest of the people who’ve helped make it happen: his three brothers and two sisters who also hold high-level positions, the three presidents who lead the different divisions, and the 300-plus people who come to work at the Coughlan Companies campus on Mankato’s Good Counsel hill each day.

“People are happy coming to work here,” Coughlan says. “We feel like we’re doing something great.”

Their first acquisition was Mankato Screw Products, which manufactures precision-machined parts that are sold to equipment manufacturers. Then, in 1990, they bought bankrupt publishing start-up Capstone Press. After spending two years assessing the marketplace and learning all they could about children’s literature, they re-launched Capstone in a drafty trailer on the grounds of Mankato Kasota Stone. With two employees, they published 48 titles.

Capstone Press quickly became successful. But as the business grew, the brothers recognized that they weren’t equipped to handle its expansion on their own. “We understood each other, and how to work with each other,” Coughlan says, “but we didn’t necessarily understand business in general. In a family business, you can get a bit inwardly focused.”

In 1996, they brought in their first non-family manager: Bev Weir, who had extensive experience in human resources. “Bev showed us the benefit of having good people in the company,” Coughlan says. “She brought good business sense and great communication skills.”

Not long after hiring Weir, the Coughlans brought in Joe Hilger, who became president of Coughlan Companies Inc., an umbrella organization created to unite all the family’s businesses. It didn’t take long for the brothers to realize these hires made a big difference to their business.

“Bringing in key outsiders was very important to our success,” Coughlan says. “It was hard for us, because change is always hard. But when you bring in good people and fun people, you add to the company.”

Coughlan Companies is still very much a family business. The four original brothers each continue to play key roles, as do two of their sisters, Joan Berge and Maryellen Gregoire. But they no longer do it alone. “We are a family business, but now we’re a 300-family business,” Coughlan says. “Many of our key players are not Coughlans.”

Cathy Nietge, who edited manuscripts in that long-since abandoned trailer, says that Coughlan has a gift for making all his employees feel like key players. On his frequent walks through the company’s headquarters, he greets everyone passing by name. “He really tries to know everyone who works here,” Nietge, now managing editor of Compass Point Books, says. “He cares about the people working for him, and he cares about their families.”

As an example, she cites a recent breakfast meeting held to honor all employees celebrating anniversaries that month. Coughlan introduced himself to the 20-some people in attendance, then asked each of them to tell him about themselves. “He said he wanted to know about the challenges and the rewards of working here,” Nietge says. “He wanted to know about their families and about what they did for fun.”

Coughlan himself started the conversation, telling everyone about his own children and his history with the company. Then he listened as everyone at the table took their turn talking. “He really cares,” Nietge says. “He really wants to know what’s going on.”

The company, meanwhile, has been stretching boundaries of its own a bit as well. It now publishes some non-fiction titles as part of Picture Window Books. It released its first series of graphic novels (stories told with comic book-like illustrations and short bits of text) this year, with more planned for next. Coughlan is especially excited about Compass Point’s new Signature Lives series, 112-page, full-color biographies of 20 historic figures who’ve “changed the world.”

Such literary accomplishments are among the highlights of Bob Coughlan’s long business career. Although no longer having time to be an out-and-about salesman, he relishes every opportunity he can find to chat with customers, mostly librarians and educators, and to learn as much as he can from them.

“Ten years ago, I was very active in sales,” he says. “I just can’t do that anymore, which has been hard for me and everyone. But I still try to talk to our customers as much as I can. Our customers are great. We learn a lot from them. Almost every day, they have something new to tell us. The people we meet are so interesting. That’s the great fun of what we do.”

The successes are a happy sidelight for someone humble as Coughlan. Of course, he’s proud that the business he and his brother built from the ground up has become a publishing powerhouse. But he’s just as proud to hear stories about children (including the son of a competitor) learning to read on Coughlan Publishing products. “That is what is the most satisfying,” he says. “That means so much.”

And he remains adamant that it isn’t his success alone, nor does it belong solely to his family. He has high praise for the presidents who run each division of the business, for example. And he has infinite respect for the creative minds working behind the scenes on the books that are the backbone of the business.

“We’re a community of 300,” he says. “It’s not just about me, or about my family, anymore.”

Four Brothers Coughlan

In 1983, four of the eight Coughlan siblings resurrected their grandfather’s stone business after new leaders had driven the quarries into bankruptcy. They organized themselves by tasks: Bill handled administration, Jim manufacturing, and John and Bob sales. “We worked together and were able to make some money,” Bob says. “Then we decided we wanted to grow the business in a way that was more satisfying.”

Greater Mankato Boosters

Not long after Jennifer Cassman took over as the children’s librarian for the Blue Earth County Library in fall 2004, she got a telephone call from Coughlan Publishing.

“They wanted to be sure that we started talking soon about the summer reading program,” Cassman says. “They initiated the conversation and got the ball rolling. I remember the date of our first meeting: It was December 8, 2004.”

For the past five years, Coughlan Publishing has been the primary sponsor of the Blue Earth County Library’s summer reading program. Not only does the company donate books to be used for prizes, it also writes a check to cover the costs of entertainment, programming and other prizes for the participants. In 2005, that amounted to $12,000—$10,000 for the Mankato branch and $1,000 each for the branches in Mapleton and Lake Crystal.

“Without Coughlan, we wouldn’t be able to do this program,” Cassman says. “Our only other benefactor is the Friends of the Deep Valley Library, and there’s no way they can provide the kind of support Coughlan does. There’s no way I could bring in the Zoomobile or some of the other entertainers we have without Coughlan’s support.”

Coughlan’s support of the community in general and of literacy in particular extends well beyond the library, which also receives thousands of dollars worth of books each year. The company donates hundreds of books each year to the United Way, which sends them to all children born at Immanuel-St. Joseph’s Hospital for five full years. It provides financial support to Reading Buddies, a program pairing older readers with younger kids to encourage literacy. It delivers huge pallets of books to the local Initiative Fund, which distributes them to families in need. And when the tsunami struck last Christmas, they quickly sprung to action to raise relief funds with a book.

“The author of the tsunami book is an editor here,” Bob Coughlan says. “He gave his time to write it. One hundred percent of the profits went to relief efforts.”

“The Coughlans are very committed to literacy,” Cassman says. “They have given just outstanding support to all areas of literacy. We are so appreciative of what they do.”

It Pays To Read

Bob Coughlan was delighted when one of his salesmen earned a spot on the television game show, “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” He was even more delighted when that salesman had an opportunity to put in a plug for his employer on the air, all in the name of what you can learn from books.

Turns out that during his sales calls, Keith Adams had been reading through the new line of Compass Point “Signature Lives” biographies, written about such historical figures as Benjamin Franklin, Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert E. Lee and more. So he was prepared when the “Millionaire” host tossed a presidential question his way.

The question was, “Which President’s wife did not need to change her name when she got married?”

Adams knew that it was Eleanore Roosevelt. And after confidently delivering that final answer, he added that he knew that fact because he had read it in a book published by his employer, Coughlan Publishing.

As the show went to a commercial break, the host—Meredith Vieira, also co-host of “The View”—looked out at the audience and smiled. “You see,” she said, pointing to the crowd. “It pays to read.” This episode aired November 23, 2005.

What’s Going On

It’s this: Coughlan Companies is getting larger and larger—primarily due to its publishing companies. Coughlan Publishing has evolved into six separate companies: Capstone Press, Compass Point Books, Picture Window Books, Children’s Library Resources, Red Brick Learning and Riverfront Book. Each is geared to a unique audience of readers; some focus on early childhood, while others stretch the boundaries of learning for more advanced elementary ages.

Luck Of The Irish

In 1885, T.R. Coughlan, an Irish immigrant who had arrived in southern Minnesota just two years earlier, bought property near Mankato that included a limestone quarry. Originally, most of the stone mined from that quarry was used in the construction of the railroads. By the early 1900s, however, it was also being used in buildings across the country.

Eventually, T.R.’s son T. Merritt Coughlan (he preferred to go by Mert) took over the family business and continued its success. One of his most successful projects was the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which left him floating on air and feeling that he could do no wrong. Unfortunately, his next project, a granite building in Denver, didn’t go so well. Mert returned to Mankato in the midst of a world war and choose to coach boxing at Mankato High School rather than continue in the stone business.

Mert had three sons who also became involved in the business: Thomas, Robert and Daniel. They ran Mankato Kasota Stone until 1972, when they decided to lease it to another local company and started a banking venture instead. By 1978, they had sold those businesses as well.

About that time, Thomas’s sons took an interest in maintaining the family business. Led by Robert (Bob) and James Coughlan (T.R.’s great grandsons) as well as John and Bill, they took over direction of the quarry and began expanding its operations. They spent more than $2 million on new equipment, doubled the number of employees and grew the company’s reputation across the country.

Now Mankato Kasota Stone has provided limestone for buildings around the United States and around the world. And now the company has grown to include Mankato Screw Products and Coughlan Publishing, all united under the umbrella of Coughlan Companies Inc.

© 2006 Connect Business Magazine. All Rights Reserved.


Sara Gilbert Frederick

A freelance writer from Mankato.

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