Tom Conley reflects on his 11 years as head of High Point Market Authority

In a candid interview with Home News Now, the exec discusses the shortcomings, challenges and opportunities of the industry’s single largest event

HIGH POINT — In two weeks, Tom Conley will be stepping down from his role as president and chief executive officer of the High Point Market Authority, a position he has held for the past 11 years.

During that time, he led the organization — and the Market — through some of its most tumultuous times.

When he came on board, the industry was just emerging from the financial crisis, although some companies would say the effects of that lingered for another year or two as they struggled to regain sales lost during the Great Recession.

He also led the HPMA when buyers boycotted the event in 2016 in response to a controversial bill the North Carolina General Assembly passed that many believed discriminated against the LGBT community.

But all that paled compared to the onslaught of Covid-19 in early 2020, which impacted overall Market attendance from around the country and the world because of travel restrictions and concerns about personal safety.

But Conley brought a wealth of experience in the trade show business — serving as president of various organizations from the American Fishing Tackle Manufacturers Association, the National Housewares Manufacturers Association, the Steel Service Center Institute, and the Toy Industry Association. Those many years of experience helped him lead the Market not only through the toughest times, but also through its path to a stronger position post Covid.

Home News Now caught up with Conley after the October Market — his last one with the HPMA — to get his thoughts on his experience in the position and his naming Tammy Nagen, the longtime chief operating officer, as his successor. In this exclusive interview, he speaks frankly about the Market’s challenges, opportunities and future moving forward.

Tom Conley is retiring from his role as president and CEO of the High Point Market Authority on Nov. 15. He spent 11 years in the position, leading the Market through some of its most challenging and trying times.

Home News Now: When you came to the Market Authority, you had experience leading several different associations representing different industries, including housewares. How has this job compared to these other roles?

Conley: Coming in here, we had always sold the space to the exhibitors whether they were members or constituents, and then we were responsible for promoting the event. It was always a single-building event, although housewares was five buildings. It was a lot smaller footprint with exhibits, not showrooms. Here there is and continues to be to this day a disconnect — without naming names —between those that are selling space and those that we are trying to recruit. And no offense to those that are selling space, but a lot of the building owners are absentee owners and they are in it for the money. (In my other roles) We turned down people that were not ready yet — and we didn’t sell them the space and told them to come back in a year or two when they were ready. That makes a big difference for an event.

Also, this Market is not categorized, which is much to the chagrin of the professional buyers. To make it more efficient, I think it needs to be categorized better. If it is categorized properly, it gives the buyers more time to explore and look for new opportunities. Most buyers now don’t have that time, they don’t have that luxury. … This is a 113-year trade show. The good news is that it has a 113-year legacy. And the bad news is that it has a 113-year legacy. … And it hasn’t quite caught up. … Money is spent by exhibitors and they think they are in charge and you can say this — they are not. The buyer is in charge and if the buyer decides that High Point is no longer relevant, we’ve got a ghost town. Everything needs to be geared toward the buyer, and that is why we have worked hard to create this buyer experience with tours and all that.

What have you most enjoyed about the industry?

Alex Shuford III, chair of the High Point Market Authority Board, congratulates Conley for his many years of service at Conley’s last time presiding over the board this past week.

Conley: By and large, it’s the people. With the other businesses — and I don’t mean that one is better than the other — but the other businesses are much more transactional. The relationship in whatever you are selling is still key, but I guess because it is multi-generational, people tend to stay in this business for a long time. So the relationships are really important. I think you see that a lot on the exhibitor side, where people will move to a new company. If they are successful at one company, they will tend to be successful at another company, especially if the products are decent and the prices are decent. The reason that they are hired is because they come — as we used to say — with the Rolodex. They have a list of buyers that they have a relationships with and that they can talk to. That is sort of on the retail side. On the designer side, they are also very much relationship oriented.

Tell us about the biggest challenge or challenges in your role at HPMA.

Conley: For us the biggest thing was Covid because we were on such a high coming off the fall of 2019. It was the best-attended market in like 10 or 12 years – we weren’t making big jumps (in attendance) but we were making jumps every year.  You were starting to see the “No designers” signs disappear from the showrooms. We had nothing to do with that, other than when enough designers come knocking on your door, maybe the exhibitor wakes up and says “maybe I will talk to these people.” But, yes, Covid was the No. 1 challenge and integrated into all that was the marketing and execution of the customer experience in a very dynamic and changing world — putting up the tents and all the temperature checks that we had to do.

Was there anything particular that you had to pull out of your toolbox in dealing with this?

Conley: Well sometimes it wasn’t a toolbox – it was my ass. (laughing) And we made up a lot of stuff as we went along. But we had such great partners in the county, and with the universities that got us the best people to help us. We had a lot of good conversations behind the scenes and those conversations helped prepare us to tell our story to exhibitors and buyers to be able to move forward at a time — that remember — when Trump was still president and he and Fauci were still fighting about all this information that was coming out. We weren’t helped by the media and we weren’t helped by our federally elected officials. And frankly there was a lot of information that we didn’t know.

October 2020 was a nine-day market and in 2021, the April Market moved to June. And that was when everybody thought it was over and really it wasn’t over and we got hit again so in October 2021 people were still pretty well masked up. It was a real roller-coaster ride for us from that perspective. But we had team members here — Tammy and Ashley (Grigg) in particular — really stepped up from a communications standpoint. We had more Zoom calls than you can imagine with our stakeholders and various customer groups. … And at least getting the county and the state and other organizations to put their imprimatur on this nine-day plan in particular gave us hope, and I liked to think that it kept some people in business because the hotels were full and the restaurants ended up being used.

Do you think the Market has emerged stronger as a result?

Conley: I do feel that it is coming back. We are only judged by most of our funders by the economic impact, and until we get numbers comparable to what we had in 2019, we have a tough message to deliver to Raleigh. Because, quite frankly, designers are important, and retailers are important, but the exhibitors are also important because they have a longer stay especially if they are from out of town. Hopefully the exhibitor base will grow, but it’s frustrating when we see empty showrooms. And as we get more buyers coming in, hopefully they also will begin to stay a little longer time.

What do you see as your biggest accomplishment?

Conley: Living, surviving. (again, laughing) Actually I think for me the No. 1 biggest accomplishment is that Tammy got the job. Because I have always been a believer that you find good people and you delegate responsibility within limits obviously and you give them the resources that they need and you hope that they succeed. And she has exceeded everybody’s expectations, so that to me is the No. 1 accomplishment.

Beyond that it is helping to raise the funds that we’ve needed. We have gone from a budget of $3.2 million and this year we are almost at $9 million. Getting some more state funding has been really important. … It has grown almost three times. And we are still underfunded given what we want to do. I did a back-of -the-envelope calculation about four to five years ago based on my trade show experience and what we should be spending as a trade show if we were a single entity where we sold the space. … At the time, I thought we should be at a $7.2 million budget just with marketing, and our marketing budget is not that much.

Is there anything you would have done differently?

Conley: Oh a ton of stuff, but you know I don’t have a lot of regrets and hindsight is always 20/20. You do the best you can every single day. At one time we had an agent in China and we had an agent in Russia. Now we have no agent in China and no agent in Russia.  I loved the international side of the business. Trying to bring in — I think over the course of I think three markets we had seven of the top 10 Chinese buyers come to the High Point Market and they had never been here before. We worked hard to make sure we got the international attention and recognition we deserved. I worked hard at that — I was everywhere.

I remember running into you at a lot of the Asia shows back then. You were like High Point’s ambassador.

Conley: You just kind of had to be. Building those relationships was very important and having a local guy that was there was so nice — he could translate, he could tell whether I was being lied to or not, he could make sure we saved some money where we could. And we weren’t doing it on a shoestring, but it was so important to get it done. But I wish we could have done more from an international perspective.

I also wish we could have gotten into the heads of the building owners to really get them to understand how important it was to fulfill the needs of the buyers. I fully respect and appreciate their bottom line, I do, but at some point in time there has to be a balance between short-term benefits and long-term survivability.

How do you think the Market Authority is positioned today as you leave the organization?

Conley: I think people first of all need to understand that there will be changes and perhaps some different processes that take place. Change is inevitable, and Tammy has to figure out exactly what her focus is going to be. And how she wants to do it. … I remember in grad school I had an accounting professor who had written all sorts of books and his big line was that many roads lead to the top of the mountain. And here I am — I knew math but I always figured that in accounting there is one right answer. But he kept saying no, there are many ways to get there. So there are many ways to get to the objective, but the objective will never change and that is to have a robust audience as diverse as possible and service the hell out of them. That will not change, but how you get there and what people you use and what segments maybe get more attention than others, that is all subject to some conversation and some dialogue. So I think you are going to see some changes, and that’s all good, but everybody is here because they want to be here and everybody is here because they salute that mission. I am excited to see where it ends up.

Can you share any of your plans in retirement?

Conley: We are moving to Arizona to be close to the (my wife’s) grandkids. We are going to Tucson to a very small senior community with 300 homes or so, and it has an affiliation with the university down there, which we are thrilled with because we will have some very good educational opportunities. Plus it is a really short five-hour drive to see the grandchildren in Las Vegas. My family wants to come down and visit because they are in Chicago. So we are going to see them in the winter.

I am a terrible golfer but I love to play golf, so if I can play a little bit that will be fine. Plus I am going to take some time and ride my three-wheeled motorcycle. So I am going to ride my motorcycle and play some golf, but I really want and need to do some work. I am hoping that my 11 years in the business has earned me a certain amount of credibility and maybe I can do some consulting. The good news is if we had not had Covid I would be afraid to death to move so far away, but I have become a pretty good Zoomer now, so hopefully I can meet with some people on the phone or over Zoom. I am also willing to travel and if I can generate one or two good clients part time that would be really fun.

Retirement, I haven’t come to grips with it quite frankly. … Somebody referred to it as God’s waiting room. And that’s not for me. I know there will be an end date to this being, but I would like to go out in style and style for me means being healthy as possible and being active from a business perspective, so we will see.

Thomas Russell

Home News Now Editor-in-Chief Thomas Russell has covered the furniture industry for 25 years at various daily and weekly consumer and trade publications. He can be reached at and at 336-508-4616.

View all posts by Thomas Russell →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to our Newsletter for breaking news, special features and early access to all the industry stories that matter!

Sponsored By: