Class of 2017 Difference Makers

Denis Gagnon

Cut and Dried

In Business and the Community, Denis Gagnon Is a Role Model

Denis Gagnon

Denis Gagnon

Denis Gagnon Sr. was asked about the origins of the signed, framed Tom Brady jersey that dominates one wall of his spacious office at Excel Dryer in East Longmeadow.

Rather than answer that question, he bolted up out of his chair and said, “think that’s nice? I’ve got something better … follow me.”

And with that, he walked briskly down the hall, with BusinessWest in tow, to the conference room, apologized as he ever-so-briefly interrupted a meeting in progress, and proudly pointed to a huge framed, autographed photo of Malcolm Butler, depicting the moment he stepped in front of Russell Wilson’s final pass in the 2015 Super Bowl, sealing a Patriots victory.

“How about that?” Gagnon, the company’s president, said of the photo, a gift from Pats owner Robert Kraft, who is now a valued customer of Excel Dryer, which, according to company literature — not to mention most people who have placed their hands under one of its products — has revolutionized the long-maligned hand-dryer industry.

Later, amid considerable and quite necessary prodding, he grudgingly revealed that signed photos and jerseys are just some of the many benefits that have come through what is now a very solid and multi-faceted marketing relationship between the Patriots and Excel (and donations to the team’s charitable foundation), up to and including the opportunity for Gagnon to actually get on the hallowed turf at Gillette Stadium, practice with the team, and play some catch with TB 12.

As noted, such reflections came reluctantly, because it is simply not in Gagnon’s nature to call attention to his actions or accomplishments. Those who know him well say he basically just goes quietly — and quite efficiently — about his business.

Denis Gagnon with his wife, Nancy, and sons Denis Jr., left, and Bill, right.

Denis Gagnon with his wife, Nancy, and sons Denis Jr., left, and Bill, right.

And by ‘business,’ they aren’t referring specifically to Excel and its signature product, the XLERATOR, although that’s certainly a big part of the conversation — the part referring to his strong entrepreneurial instincts, success in making the company’s products a global phenomenon, and even pride that the dryers are made not only in America (the only ones that can make such a claim), but in the 413 area code.

“I’m in the men’s room at Heathrow Airport … and I see East Longmeadow, Mass. on the XLERATOR,” recalled Gene Cassidy, president of the Big E, who has known Gagnon for years, “and it sends shivers up my spine; I wanted everyone in the lavatory to know that I knew Denis Gagnon.”

No, by ‘business,’ they were mostly referring to Gagnon’s strong track record of service to the community, which is notable for many reasons.

For starters, there’s simply the depth of that service, which includes everything from decades of work with the Boy Scouts and the Children’s Study Home to his multi-layered involvement with Link to Libraries (LTL).

There is also his ability to inspire others to become involved and make a difference in their own way.

He’s a man who not only sees the need, but takes action. He is very empathetic to those people in need and especially the young people of our community.”

Dana Barrows, a financial advisor with Northwestern Mutual, another long-time acquaintance and long-time LTL volunteer, explains.

“I was in Denis’ office four years ago, and I saw a picture of him with Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno,” he recalled. “I said, ‘what are you doing?’ and he replied that he was reading a book to school kids as part of Link to Libraries. And he told me I should check it out.

“I did, I’ve been reading ever since, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it,” he said, adding that this is but a small example of how Gagnon not only gets involved, but gets others to follow suit.

Humbly, Gagnon said simply, “if you have the good fortune of being in a good corporate job or owning your own business, like we’ve been able to do, you have a responsibility to give back to that community.”

And this philosophy was certainly handed down to his children, including those involved with him at Excel, Denis Jr. and Bill, who are both very active in the community (Bill is a member of BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty class of 2013).

Mike Suzor, assistant to the president at Springfield Technical Community College and a serial entrepreneur himself, was a classmate of Gagnon’s at Cathedral High School, in the class of 1968. He remembers Gagnon as an excellent student, a multi-sport athlete, and someone who knew what it took to succeed on any stage, or playing field.

Mike Suzor

Mike Suzor, a long-time friend and former classmate of Denis Gagnon’s at Cathedral, says Gagnon has always understood what it takes to succeed at any level.

“I never met his parents, but they must have been great people,” he said, “because Denis learned very early on the value of honesty, integrity, and hard work — ‘don’t pass it off to someone else; get it done yourself.’ That attitude was there in high school, and it has stayed with him all through his career.”

“If you measure success financially, then he’s clearly successful,” Suzor went on. “But if you measure success by what kind of human being someone is … he’s one of the most successful people I’ve ever met.”

Rarified Air

Over the past 18 years or so, Gagnon has sat across from interviewers representing all manner of media outlets curious about the XLERATOR, from the small weekly paper that covers Longmeadow and East Longmeadow to the Wall Street Journal; from a host of trade publications, such as Restaurant Daily News, to Inc. magazine.

While the comments vary, obviously, he will undoubtedly tell the inquirer something he told BusinessWest back in 2003 — that, as entrepreneurial gambles go, Excel Dryer was anything but a rock-solid bet.

That’s because the company made a product that, by Gagnon’s own admission, people don’t like or want — electric hand dryers, a product that, historically, didn’t dry people’s hands as much as they would like.

As he explained back then, and has gone on explaining ever since, most businesses and institutions that installed hand dryers in those days did so because satisfying the customer — and that’s a relative term in this case — was not a priority, and saving money was. As examples, he listed airports, train stations, colleges, municipal buildings, sports stadiums, and even correctional facilities.

Today, businesses and institutions like those mentioned above, but also some certainly not on that list, are installing Excel models because they do place a premium on customer service — and also on protecting the environment and saving money.

Changing the hand-dryer landscape wasn’t exactly the stated mission when Gagnon bought a piece of Excel in 1992 and later acquired the entire company, but it quickly became not only a goal, but an obsession — one of those who knew Gagnon well firmly believed he would succeed with, even given the chosen product’s dubious history and uncertain future.

To explain, Suzor went into the wayback machine to Cathedral High, then home to 3,000 students, and memories of Gagnon the student-athlete.

“He was an incredible wrestler and first-team All-Western Mass. placekicker,” Suzor recalled. “In the wintertime, he would go out and kick field goals in the snow to practice; he was absolutely dedicated to excellence and doing whatever it took to be the best he could be. Going back to high school, he showed that.”

This pattern would continue at UMass Amherst and later in business, especially at what was then Milton Bradley, later Hasbro, and now Cartamundi, where Gagnon would rise in the ranks to vice president of International Sales.

This was a rewarding job in a number of ways, but also one that took him away from home quite often (he was responsible for the Pacific Rim region).

Desiring a change, and something closer to home, he and his wife Nancy would both join her family’s business, Springfield-based Bassett Boat, and he would help it achieve dramatic growth in the late ’80s. But the deep and lengthy recession that began at the end of that decade put a serious hurt on discretionary spending and thus the boat business, and Gagnon began searching for an entrepreneurial adventure of his own.

He and a partner thoroughly researched options, and set their sights on Excel Dryer, but the partner got cold feet, leaving Gagnon to pursue plan B, as he called it, which was to acquire a piece of that company and acquire the rest over time as he ran its sales and marketing efforts.

By 1997, when the acquisition was complete, he would begin the process of changing the equation when it came to the product that seemingly no one liked or wanted by partnering with (and essentially bankrolling) some inventors with a revolutionary new concept.

In time, it would come to be called the XLERATOR, which, as that name suggests, was painstakingly designed to reduce the time it took to dry one’s hands, while actually getting the job done.

Gagnon explains the technology, sort of, in one of the many interviews he’s given, this one with Restaurant Daily News.

“If I could describe the new drying system in layman’s terms, I would say that it delivers a focused, high-velocity air stream, which blows off excess water in three to four seconds,” he told that publication, “and evaporates the remaining boundary layer of moisture very rapidly. With a conventional hand dryer, it takes over 20 seconds before effective evaporation takes place, and 30 to 45 seconds overall to completely dry your hands.”

Denis Gagnon

Denis Gagnon stands beside one of the first XLERATORs, the hand dryer that changed perceptions about that product.

He skipped over much of the proprietary science and engineering that would eventually solve a noise problem and enable the XLERATOR to live up to its considerable promise and become the best-selling hand dryer in the world, with more than a million units now in use.

The map outside Gagnon’s office, the one with multi-colored push pins on seemingly every continent (covering more than 70 countries in which the product is now sold), does an effective job of explaining how far this company has come in less than two decades.

Having a Blast

But there are other ways to measure its success, and at Excel, there are many of them, including:

• Evolution of the venture into a true family business. Indeed, while Denis Gagnon is president, his wife, Nancy, who has been involved with the company from the beginning, serves as vice president, while son Bill, who joined after college when Denis was developing the XLERATOR and has since helped grow the company, is vice president of Marketing and Sales, and son Denis Jr. is vice president of International Sales;

• Continued expansion and diversification of the product line, including a new “XLERATOR integrated sink system,” as Gagnon described it (there’s a prototype at the Fort restaurant in Springfield and 168 of them at MGM’s new casino in Maryland). Developed in collaboration with Sloan Valve, it includes an automatic soap dispenser, automatic faucet, and an automatic dryer coming out of what looks like a faucet head. “You never have to leave the sink — you soap, wash, and dry your hands right there,” he explained, adding that the product is being brought to the marketplace by a separate LLC called D13 Group, run by his son Bill and son-in-law Lance;

• Continued expansion of the plant complex in East Longmeadow to accommodate a growing company and staff (the company now employs 49 people). Town officials recently approved plans for 5,000 square feet of additional warehouse, R&D, and engineering space;

• Official designation as an American-made product and being named as the inaugural winner of the ‘Made in the USA Certified Award’ in the ‘medium company’ category in 2013; and

• Continued exposure in the press. Over the years, the company and the XLERATOR has earned all kinds of ink and face time. It was one of Terry Bradshaw’s ‘picks of the week,’ on his CNN Headline News segment, for example, and has also been on the Science Channel’s How It’s Made show, the Discovery Channel’s Things We Love to Hate series (actually, the show was about how the XLERATOR is changing perceptions about hand dryers), and many more.

But, as noted earlier, success in business is really only one chapter in the Denis Gagnon story, and not the most important one, according to those who know him well.

Excel Dryer employees

Excel Dryer employees gather for a shot at the plant in East Longmeadow. The company has registered explosive growth in recent years.

Instead, it’s his work within the community that resonates most.

As he talked about that work — again, something he doesn’t like to do and would rather leave to others — he referenced a more-than-half-century-long relationship with the Boy Scouts of America and the many lessons imparted him through that involvement.

Especially those from his youth. Indeed, Gagnon, a member of Troop 424, which met at the Nativity Church in the Willimansett section of Chicopee, became an Eagle Scout at the age of 12, something that couldn’t be done today (one needs to be at least 14) and was a very rare achievement back then.

He remembers some of the scout credos, or marching orders, if you will, and said they’ve never left him.

“What’s the motto of the Boy Scouts? ‘Do a good turn daily’ — in other words, do something to give back to help other people,” he explained. “They teach you to be self-reliant, but they also teach you to give back, and that stays with you.”

Likewise, he’s never really left the Boy Scouts. He served as board president for eight years, for example, and, during that time, merged the Pioneer Valley Council and the Great Trails Council into the Western Massachusetts Council of the Boy Scouts of America. And he’s still on the board.

In addition, he’s been a long-time supporter of a number of agencies, including the United Way, the American Red Cross, Western New England University (he’s a trustee), and a host of veterans’ organization, including Wounded Warriors.

Also on that list is the Children’s Study Home, the oldest nonprofit in Western Mass., which was created in 1865 as the Springfield Home for Friendless Women and Children, serving mostly the widows of Civil War veterans.

He’s served that agency, which provides a host of innovative and educational programs to strengthen children and families, in a number of roles, including the current one — president emeritus.

“That means that, whenever something big happens, they know who to call,” he joked, adding that his son Bill is now on the board.

Buy the Book

Actually, a number of agencies have called Gagnon’s number over the years, generally because he rarely says ‘no,’ but especially because he does much more than simply write a check.

That was the case with Link to Libraries, which, as that name suggests, places books on school-library shelves, but also brings business leaders into the classroom to read and essentially adopt the school in question.

Excel Dryer now sponsors two schools, and eight people at Excel volunteer to read, he said, adding that this is a company-wide effort that goes beyond read-alouds. Indeed, the company has funded a field trip to Sturbridge Village and other initiatives. And, as noted, Gagnon has encouraged others, including Barrows, to become involved and sponsor schools themselves.

Susan Jaye-Kaplan, founder of Link to Libraries and one of the first Difference Makers brought to the stage at the Log Cabin back in 2009, said Gagnon’s involvement with LTL is a good example of how he immerses himself in a cause and offers support that goes well beyond a cash contribution.

“He’s one of the most humble and caring men that I know,” said Jaye-Kaplan, who was one of many to invoke the phrase ‘role model’ as she talked about Gagnon. “He has never forgotten where he comes from or the people who helped make him the man he is today.

“He’s a man who not only sees the need, but takes action,” she went on. “He is very empathetic to those people in need and especially the young people of our community.”

Cassidy agreed, and put to use some of the same words and phrases others would deploy as they talked about Gagnon: ‘quiet,’ ‘humble,’ ‘generous,’ ‘impressive,’ ‘family man,’ and ‘inspiring,’ to name a few.

“He works quietly and mostly behind the scenes,” he said. “I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from him throughout my career from the way he works with people, the way he deals with adversity, and especially his generosity to the community.”

Barrows, who’s been doing business in Western Mass. for more than 40 years now, went so far as to put Gagnon in the same company (and sentence) as the late Dick Stebbins, the long-time regional president of BayBank whom most credit with setting the standard locally when it comes to community service, and said Gagnon is essentially the standard bearer for his generation.

Stebbins and Gagnon had different platforms in the business community — the former with a large public corporation, and the latter with a much smaller, family-owned company, but both worked in essentially the same way, Barrows explained.

“When I think of the people of that stature in today’s Pioneer Valley business community, I think of John and Steve Davis, and I think of Denis Gagnon,” he explained, adding that there may be others he is less familiar with.

“Denis is a little more private, a little more anonymous with his work in the community,” he went on. “But his actions speak very loudly. He’s a major player, and he inspires others with what he does and how he does it.”

Suzor agreed, noting that, in his philanthropic efforts, as with his business exploits, Gagnon takes a measured, results-driven approach to his giving.

“Even with his generosity, he would want to know the plan — ‘if I’m giving you money, what are you going to do with it? How are you going to use it? And how are you going to measure how successful you are at using it?’” he explained. “He’s a very bright businessman who always says, ‘let’s do what makes sense, and let’s not do what doesn’t make sense,’ and it was the same with his work in the community.”

Cut and Dried

In Business and the Community, Denis Gagnon Is a Role Model
That’s the Ticket

Returning to the subject of the Patriots and the various perks derived from that relationship, Gagnon noted that the company now has several season tickets.

In what should come as no surprise to anyone who knows him, Gagnon doesn’t use them much himself. (In fact, by late December, he had taken in only the Rams game a few weeks earlier, and that very ugly loss to Buffalo in early October, when Brady was still serving his Deflategate ‘vacation,’ as the quarterback called it).

Indeed, as any smart businessperson would, he bestows most of those tickets on very good customers and those who may attain such status. But he also puts them to use within the community — he donates tickets to the Boy Scouts, for example, for one of its fund-raisers, and, through his son Denis Jr., a board member with the United Way, that organization has received a few as well.

That’s a small example, but one of many, of someone who very quietly and humbly goes about his business — or businesses, as the case may be.

There’s the one that makes electric dryers, and then there’s the business of giving back to the community.

He’s, well, very hands-on, as one might say, with both — and certainly making a difference across Western Mass. in every sense of that phrase.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]