Competing against lower-priced superstores was a huge challenge. Everyone claimed great service, so Viking needed to stand out, calling ours ‘fanatical customer service’. We meant it and did it. We were the first to actually provide same-day delivery at no charge. Tom Stemberg chided me publicly, stating ‘no one needs office products faster than hospitals need plasma’, but today, Amazon leads with same-day delivery in many markets.
I joined United Stationers in 1989 and spent six years as its President/COO. During my time I’ve seen the transition of an entrepreneurial, family-business orientated industry into one comprising large corporations and much less camaraderie. I’ve also witnessed the demise of a paper-based business that’s now grown into a technology-led industry. I personally liked it the way it was, but then I am from the dark ages.
As a trainee at Dudley Stationery, I was asked to help interpret for the VIP visitors from Lyreco, Eric Bigeard and Georges Gaspard, when they came to meet the Brient family. It was immediately apparent that my role as translator was redundant as Eric’s English was far superior to my French. Some said that his English was better than mine too.
I will always remember the reaction of my co-directors when I suggested our logistics fleet should be called OfficeTrolley. Other fond recollections include the time at Paperworld in Frankfurt when Jeff Whiteway, Robert Moore and I competed to get silly phrases into our supplier presentations. Then there was the unsuccessful attempt to hide Jonathan Straker’s large, chuckling frame behind a pillar in Tokyo railway station – we were trying to spoof our Japanese host from Zebra Pen into thinking we’d got lost.
One surprising phenomenon has been the strength of the independent dealer community. At one point there were over 15,000 independent dealers in the US, but through acquisition and consolidation that number reduced to the point where people thought they would disappear completely. However, we now have a group of about 2,000 very strong independents that are relevant, successful and have remained customer-centric.
When I first started at Staples, friends and family would ask me how I could work in such a boring industry where nothing ever happened. In fact, in my 28 years I’ve found it to be the exact opposite. It’s a vibrant industry, touching all of the different elements of the business community, with a pace of change that always keeps things interesting. My prediction is that the next 28 years will be just as exciting.
As you might expect from someone who works for Brother, I believe the launch of plain paper faxes was a golden period for the industry. It was a real breakthrough moment – there was a large installed base, a real reason to trade up, a high average selling price, installation and service contracts, plus plenty of margin and repeat consumable business. Everyone did so well.
Clearly, the internet has had a profound effect on the way that business is now done, and living through this transition has been challenging. We’ve seen many significant partners deteriorate and disappear and it’s forced the whole industry to reinvent its value proposition. We underestimated the ramifications of the internet in the 1990s – at first it was just a good way to find information, but now it’s the epicentre of all modern communication and business processes.
When I was younger I thought that the OP superstores would never make it because they were losing so much money. I believed independent dealers would do just fine when these companies ran out of money. But I didn’t understand private equity firms and their patience for building a business.
The first OPI issue made me aware that people sold office products in countries other than the US. I then met all kinds of great, funny-sounding people from other countries at that first OPI conference, including all the crazy Australians (I’ve never seen anyone drink like that). I was also lucky to meet my US industry idols who, through OPI, also became my friends.
When I first came into the industry, many of the larger independents had formed AOPD and those dealers were successfully competing for the biggest accounts. As the big boxes in the US began to create their contract divisions by acquiring many of those large independents, the ability to compete in that arena was weakened.
Fast forward and many of the dealers that survived then are the large independents of today. Dealers and the dealer groups have adapted and the ability to compete for larger accounts and contracts is making a comeback. It’s nowhere near where it needs to be, but the trajectory is upwards.
The most surprising event during my time in OP was that Staples and Office Depot would seek to merge. The number of OP big boxes was already down to two and I never thought it would reduce to just one. In the end I suppose the government was surprised by that too, and decided it shouldn’t happen.
The least surprising scenario I recall is that following the ‘sell to us or die threat’, USOP is no longer around and many independent dealers still are.
My first job after graduation in 1965 was with the Carter’s Ink Company. I also spent 25 years at Dennison/Avery Dennison and almost eight years at Esselte.
In other words, I’ve been involved in many dramatic changes in the industry – from a market with thousands of dealers controlling distribution and mostly buying from manufacturers, to the growth of the wholesalers and mega-dealers, through to the creation and rapid growth of the superstores and the outsourcing of product from Asia. Then we had the early 1980s when inflation was almost out of control and you had to adjust and be flexible or you wouldn’t survive. Those were exciting times.
Defining moments for me would be Staples buying National Advantage and Office Depot buying Eastman – both representing the move into contract versus just retail. And of course the first attempted acquisition by Staples of Office Depot was a significant point in time.
But just as important was Office Depot overpaying for Viking in an attempt to keep up with Staples buying Quill, and then not executing on the acquisition and squandering it all.
Major surprises? That the Office Depot purchase by Staples did not go through the second time with the government stepping in to protect big business – Office Depot is now screwed and will slowly implode.
The OPI conferences were always superb events. We still go to these events year after year and see how people ‘in the industry’ move from company to company in order to ‘stay in the industry’. That’s testament to something, isn’t it – camaraderie, loyalty, passion or insanity?
There were more inspirational leaders and visionaries in the previous decades than there are today. Just think of personalities like Irwin Helford, Dave Fuente, Graham Cundick and Eric Bigeard. These were people with a passion for the business and with an enormous drive to be successful.
And they were not afraid to show their human side. I remember the first time Graham Cundick and I went to see Dave Fuente in the US. We didn’t know what to expect. But after that first handshake we knew this was a great guy who not only worked hard, but also knew how to enjoy life. After our meeting we ended up drinking a few beers in our hotel bar and talked about everything besides office products. Same with Helford – it’s difficult not to like him. These heroes of mine always attended OPI events and were easy to approach.
Indeed, OPI conferences have been crucial in making contacts at the highest level of this industry – leaders who were normally very difficult to get in touch with. The ‘new’ Partnership event now brings buyers and manufacturers together in a unique environment. I think it’s fair to say that OPI has been bringing industry leaders together in a unique way over the past 25 years – it’s much more than a magazine.
Forever etched in my memory? That’s easy. It was when I was working for ACCO and we took a number of our best customers on a trip to Tenerife.
Following a liquid lunch we decided to try go-karting. Unfortunately, I became over-competitive and crashed into one of our customers, leaving him unconscious on the track with the go-kart wrecked. Thankfully he wasn’t seriously injured, but at the time I remember thinking: “How am I going to explain to my bosses that I had nearly killed one of our top customers?”
I admire the smartness of many entrepreneurs who chose to sell their OP businesses at the peak of their value. However, many who acquired these expensive businesses have failed to invest in them for the long term. Simply nailing up a new sign over the door doesn’t add value.
Among many amusing recollections, I remember a time in Spain when I had to address a large conference at a gala dinner in a beautiful castle. I wrote my speech themed around the past year and had someone translate it into Spanish for me. However, during my address everyone started laughing uncontrollably. I couldn’t figure out why.
Afterwards, the Spanish Managing Director hugged me, with tears rolling down his face and explained that when the word ‘year’ (ano in Spanish) is badly pronounced it can easily sound like another word for part of the body! Guess which one? The joys of working around Europe.
In the early days of my career at ACCO, my biggest challenge by far was convincing trade dealers that IT was going to be massive and trying to persuade them to stock and sell computer-associated products.
We achieved our goals by selling direct to the consumer at full retail prices and directing the order back through a local dealer. It caused more than raised eyebrows, but it had the desired effect of showing dealers there was a big call for computer products. The rewards for shrewd dealers and ACCO were massive.
I recall a NOPA conference where a gentleman named Jon Ledecky came forward to the podium. He said we wouldn’t survive in the industry and we were lucky that he had brought his chequebook. He advised us to sell our companies to him on the spot, in order to save us doing it later on. I was very surprised when a few in the audience actually sold their businesses within a month.
For me, Ledecky’s speech only further motivated me to succeed and since then my company has grown considerably and continues to grow every year.
Another defining moment was when some young men associated with Waltons in South Africa started Macquarie Stationery in Australia. Many local dealers here in Australia had never experienced such intense competition and it forced them to push harder and fight more for their position in the industry.
We were one of the initial suppliers of copy paper to Staples, Walmart, Corporate Express and United Stationers. All four of them over time decided that they could get a lower price if they cut out the middle man, ie Gould Paper Corporation.
The person in charge of our OP division at the time would tell the mills, when they were considering bypassing us as their distributor, that “if Staples could talk directly to the trees, they would bypass the mills as well”.
Not long ago, I saw Tom Stemberg at a function for donors at Cornell University. He was in fine spirits and we talked about how hard our kids were working. I mentioned his speech in German at a huge OPI dinner at Paperworld in Frankfurt and he smiled. He spoke of his modest beginnings in Austria and was grateful for the opportunities that education had opened to him. Less than six months later, he sadly passed away.
There can have been few more exciting places to be than in the OP industry in the 1980s and 1990s. The mixture of real innovation, exaggeration, hype, vitality and showmanship was fascinating to me, but pretty scary for those who wanted a quiet life.
By the time I retired in 2001, much of the froth had blown away and margins with it – retrenchment being the order of the day. Strangely, the independent dealer still exists and some of the aftermath of globalisation is proving to be quite expensive to clear up.
Having been a member of OPI’s EOPA jury for ten years I can clearly state that you guys gave us a great communication tool and networking platform that helped many companies in Europe to be both more successful and have a little more fun in our tough daily work. Thanks to all the OPI team. Please continue to improve OPI in the coming years. That’s your challenge!
Congratulations OPI on 25 years of extraordinary coverage and review. Thank you for providing personalised recognition to the leaders in our industry and celebrating our accomplishments.
25 years from now, in 2041, when we’re selling high-productivity cerebral implants, augmented reality workspace solutions, fully-integrated hyperbaric workstations and biometric-authentication devices, OPI will still be covering the news.
When I joined the OP industry I remember thinking that, while it may not be glamorous, people would always need pens and paper, disks and printer ribbons. Whatever happened in the outside world, offices would still need supplies. In a way, they still do, but to a much broader extent.
There are some exceptional dealers that have welcomed and even driven the change that is happening, but there are many more that are living on borrowed time. The industry as a whole has reacted far too slowly to the changing world and I fear for the majority of the dealer channel.
The wholesalers have spent most of the last decade in turmoil, driven by the short-term needs of their venture capitalist owners and not the long-term needs of their customers. Their policies of buying customers in order to feed their infrastructure, and making poor investments in technology and systems has not worked and in the race to the bottom, it’s questionable if anyone has won.
Dealer groups were once recognised for delivering innovation, differentiation, creativity and best practice. Unfortunately, with the creation of the wholesalers’ own groups, they’ve found themselves increasingly unsupported and I think they too face an uncertain future.
In the meantime, while the channel has been naval-gazing, Amazon has come along, and by implementing the digital model in which much of the industry still refuses to invest, eaten everyone’s sandwiches.
The OP industry is like matter – it cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change. So there will be change and consolidation through acquisition or liquidation, but the winners will take the industry forward in a new way.
My career in the industry was most influenced by the false prophet known as the NOPA Future of the Industry Report. A great and exciting read, it provoked a giddy round of global expansion, acquisitions, investments in technology, IPOs and more, as players self-fulfilled its predictions.
Fast forward to today, how many of those global ventures have paid off? How much wealth has been destroyed by inscrutable acquisitions, like Staples’ purchase of Corporate Express? Or one of the worst examples of pearls before swine, Viking in the hands of Office Depot?
Looking back, I see a contrast in the industry that still drives decisions today. There are those companies that are driven by the mantra of earnings per share.
I believe their success has been limited and the waste of capital and human effort too high a price.
On the other side, there are businesses that build from within, and hone their offerings in terms of quality, effectiveness, ethical consistency, and being good to do business with. Those that have made it thus far appear to be thriving.
What a wild ride the past 25 years have presented for the OP channel. Whether you are a manufacturer, wholesaler, contract stationer or manufacturer’s rep, no one has escaped the changes that have occurred.
OPI has managed to do a brilliant job covering relevant and topical stories over the years, with a style of writing that captures my attention with each publication, whether printed or posted online. I look forward to watching the business continue to evolve. Well done and congratulations to all the team at OPI.
We were fortunate to be in the OP industry during a time when there was still a lot of camaraderie in the business and when people were arguing about whether you should ever sell anything at a discount from list. We [Quill] were the dirty discounter, but the superstores soon surpassed us. Then we matched them and continued to grow and now they are being surpassed by Amazon and others. It’s a shame they aren’t agile enough to compete.
I would highlight 1991 as a defining year, not least because that’s when OPI started. An argument could be made that the launch of OPI coincided with and played a significant role in accelerating the formation of the global OP market.
By providing insights into the key industry resellers around the world, OPI was like someone turning on the lights for manufacturers. It made it easier to understand the markets and its players and that, in turn, made it easier to be successful.
The biggest surprise has been how quickly all generations are mastering technology. If there’s to be a day of reckoning for independents I’d say technology could be our undoing.
I find it amusing, and satisfying that those who wrote off independent, small business people are largely the ones not with us today. The day may well come where there is no place for us in the OP world, but that day is not today.
At the centre of all has been OPI with its fair, balanced, timely and insightful coverage – for that we thank you and your excellent team.
My best memories include all the great people I’ve worked with – so many tough times, fun times and rewarding times. Also the manufacturers that were ready to do things differently, bend the rules and remove mountains to make our dreams come true.
I have very fond memories of two special guys called Mike Jefferies and Steve Hilleard who did so much to support Lyreco and myself. Remember that very first issue of OPI – a black-and-white eight-page document? And that first OPI conference – fewer than 50 of us, with presentations done using polypropylene slides on overhead projectors.
Other notable moments include meeting Jon Ledecky in a shuttle bus to Roissy airport – because that was the only time he had available! And the face of the maitre d’hotel at a restaurant in Paris when ‘the hermit’ Jirka Rysavy and I walked in for dinner – Jirka was asked to change into more suitable business attire!
The defining moments of the past 30 years include the launch of Viking in the UK and Europe in the 1990s, and the charm offensive Irwin Helford made at a BOSSF conference. He had a hostile audience eating out of his hand by the end. Then there was the launch of Staples superstores in the UK, also in the 1990s, and the variety of different formats used to try and make it a success.
The ballsy Jon Ledecky telling UK dealers to ‘sell or die’, and the failed global domination of USOP were memorable events. Plus the Dudley Stationery crash – from hero to zero in just a few months.
I have many amusing stories from Paperworld but they’re fortunately covered by the Official Secrets Act – what happens in Frankfurt stays in Frankfurt!
One of the defining moments in the office products industry was the focus on innovation, differentiation and creating value, all the way along the distribution chain.
This started happening in the early 2000s and Esselte was one of the leading innovators, creating differentiated, value-add products, marketing and services. Essentially, these factors led to sales growth and allowed everyone to make good margins – always a good idea in business.
I was fortunate to make many really good friends among customers and competitors, spanning countries and indeed continents. I have always been amazed, given the size of the industry, how friendly it is and how much fun it was, almost like a small, global village.
Ronny Van Rossem
A defining period for myself, my team and the whole industry was the time in 2007/2008 when we didn’t know whether Corporate Express (CE) would buy Lyreco or whether CE was going to be bought by Staples. That moment still has repercussions today.
What’s surprised me the most during my time in the industry is the level of venture capital interest in what is a challenging vertical market and category. Also, I’m puzzled that some resellers sell on competitor websites and also purchase from them, thereby effectively supporting their competition.
I’m heartened by the entrepreneurial spirit and success of independent dealers – they’ve maintained a strong relevance in the marketplace while being entirely self-funded.
The speed at which Amazon has grown to become a major global player has surprised me the most. The rising importance of online sales and marketing has meant a significant shift in terms of strategic marketing planning.
The speed with which the industry changed and consolidated as a result of the introduction of Staples amazed me. I don’t think anyone realised in advance the profound impact this would have. The Wall Street Journal once described OP as the fastest-changing industry in America.
I’d love to be here in ten years’ time and see the impact of e-commerce killers in our industry. Will e-commerce take the market share mail order enjoyed ten years ago? We can already see which direction some market players are investing in. Let’s see in a decade who had the right vision and took the correct decisions today.
The years between 1970 and 2000 were the most creative and interesting period of my life. The structural and technological foundations of the modern office products trade were established and I was privileged to be in the thick of it.
Stationery is fighting back and taking technology head on. Making stationery fun and different has given the younger generation the opportunity to own products that are not only functional but trendy.
Despite all the structural changes and acquisitions that happened during my time, with associated immense pressure placed on the manufacturing side of the business, my abiding memory is that our industry retained its great sense of humour, integrity and honesty during what was a very difficult time. For that I will always be grateful.
My greatest surprise is seeing how the big box retailers initially totally minimised the e-commerce boom, amid the decline of traditional retail. Everybody loves progress, but nobody likes change.
I’m still amazed at the slow adoption rate of mobile over the past 12 months. With the percentages that the e-tailers are reporting, it’s amazing that the independent channel has not adopted it more broadly. I believe it poses more of a threat to the channel than e-commerce did in the late 1990s.
For me, the defining moment in the industry would be the entry of the major players – Corporate Express, OfficeMax and Lyreco – into the Australian market. They have remodelled the industry so that no one makes any money – brilliant!
I had seen consolidation in other industries, but I was amazed by the speed with which it occurred in the office products industry.
I often wonder whether some manufacturers would have made the same decisions about branded or generic product had they been able to see into the future. The generic alternate product is now the accepted norm.
I remember Jonathan Straker’s hilarious speech at an OPI conference – the daughter’s letter to her parents explaining about running off with the gardener who had got her pregnant… I’ll also never forget when my friend Geoff Betts got into trouble in Cannes.
I guess my biggest disappointment would have to be the rapid fall and ultimate business failure of Daisytek in 2004, several years after my departure. Sad to see such a great company get run into the ground.
The biggest surprise has been the irrelevance of the superstore today. It’s somewhat refreshing that the most valuable asset of the major players has become their contract segments.
We long predicted the death of paper, but it took longer than expected. I now work in a start-up technology company with 35 people in my HQ. We don’t have a printer outside of our accountant. I don’t actually remember the last document I printed. The paperless office finally happened for me and I find that pretty amazing.
I think that the best efforts of our industry are on display each year at the City of Hope event. We competed vigorously in the marketplace but came together to support an important charity. That makes me proud.