John E. Groman, one of four original founders of Epsilon, a pioneer in nonprofit database and direct marketing, died on Saturday in Sheldon, S.C. He was 74. The Beaufort County Coroner’s Office would only confirm his death, not the manner of death, but multiple people said it was a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Groman co-founded Epsilon Data Management in 1969 along with Tom Jones, Hal Brierley and Bob Drummond after graduating from Harvard Business School and Yale University. He graduated cum laude from Yale in 1967, earning a bachelor’s degree in political science and economics before attending Harvard Business School, where he completed his M.B.A. in capital markets and finance.
Originally called Fraternal Systems, Inc., the company helped automate membership records of the founders’ fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, according to the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum. In 1970, they changed the name to Epsilon, the Greek letter that designates membership in set theory. Epsilon was the first organization “to build custom mainframe applications to help charities, enabling highly personalized direct mail.”
Epsilon went public on the NASDAQ stock exchange in 1983 and was acquired by American Express in 1990 for its proprietary database technology before going through a series of private equity owners. Dallas-based Alliance Data Systems (ADS), acquired Wakefield, Mass.-based Epsilon from Relizon Holdings, LLC, a portfolio company of The Carlyle Group, in 2004 for $300 million.
ADS acquired Conversant, formerly ValueClick/Dotomi, for $2.3 billion in 2014 to create Epsilon-Conversant. Epsilon accounted for almost a third of ADS’ $8 billion in annual revenue. In July, ADS sold Epsilon to Paris-based Publicis Groupe, one of the largest marketing, advertising and public relations companies in the world, for $4.4 billion in cash.
Tom Gaffny worked at Epsilon for 28 years, rising to executive vice president, fundraising, until 2008 when he started his own consulting firm. In recent years, he and Groman would meet regularly for breakfast.
“Anyone who ever met John saw that he was a ‘larger than life’ personality,” Gaffny said. “When I first met him in my 20s, it was hard not to be intimidated by him. He was so freaking smart — among the handful of smartest people I’ve ever met — and totally fearless in his opinions. Just sitting in a meeting with him felt like a creative master class, although his critiques were sometimes painful – but almost always correct,” he said.
“I learned more listening to John than anyone I ever met. And to those who weren’t fortunate enough to learn from him while at Epsilon, John took his ideas on the road, becoming our industry’s best public speaker about the art and science of direct marketing fundraising. No one understood it all better, or articulated it better,” Gaffny said.
“Today, though, I’m thinking of a different John I got to know in our later years, when we would meet for breakfast on an almost monthly basis. He was still the same old John in a lot of ways – sharp as a tack, insightful, unashamedly opinionated, hilarious. But I also got to know John as a mentor, and treasured friend. Everyone knew John was brilliant, but I’m not sure everyone knows how warm and good and giving he was, and how wise. Some of the best advice – creative, business, personal – I ever received in life, I got from John. He was a truly great man who had a heart of gold. You have no idea how much I’m going to miss those breakfasts,” Gaffny said. “I loved the guy. My heart goes out to his wife Cara and his family.”
Longtime direct marketers echoed the sentiment that Groman as a giant of the industry. “John was a visionary and leader in our sector. He intuitively understood what motivates donors and supporters,” said Geoffrey Peters, chairman of Moore DM Group. “His classes and seminars were usually standing room only. I will miss being able to continue to learn from him.”
Kelly Browning, president and CEO of the American Institute for Cancer Research, described Groman an inspirational leader in the charitable sector over the last five decades. “He was an innovator, mentor and provocateur who made us all better fundraisers and marketers,” he said.
“He had a lot of talent and a lot of heart,” said Denny Meyer, who was national director, nonprofit marketing, at Epsilon before founding Chicago, Ill.-based Meyer Partners in 1989.
Groman was born May 24, 1945 in New Britain, Conn., and also lived in Dover, Mass., before moving to South Carolina. He continued to be active as an investor after his years at Epsilon. Since 1993, he served as chairman and founder of Bella Sante, a chain of luxury day and medical spas in the Boston area, and owned Eames Capital Partners since 2013, a family real estate investment business in the Boston metropolitan area. Groman also was a shareholder in Nano Mobile Healthcare in New York City and Nanobeak, Inc.