The first NeoCon, held 50 years ago, attracted an impressive 10,000 attendees. It is safe to say nearly every one of them is either dead or long since retired. Only one of them, KI Chairman and Chief Executive Office Dick Resch, has been to all 50.
He was part of the first group that attended NeoCon after it was born out of disaster. The precursor to NeoCon was a show called Intercon and was held at the McCormick Place. A fire at McCormick Place forced the cancellation of the event in 1967. The Merchandise Mart stepped in to help, and the rest is history.
Many in the industry have been to 20, some to 30 and even a few to 40, but Resch is believed to be the only person who will be able to say (after the start of the show in a few weeks) he has been to every single one. Since that first show so long ago, Resch has made the pilgrimage, year after year after year, to Chicago to attend the event that has given him so many fond memories.
“I remember walking into the Merchandise Mart that first time and being in awe,” he says. “I had never been in the Merchandise Mart before. It was a little more retail at the time. KI was on the 11th floor — same as we are now — but we have a 10-foot wide showroom that stretched from one column to the next. I do remember for sure that Knoll was in the corner where they are now.”
The showrooms grew along with NeoCon. KI continued to buy its neighbors as it transformed itself from a little company in Green Bay, Wisconsin, that made folding chairs to one of the largest manufacturers in the industry. At the same time, other companies that were KI's neighbors in the Mart went out of business. KI bought the space of those defunct neighbors, and it now has one of the largest showrooms in the Mart, a destination that has won several design awards recently.
The calendar continues to turn, but for Resch, who will turn 80 right before this year's NeoCon, the show has always been a time he relished for meeting with KI's customers and representatives. “I enjoy meeting our customers,” he says. “Even when we had just two products — a folding table and some folding stools — NeoCon was always a place to connect. Now we are a major player in education and the rest of our key markets. It has been a journey.”
Resch says he also enjoys NeoCon because of the connections he has made over the years with his colleagues, including strong relationships with fellow leaders like HNI Chairman and CEO Stan Askren and Herman Miller President and CEO Brian Walker.
The show used to last a day longer, Resch recalls, but he thinks it is just about right at two and a half days. Crowds have ebbed and flowed over the years. He remembers when the halls were packed, barely navigable. Though they might be slightly less crowded now, Resch says he likes how NeoCon can still pack people in and act as the connecting point for the industry, which the show's first organizers believed might happen all those years ago.
This is from a 1969 press release about the first NeoCon: “There is obviously interest in, and need for, a well-planned and executed marketing effort for this vast commercial furnishings field which has an estimated volume of $6 billion, and yet is totally lacking its own merchandising and educational platforms. It is a field plagued with ill-conceived, partially representative and profit-oriented events which fail to present the industry in its proper perspective.”
NeoCon today definitely shows the industry in its proper perspective, Resch says. Though the parties have died down from the heyday of the 1980s and 1990s, it is still a fun event to attend.
And Resch still looks forward to it. “I love seeing the creativity and new products,” he says. “Though I never was one to focus on the parties, I wish I was 50 again. I'll turn 80 right before NeoCon and barring any health problems, I intend to visit for the 50th straight time. NeoCon has been an important event to bring attention to our brands and products. We are certainly staunch supporters of NeoCon and the organization behind it. What a great way for us to communicate to our customers, designers and architects.”
Though 50 hasn't happened just yet, does Resch plan to make it 51 next year? That depends. An avid, lifelong athlete, Resch is in excellent shape, but he is also slowly shifting the day-to-day operations to his management team.
In many ways, Resch's career mirrors that of NeoCon — taking a small entity and making it larger and more successful. It is hard to say what would have become of Krueger Metal Products had Resch not left a job in Manhattan where he was working for a large paper company. At the time, Krueger was a $3.8 million company that made metal folding chairs.
It was a cramped Manhattan apartment and a growing family that prompted Resch to abandon New York life for a chance at a company in his native Midwest. Resch was married and living in Manhattan. The couple just had a child, and the crib was taking up valuable space in the one-bedroom apartment. Resch's father was in advertising, so he was connected to many business owners in the Midwest. He put out feelers for his son. One of the companies that showed interest in the young Resch was Krueger Metal Products. He moved his family from Manhattan to Green Bay.
Just a few years later, he was off to the very first NeoCon, an event he would attend every year of its existence.