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Before Denis Gagnon G'76, People Hated Hand Dryers

By Kenneth Stratton '19 THURSDAY, JUNE 20, 2019 - 12:00 PM WNE100

“Everybody hated hand dryers,” recalled Denis Gagnon G’76. “They’d be animated about rubbing their hands on their pants or their skirts and say, ‘they don’t even work!’”

Gagnon is the President of Excel Dryer Inc., an East Longmeadow based hand dryer manufacturer with a global reach. According to Inc. Magazine, the company made over $30 million in revenue in 2012 and continues to revolutionize the hand dryer industry. But it wasn’t always that way.

After earning a degree in accounting from UMass Amherst, Gagnon continued his education at Western New England, studying nights to earn his MBA. By this time, already working with a family to support at home, he was a very busy man.

“I was not a rich man’s son, I had to put myself through college,” Gagnon explained. In about a year and a half, he earned that MBA, and thanks Western New England for having “facilitated what I wanted to do.”

Early in his career, Gagnon found himself working for toy giants Milton Bradley and Hasbro. By the time he was only 34 years old, Gagnon was working internationally and reporting directly to the CEO of Hasbro. But citing a desire to spend more time with his family, Gagnon realized he wanted to pursue opportunities closer to home.

For five years he was Executive Vice President of Basset Boat Company, a business started by his father-in-law. But as the 1990’s approached, Gagnon decided he’d like to be in a business of his own - and preferably, without having to uproot the family from western Massachusetts.

In 1992, Gagnon bought an equity stake in Excel Dryer, founded in 1963. Becoming more involved with the company, Gagnon got to know the owners who were looking for an exit strategy, and Gagnon had the answer. By 1997, he became the sole owner of the company.

“It was worth trying,” Gagnon said. To him, the opportunity was perfect and exactly what he was looking for. Citing his years of experience in both manufacturing and marketing, he felt confident he’d be able to make something out of Excel. But not without that one big obstacle: people hated hand dryers!

“We made a product people didn’t like,” Gagnon said with a laugh in an interview with Inc. Magazine. “If we were going to survive in the 21st century, we were going to have to build a better mousetrap,” he explained.

So Gagnon and Excel spent three years in extensive research and development, spending more money than they were making in profit. Gagnon was having a hard time paying the payroll, and became concerned about running out of money. But soon he had a breakthrough that revolutionized the hand dryer industry.

Gagnon’s team created a product that not only dried hands, thanks to a patented, meticulously engineered air delivery system, but dried them fast – in a matter of seconds. Realizing he had something special on his hands, in July 2001, he took the prototype of his XLERATOR hand dryer to CSI, an important trade show for architects and specifiers held in Atlanta, GA.

“It’s a great show and tell product, and you have to get people to try it to change their attitudes,” Gagnon explained. Unlike any hand dryer that had come before it, the XLERATOR had a real “wow factor” that began to catch the attention of the public, the media and potential clients.

Excel Dryer continues to lead the industry in innovation of hand drying equipment. Their new “top of the line” integrated sink system - which includes water, soap and air delivery systems all in one place - were recently rolled out at MGM Springfield. Today, Excel products can be found in bathrooms all around the world, including places like Grand Central Station in New York, Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, MA and Heathrow Airport in the United Kingdom.

Gagnon runs Excel Dryer with a dedicated staff, which includes his wife Nancy and sons Bill and Denis Jr. To him, keeping the business family run and locally owned is essential. In addition, he remains involved at Western New England, where he serves as a member of the Board of Trustees.

“What a beautiful campus they’ve created, it’s outstanding,” Gagnon said, reflecting on Western New England. He’s been able to grow, right alongside the University that facilitated his MBA. While staying true to their local roots, the small commuter school on Wilbraham Road and the unknown company that produced once much-hated hand dryers, have both blossomed into thriving institutions with a global reach.