Tribute Xtra: An industry icon remembered

More comments following the sad death of industry legend Irwin Helford – these were predominantly published on LinkedIn first and have been slightly edited.

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Geoffrey Betts, Managing Director, Stewart Superior

Irwin Helford was the mentor for so many in our industry. He created an outstanding entrepreneurial business and instilled a work ethic and spirit among its employees never repeated. Working alongside his businesses was inspirational for us all and his belief – ‘it’s all about the people’ – is never truer than at this moment as we lose the best our industry has ever seen.

 Mike Gentile, CEO, Independent Suppliers Group

Irwin was a transformational leader for our industry. He was ever so gracious and generous with his time and thoughts to others . Our world needs more Irwins.

 Beth Wright, Chief Commercial Officer, Fellowes Brands

Leadership personified. I had the pleasure to meet this fine gentleman at a young age. He shared great stories with our team, but always kept the focus on giving and work ethic. We are thankful for all he did for our industry and City of Hope.

 Joe Templet, former SVP Trade Development, Essendant

A true giant in our industry has passed. He was one of the most gracious, giving and caring people I ever met. He was a friend, leader, customer, mentor, advisor and a wonderful icon who helped change the face of our industry. We have lost a friend and heaven has gained a saint. We will miss you but never forget you.

Matt Fassler, former Managing Director, Goldman Sachs; now Chief Strategy Officer, XPO Logistics

He was a prince of a man. He built an absolutely amazing firm and was one of the most consistently kind people I dealt with in business.

Aram Rubinson, Principal, Rubinson Research

Irwin was a giant – not only in his industry. I’d argue he set an example for us all to be better humans. I’m grateful for the time I spent in his presence.

Gerrit Bleeker, former employee at Viking Direct/Office, currently Consumer and Channel Sales Manager Netherlands, Epson

Irwin was inspiring all who worked with him. He created a company where everyone around the globe felt like family. He changed a whole industry within a few years and I was honoured to work for him. We truly felt invincible as a team, just because we had Irwin leading us.

Peter Duncan, former Managing Director, Wiles Greenworld

Throughout my career in OP, I experienced change – some good, not all. Viking brought a new and well-nuanced model to the UK but what impressed me most was I never heard a bad word said about Irwin Helford and that is rare. He was clearly a good man as well as an extraordinary businessman.

Anthony Keyzer, Operations Manager, Dymocks Stationery

Irwin came to a small company called Viking in California in the early 1980s. With his commitment and genius, he turned it into a direct marketing catalogue giant across first the US, then the UK (1990), France (1991) and Australia (1993), followed by more than 13 other countries in Europe. 

I was lucky enough to be Director of Merchandising [and worked with] Alan Verey, who was General Manager of Viking in Australia. It was Alan who encouraged Irwin to invest in Australia back then. We tweaked the model a little to suit the Australian landscape, and grew it to over $100 million turnover in five-and-a-half years.

Irwin had one business mantra – the customer is always right. He was a great leader and a kind person.

Andrew Aspell, former European Credit Program Manager, Office Depot International

Irwin was an inspiration as a business leader and encouraged so many of his employees, myself included, not to ignore the customer as a person nor your colleagues. Human kindness should know no limits – together we achieve. Division will lead to failure and loneliness. Rest in peace, my life is so much better for having known you.

Sam Difiglio, National Key Account Manager, C-Line Products

Irwin gave me my first order while at Reliable. A giant of a man. The most gracious and generous gentleman of our industry. He was a successful entrepreneur but made sure his vendor partners were successful as well. He exemplified the best a person can be.

Jeff Hewson, former President ACCO USA & Canada; former President, United Stationers; former Chairman, Kingfield Heath

Irwin was a friend and mentor. He had an incredible grasp of the tastes and tempo of our Industry. He was, as a man, sharp, kind and giving. Unique and irreplaceable.

Sylvia Wright, Expert Services Support, Finch Consulting

 I started my working life at Viking Direct and it was a fantastic organisation because of Irwin, the culture that he built and the values he instilled in us. This kind of leadership is second to none and his kindness, generosity, support and understanding of his people is so smart. I hope other leaders have followed his example over the years. There’s no doubt that his leadership fostered loyalty and motivation to be the best we could. A true loss.

Andrew Hirst, former European Lead Category Manager – Furniture, Janitorial, Catering, Writing Instruments, Office Depot International

Where do you start? Irwin Helford was an innovator, marketer and brilliant leader who knew how to motivate people. Such an approachable person with an amazing memory for detail. I still have all the letters he used to write to thank you for doing something ‘fanatical’.

He profoundly changed how I look at the business of servicing customers and continue to use what he showed me all the time. I was lucky to spend time with him in his office in LA. He took time to personally show me around his offices and even showed me a framed order I had taken. I can safely say I have never met a CEO like him again and doubt I will. A true inspirational leader who changed a lot and touched many people’s lives to leave a positive footprint.

Maureen Neger, Senior Business Analyst, Office Depot

Irwin Helford was a great inspiration to all the people who ever worked for Viking Office Products/Viking Direct, including myself. He was a very charismatic leader. Very down to earth and with a nice personality. He cared about the company, about the people working in his company and about the customers.

He was one in a billion – there are not many who have touched people’s hearts the way he did.

We have lost a legend in the Viking family. He may be gone, but he will never be forgotten.

Jim Henegar, Branch Manager, Uline

Irwin was a great businessman but he was an even better person. I learned so much from him that I was able to use in my career. But also in my everyday life. Most importantly, how to treat people and employees.

Melissa Greer, former Training Specialist, Viking Office Products

I was a ‘Vikinger’ for almost a decade. It was my first real job, a customer service agent. I learned my passion for customer service from Irwin and the Viking culture. I learned what it meant to be a true people leader. Irwin created a company culture and dedication that has been unmatched in every other company I’ve worked for. He will be missed greatly.

 Stuart Adler, former VP, Director and shareholder, Visual Organizers

 Irwin was the ultimate gentleman. A phenomenal business leader and a cornerstone of the office products industry for many years.

Andrew Walker, formerly with Office Depot International/Viking Direct (several roles)

I’ll always remember his visits to the old Viking offices in Leicester when he used to take the time to walk around the buildings to meet as many members of the team as he could. A true gentleman, a great leader and someone who really understood the benefits of fanatical customer service.

Sean Mehranbod, Regional VP/General Manager, Walmart US (& former Office Depot employee)

Great leader and a kind soul; always took the time to connect with everyone he came across regardless of their job titles

Bruce Epstein, former VP Sales North America, Ningbo Haibo Office Machinery

I remember my conversations with Irwin. They were in the hallway or a hotel front desk or in the lobby of the ‘new’ LA building. He always remembered me and my shredder or easel business. He was a true class act – friendly and his concern for others showed. I consider myself lucky to have met him.

Philippe Chambenoit, former Business Analyst IT, Office Depot

I personally met Irwin in 1996 during a meeting in Roissy. He is a mentor in marketing and customer services. He was the spirit of the Viking brand all over the world. ‘Fanatical customer service’ was is signature.

Paul Ventimiglia, North American Sales Manager, Bi-silque

Irwin Helford was a legend in our industry. He was also compassionate, caring, giving and loving. A cherished leader, great story teller and mentor to many! I was always struck by Irwin’s genuine, sincere persona – a true gentleman. We have lost a beautiful human being.

Peter Birks, CEO, Ryman

An inspirational people focused leader, who created one of the most iconic business models in our industry. I still find myself reflecting on my times @ Viking and sharing the wisdom Irwin taught me. A true ambassador who influenced so many. My thoughts are with family and friends.

Nigel Gunn, SVP Sales, ACCO Brands EMEA

Rest in Peace Mr Helford. I have such respect for you and thank you for how you shaped my career. A true legend of our industry and beyond.

Robert Baldrey, Operating Partner, Aurelius Group

The passing of an absolute titan of the industry and all-round legend. Very sad indeed.

Alain Josse, Managing Director Office Supplies Europe, RAJA Group

Irwin was a true entrepreneur with a vision for business and a passion for the customer that still stand as an example today. More than anything, he cared about people. It was a privilege to have had the chance to work alongside him and an honour to continue carrying the Viking flame today.

To read the full tribute to Irwin, read Tribute: An industry icon remembered or Download (PDF) the OPI Irwin Helford tribute