History lesson



I have to say that putting together the Staples anniversary section of this edition of OPI got me thinking on a number of levels. The global timeline we put alongside the Staples timeline for 1986 to 2006 was quite sobering.
The last 20 years have certainly been eventful for the world at large with all manner of tragic footnotes, both natural and man-made, and a virtual overhaul of the world’s political landscape. The world has changed immeasurably and the same can be said about the OP world with Staples driving the reseller industry from Massachusetts.
Also by contrast, Staples’ history has been a fairly fluid exercise in how to grow a business from scratch. Sure, there have been bumps and mistakes along the way and incidents it would much rather forget – not to mention the failed mega-merger between Staples and Office Depot – but generally speaking, Stemberg and the firm’s current CEO Ron Sargent have steered a steady path.
As Stemberg says himself in our interview "hard to know how it could have been better". On the subject of the merger, I thought it was fascinating that Stemberg felt that Staples may have played a part in torpedoing its own deal through not highlighting the significance of the mass market retailers. Stemberg says it didn’t make enough of the significance of Wal-Mart, Target et al when it appraised the industry. That’s interesting stuff.
It wasn’t too long ago that a note was sent to the OPI editorial desk asking why we covered Wal-Mart and the other mass market retailers so much in what was supposed to be a magazine for the OP industry – I guess Stemberg has answered that question better than I could.
In the interview section at the back of the Staples feature we split Ron Sargent and Tom Stemberg into their two very specific areas – execution and ideas respectively. If the history of Staples was a military operation, Stemberg would be the man with the plan and Sargent the point man – a match made in OP heaven. In an industry that can suffer from a lack of entrepreneurial spirit, Stemberg is a model of ambition and free-thinking.
I recently had the pleasure to interview another similar, but only too rare, OP entrepreneur when I spoke to Greece’s George Gerardos. Gerardos, and his firm Plaisio Computers, have shown a similar hunger for growth as Staples and it’s no surprise where his retail inspiration comes from. On the subject of Ron Sargent, it’s clear how lucky Stemberg considers himself to be to have had Sargent there as such a perfect person to not just keep the good work up, but raise it to another level.
So, is it worth a peek into the future to see what may be the key drivers for Staples in the next 20 years? Well, the firm’s recent move into China points towards a keenness to explore new regions of potential growth and Staples has been quite clear that it hopes to dominant that market in time – by virtue of a billion dollar business.
Back home in the US, the company has also been busy eating its way into the mid-market, by acquisition in particular, so expect that to continue – not good news for dealers obviously, but something to put the fire in the belly of all dealers that enjoy a good fight.
Additonally, I think private label is going to get bigger and bigger for Staples. Sargent is clearly pleased with how this area is going and the plan is to keep growing it and then go to the customer to see how much further it should go. It turns out that a Staples private brand box of rubber bands even made its way to Iran – how’s that for spreading the word?
The issue of private label could also be vital when Staples comes to finding Ron’s eventual replacement, whenever that may be. My money would be on the company’s young private label mastermind Jevin Eagle – the first ever winner of the US OP award for Young Professional of the Year. But hey, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Ron is still the man at Staples and he is likely to be there for some time. Great news for the OP giant, bad news for the competition.
So, happy birthday to Staples. There are obviously many who hoped it would never get there, but you have to admire the achievement. As the tagline says, ‘Staples – That was easy’. Well, sort of.