Published February 18, 2003
Volume 11, Number 2

Murray Dennis Shows that Learning is a Lifelong Endeavor

By George Walsh
Network Editor

Few people would disagree with the concept that a formal education is a good starting point in building a career. Usually, however, those who are the most successful are people who don’t see a college degree as the end of their education but continue to learn from their experiences and adapt to changes in their chosen professional environment throughout their lives. Murray Dennis is an example of someone who has learned and grown over the course of his career, taking his formal education into the field and using it to evolve from an employee of a supermarket chain to the president and CEO of a leading edge high-tech company called Visioneer.

Murray DennisMurray Dennis was born and raised in Boston MA and stayed in the area throughout his college years and a large part of his career. He attended Northeastern University where he earned an undergraduate degree in industrial engineering and a graduate degree in business administration, with a major in finance. “I felt the combination of undergraduate engineering with an advanced business degree would help prepare me to work for a company in the high tech area,” Dennis says. “My education provided me with business management skills as well as an understanding of some of the engineering disciplines that are involved in launching new products.”

After graduating from Northeastern, Dennis went to work for a supermarket chain called First National Stores. First National Stores was a multi-billion dollar grocery chain with stores throughout the East Coast. They received millions of food products every day and had to redistribute them to all of their stores throughout the region. Designing warehouses that optimized product movement was the challenge given to Dennis. “Industrial engineering actually deals with production efficiencies,” Dennis says. “You study production lines and determine how to make them either more efficient or automate them to reduce the cost per unit.” To increase the productivity at the First National Stores warehouse, Dennis had to analyze the weight, size, and other characteristics of each of the products, so they’d go out with the least amount of movement. While it might seem that directing the movement of cans of peas is a far cry from running a high-tech company, the ability to identify and increase production efficiencies is a valuable skill in any type of manufacturing. After leaving First National Stores, Dennis worked for a family business that was in the industrial paper distribution business. “I was able to use a lot of the skills I learned from the distribution side of the supermarket chain for setting up and distributing products,” he says.

The next step in Murray Dennis’ career path was his first foray into the world of high-tech as well as his first experience as an entrepreneur. After moving into a new apartment in the Boston area, Dennis discovered that a childhood friend was living in the same building. This friend was working at Draper Laboratories, which is affiliated with MIT. After spending a number of nights talking about what they wanted to do when they grew up, they decided to go into business together. Together, they built and sold stereo speakers similar in design of the Bose speakers of former MIT Professor Dr. Amar Bose.  Dennis recalls, “Without violating any patents, you could extract a homemade design.” In the process of their joint efforts,  the two friends also researched the  computer performance measurement industry which Dennis’ partner was investigating at the Lab. “MIT was not interested in further developing  this technology and we were able to develop a product around the design,” Dennis says. “We recruited a team of other engineers out of MIT, and put together a startup venture. It took us about two years to create the design and the architecture, build it, write the business plan, and go out and speak to Fortune 100 companies. That was my first introduction to the high-tech arena.”

In the midst of developing his own company whenever he had time, Dennis took his second step into high tech business, landing a day job at Digital Equipment Corporation, which was, at the time, one of the most successful computer manufacturers in the world. “I was really at the front end of technology,” Dennis says. “I learned an awful lot working at DEC. When you’re working in finance and strategic planning, you touch so many other groups, from manufacturing and sales to marketing and engineering, that you get a very broad overview of how companies work and how all the numbers are inter-related.”

While Dennis was at DEC, he witnessed and participated in the advent of smaller and more powerful computers coming to market as the power of processors increased and their price decreased. He was so convinced that PCs would gain ground in the business and consumer market that, in 1984, he left DEC to work for a startup company called Businessland, one of the first national chains to sell PCs to both the professional and home markets. “I ended up being one of the first general managers for Businessland on the East Coast, opening the first location in the Northeast,” Dennis says. “While most people who were selling personal computers were going in and trying to sell them the way they sold copiers, I approached it from my experiences at DEC-trying to sell technology. If I could go into the Fortune 500 companies and install PCs that could talk to their minicomputers and mainframes through networks and communications, I believed I could get all the commodity PC business. So, that’s a strategy we developed and implemented at with Businessland. That resulted in my going from the General Manager of a store to the District Manager of New England to the Western Regional Sales Manager, to the VP of all national sales.” When Dennis joined the company, its revenues were $100 million and when he left, revenues had surpassed $1.2 billion in less than 5 years.

From Businessland, Dennis went to a company in the Macintosh graphics market called SuperMac and took that company from about 50 million dollars in revenue to about 200 million dollars in revenue in three years. When Apple eventually put higher end graphics in its computers, it eliminated a lot of the companies in that market including SuperMac. However, the former president of SuperMac became the president of desktop scanner manufacturer Visioneer. He called upon Dennis to be vice president of sales in 1996, and Dennis moved up the ladder from that position to become vice president of sales and marketing, then CEO and President.

At Visioneer, Dennis continues to make use of both his industrial engineering background and his experience in the high-tech marketplace. While Visioneer manages to get several million scanners to market each year, it does so with a mere 50 employees in Pleasanton and around 100 employees in the whole organization. “We outsource some of our functions, like manufacturing which is done in China,” Dennis says. “We also use a third-party tech support organization that has about 30 people in Oregon. It’s a high-volume commodity business, where you need both low-cost manufacturing and low-cost infrastructure. We’ve developed a very sophisticated IT logistics system to move a large quantity of scanners into the major retailers, including CompUSA, Best Buy, Staples, Office Max, and others. When you have the appropriate systems to move all of those products, you can do it with a very limited head count.”

Murray Dennis has had a career that exemplifies not only how important it is to adapt to new developments in business, but also how a number of people with disparate backgrounds managed to push computers and related technologies into the mainstream of our lives and work environments. He hasn’t done it alone. He also attributes the success of the companies he works for to the people he’s had around him, frequently enlisting friends directly involved in high tech to act as consultants. “I always try to surround myself with the smartest people I can find so I can learn from them,” Dennis says. “I think in an environment where you’re learning from each other and growing together keeps the morale high and helps in growing a company and its people.” Staying ahead of the pack, as Murray Dennis has shown, is a constant learning experience.

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