Management Secrets of Top Westchester CEOs: Ed Wohlwender, CEO of POP Displays USA LLC in Yonkers

When Ed Wohlwender joined POP Displays in 2007, he was the fourth CEO in three years, a sign of just how much trouble the company was in at the time. “It was an ugly scenario,” says the 52-year-old West Point graduate and one-time captain in the 82nd Airborne. “The core team was solid, but the company was on the verge of major layoffs.” Wohlwender met right away with the company’s major customers and came away with a distinct message that the vertically integrated, one-stop shopping process it provides was one they needed. Today, t-shirts that say “Customer” in big, bold letters are prominently displayed in every conference room.

POP Displays manufactures point-of-purchase racks and retail merchandising systems for, among others, L’Oréal, Maybelline, Black & Decker, and Walmart. These are permanent displays, not temporary cardboard fixtures, and many of them have modular LED lighting, sound, and other advanced electronic components. Its display systems can occupy several aisles in a huge retailer like Walmart. With a 465,000-square-foot plant and a seasonal workforce that fluctuates as high as 1,000 people, it’s one of the largest private employers in Yonkers.

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Wohlwender’s problem was keeping it in business. In the year before he arrived, sales (which the privately held company won’t disclose for competitive reasons) had declined by more than 50 percent. The owners prior to Sun Capital Partners, Inc. had consolidated operations from several plants into the one location in Yonkers, but the mash-up wasn’t working.

“I had to put in a planning organization, re-organize to service customers, handle front-end design and engineering better. We had to restructure job definitions,” Wohlwender says. “There was no shop-floor data collection. Imagine that in a plant this size!” It was 2007, but, he says, “We quickly leaped into the eighties. It was pretty ugly, but we got together and have seen a remarkable turnaround.” The plant still isn’t operating at full capacity, but sales have improved substantially. The company is using a $300,000 Empire State Development grant to upgrade technology on the shop floor and bring in new capability. Sophisticated new machinery for riveting and decorating was acquired to add value to its product. According to Wohlwender, “That enables us to win business and save jobs.”

Photo by Cathy Pinsky

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