When C.W. Conn took over the reins from his father of their eponymous Texas-based appliance stores, Conn’s had four stores and $4 million in sales volume. Under Conn’s leadership, and despite the growth of national big box competitors, Conn’s grew exponentially; at its peak, the regional chain consisted of more than five dozen stores in five states generating nearly $500 million in annual sales revenue.
The business that became Conn’s was a Beaumont, Texas, plumbing and heating company founded in 1890. Early in the Depression, the business failed and it was taken over by a local bank. It was soon acquired by a local oil baron, who simply wanted ready access to a plumber. In 1933, Conn Sr., who had been selling appliances for an area gas company, was hired to run the business with an option to buy it. A year later, he exercised his option and re-named the business Conn Plumbing and Heating Company.
On June 25, 1930, C.W. was born. At the age of three, he earned the generous fee of a dollar – nearly $20 today – for cleaning out a bathtub at the store and began working alongside his father. In 1937, Conn Sr. began selling refrigerators, gas ranges, home furnishings and appliances. As a result, the company was re-named Conn Appliances, and moved to a more suitable retail storefront at 268 Pearl St. in Beaumont, in 1940.
Conn graduated from the University of Texas at Austin and married Dorothy Anne Stafford, in 1951. They now have three daughters, Carolyn, Susan, and Elizabeth. After completing his service in the Korean Conflict, Conn returned to the family business in 1953, and proudly received a Master Plumbers license. By this time, the store started selling TVs and other nascent home electronics.
Father and son expanded from their single store to a second Beaumont location in 1959. The location, then considered the outskirts of town, was on Eleventh Street in an old dairy barn converted into a show floor by laying down a cement floor. Three years later, Conn Jr. recognized that customers needed dependable, quality service and founded Conn’s repair service and maintenance operations, Appliance Parts and Service. Two years later, he launched a credit operation to offer customers more flexible financing for products needed in their homes. Just before C.W. Jr. took over from his father for good in 1966, two more Beaumont retail locations opened. Both Conn Jr. and Sr. were dedicated to their customers and to the idea that they should receive value for their dollars they spent on the products they offered in their stores. Their dedication was so strong that they often directed their employees to seek out unsatisfied customers to find out what the company could do to make them happy.
In 1969, while earning his MBA at Beaumont’s Lamar University, Conn began an aggressive expansion process, opening multiple locations in southeastern Texas and the first stores outside of Texas, in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
When his father died in 1975, Conn Jr. was named chairman of the rapidly expanding chain. Now fully in charge, he opened stores in Port Arthur, Orange and Baytown, Texas, and in Lafayette, Louisiana. New stores in New Iberia and Opelousas, Louisiana, soon followed. Conn also expanded from smaller to larger cities such as Houston (1983), where there would eventually be 18 stores, despite hard times in the oil business, the primary economic engine of the so-called Golden Triangle region. In 1993, the same year the first Conn’s in San Antonio, followed by Austin, opened, the chain experienced its first $100 million sales volume year.
In between opening new locations, Conn supported local conservation and education efforts. In 1981, he bought the 5,000 acre-plus Texas Mountain Ranch, which works closely with Soil Conservation Services, the Texas Fisheries and Wildlife Department, and Texas Parks & Wildlife to improve soil composition, water retention and wildlife habitat.
He also supported BISD School Partnership relationships at Lucas Elementary School and taught entrepreneurship courses at University of Houston and Texas A&M to senior undergraduates and graduate students. Conn established the C. W. Conn, Sr. Memorial Scholarship Fund at Lamar University, which provides $500 per semester for up to eight semesters for business majors, especially those who concentrate in marketing and exhibit the kind of leadership, integrity and character traits Conn learned from his father.
In 1993, Conn stepped down as president, CEO and chairman of the business, but didn’t officially retire until 1998 when the Arkansas-based Stephens family bought a controlling interest in the chain from the Conn family.