Tom Stemberg meant a lot to a lot of people – industry icons past and present share their memories of him with OPI.
A celebration of the life of Staples’ founder Tom Stemberg is taking place today, 20 November, in Boston, Massachusetts.
OPI has asked current and former Staples’ executives, competitors and suppliers to offer their personal recollections and reflections of Tom – how he changed the industry and what he meant to them personally.
Below (in alphabetical order by surname) you will find a rich array of anecdotes, observations and even some admissions that you might find surprising. But they all confirm the indelible mark that Tom Stemberg left on the office products industry as a whole and on all those he came into contact with.
Former EVP Staples Contract
I worked for Tom Stemberg for well over a decade, but never fully appreciated his genius until I didn’t work for him any longer.
There are few people in history who through the sheer power of their vision and insight totally reinvent an industry. Henry Ford, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison… and Tom Stemberg. He single-handedly drove the highly fragmented office products industry into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
His sense of humour was cutting and hysterical. He was once asked at an investors’ conference 25 years ago how he felt being the father of the office products superstore industry when there were 10-15 copycats at that point. His instantaneous answer was: "I should have used a condom!”
He had no patience for pretenders or phonies, but infinite wisdom to share with those of us who surrounded and learned from him.
Gone too soon, but his legacy will endure.
Former SVP, Avery Dennison
Tom Stemberg: What a guy!
A visionary like no one else I have known; a demanding but loyal customer; a man of his word; and a long-time friend.
I first met Tom when he was interviewing potential vendors with his merchandising manager at the Hilton Hotel in Chicago just prior to a NOPA Show. That was before he opened his first Staples store.
We (K&M) became one of his first key suppliers and we remained business associates and friends following that very first meeting. We always responded to Tom and Staples in a very positive way, but were never intimidated by him and always gave him our candid comments on sensitive business issues. He, in turn, respected us for being direct, for being well prepared and for our overall style of doing business.
Tom supported us and our product lines and never forgot that we were one of his early vendors and were there when he needed our support. He invited my wife and I to the dedication of the Staples Center in Los Angeles where we sat with him at his table. He purchased a star on the Staples Center Walk of Fame for me and for Irwin Helford with the inscription ‘My Friend’ and he dedicated a store in Los Angeles to me.
But most of all he was always available and responded to us on a variety of issues, perhaps not always as I had hoped, but he was always direct and fair.
I considered Tom a friend and appreciated the support he gave me and our companies for many years. His friendship and loyalty proves that relationships do count!
We will miss him.
Former President, Staples North America & Staples International
I would describe Tom as smart and strategic. He always listened and he always learned. Unlike many with these attributes, he was a risk-taker who moved forward with his ideas. He was charismatic and added liveliness and excitement wherever he was.
He gave a lot to a lot of people and will be missed.
Former Chairman and CEO, ACCO World Corporation
Tom Stemberg changed the office products industry more than anyone else in history. Early in the 20th century, loose-leaf as developed by Wilson Jones was a defining event and changed bookkeeping methods.
But Tom was a visionary who impacted manufacturers, wholesalers and retailing in general throughout the globe.
He approached ACCO in 1985 with his idea to open a ‘superstore’. We thought he was singing in the wind, but ‘just in case’ we became one of his very first suppliers. Tom never forgot us and we went on to a long and profitable relationship.
He was a bright, personable executive who shared ideas with many of his competitors. He enjoyed competition and went on to lead the change of retailing of most office products. He encouraged dealers to become marketers and not just ‘stationers’. Most dealers have changed as result and now offer a multitude of new and traditional products.
Many people became wealthy as a result of his vision and the execution of his ideas. The industry is stronger and healthier as a result.
Carlos Duarte Maia
SVP European Retail, Staples
The thing I remember most about Tom is his arrival in Lisbon at 6am on a flight from China followed by a 180 km drive in my car. He slept and talked while I drove.
When we reached the parking lot of the store we were visiting, he woke up as if an alarm clock had gone off, and entered at the store as if nothing had happened!
A new store associate who did not know us but who knew of our visit addressed me as Tom and Tom as me. This was due to the fact that I was wearing a jacket and tie (to impress Tom…!) and he was dressed in a grey rain jacket which I suppose he had been wearing in China and hadn’t taken off since then!
The humility and the emotion with which he shook the hands of all store associates is an image that I will retain forever.
It was a sad day for our industry when we learned of Tom Stemberg’s passing. More than anyone else, Tom was the ‘game-changer’ for our industry. His launch of the first office products superstore in Brighton, Massachusetts, in 1986 changed the success paradigms for every segment of the industry.
Tom was a ‘one-off-the-mould’ kind of character. I have never met anyone more competitive and driven. He was brilliant and opinionated about most things. At one of his vendor shows in the early days, I listened to his detailed instruction of what the world needed in the way of a 5.25-inch diskette tray! Ours was apparently all wrong…!
After growing the business to substantial levels, he remained nevertheless a ‘ground level’ executive with a great command of the details of the business. He had a vision on what a great business looked like and he drove its execution.
He remained accessible to vendors and especially warm-hearted to those who had been with him from the beginning. He once flew in to speak to our global leadership team: he was in and out in a couple of hours, leaving the audience quite spellbound.
I have always admired Tom for his selection and partnership, and ultimately CEO succession to Ron Sargent. Here were two strong individuals with very different make up and temperament. Tom understood what his business needed to be successful for the future and turned to Ron for next generation leadership.
Reflections on Tom Stemberg and my business and personal relationship with him.
Tom Stemberg was unique, to say the least, but in a good way. He wore many hats and had numerous faces and changed them as frequently as others change socks.
He combined street-smarts with academic knowledge and produced one of the great retail and direct-to-business powerhouses in the world.
According to folklore, Tom, the co-founder and CEO of Staples, and I, the co-founder and CEO of OfficeMax, were arch enemies and more than once allegedly had ‘High Noon Shootouts’ at the OK Corral.
Yes, we had our differences – but that was normal in a then meteorically-growing and fiercely competitive industry. Fur flew many times between us, particularly during the 1997 attempted merger between Staples and Office Depot. Tom’s job was to get his deal done, and my mission during this tumultuous game-changing period was to protect OfficeMax’s market position and act as an opportunist to take advantage of the situation – which I did, much to the chagrin of Staples’ supporters, especially Tom.
Tom and I had many conversations after that failed merger and frequently acknowledged to each other that we were doing the right thing for our constituencies. Retrospectively, after the smoke had cleared and emotions subsided we had many a good laugh about our respective tactics in the heat of battle.
We were competitors through and through and over the years we had a few side bets about who could outdo whom. The loser wrote the cheque and the winner, of course, framed the cheque, but always gave the money to charity.
On a personal level, Tom and I met many times over the 16 years when I ran OfficeMax and the relationship continued thereafter. Most times, this meant secretly sneaking away for a dinner to discuss the world’s business problems; in Cleveland when he was traveling in the Midwest or in Boston and New York City during my travels on the east coast.
Never once, however, did we discuss merchandising, pricing or vendors. Setting aside the ethical and legal issues, it was most likely because neither of us, God forbid, would ever want the other to know if he’d been outdone!
I liked and respected Tom a great deal and even enjoyed our theatrical and wildly exaggerated adversarial relationship in public. On a personal basis, over the years we called upon each other for non-business favours and to further good work, charitable and otherwise, for the industry.
During our halcyon days we both thought we were legends, at least in our own minds. Tom, however, is now truly a legend in the business for having created an industry, tens of thousands of jobs and wealth for many, including his competitors, and for giving all of us the idea to enter an industry which was previously never envisioned.
Tom did much to improve the world, displaying his commitment to charitable activities and having the gumption to support those political candidates and causes that he thought would truly make a difference.
Many owe much to Tom, including me. Rest in peace, Tom Stemberg, you sure had a hell of a run.
President of North American Commercial, Staples
What I’ll always remember about Tom was his boldness. Time and time again, Tom had the ability to see around the corner and plan the next phase of Staples’ growth.
The only reason that Staples is an e-commerce power today is because Tom had the vision to start our delivery business 20-plus years ago. At the time, the easy action would have been to focus solely on stores… but Tom was always thinking ahead.
On a personal level, Tom was a great coach and teacher. In 2002, I took on the role of head of marketing for Staples. It was a big jump for me. Tom took it upon himself to ensure my success.
For the first year, he met with me very single week for an hour to talk through our marketing plans and strategies. These were working sessions complete with spreadsheets, handwritten notes and lots of debate.
Admittedly, I was a bit daunted by these sessions at first, but I came to cherish them and when Tom decided I was ready to lead on my own, I missed them. Tom showed that he believed in me but he also gave me the support to succeed. A killer combo.
Tom’s life is a lesson to all of us. To lead boldly, to fail quickly, to believe in and teach those around us, to find joy and passion during even the toughest workdays and to live life fully.
Former CEO, Viking
Tom Stemberg: Reflections, personal and business.
Tom Stemberg changed our industry, making it much more competitive, more difficult to grow and visibly lowered pricing – all challenges to make each of our office products businesses better than they ever were before.
Many of us did, many did not and a large number of dealers disappeared. Those of us who survived became better organisations in most every way. For me and our Viking team, it became even more critical to earn and keep customer loyalty… and do it without just ‘buying’ a customer’s business with the lowest price.
We did it, and had many of our highest growth years alongside Staples’ growth and expansion. Tom helped that to happen.
When Tom decided to open Staples in Europe, we both were speakers at a BOSS Federation event in England. I presented the Viking story first and Tom followed with his Staples presentation. After, Tom said he would never follow my presentation to speak again. I repeated him and said “me neither”. We became pretty good friends after that.
Some years later, after Viking became a leader in Europe, Tom called me to discuss merging our companies. We did have conversations and came close, but decided not to. Others have speculated about why not, but to me the main reason was clear: Tom’s loyalty to his top executives.
I always have, and always will have, the greatest respect and admiration for one of the most creative, hard-working and finest leaders in our industry: Tom Stemberg.
Former President ACCO USA & Canada
Former President, United Stationers
Former Chairman, Kingfield Heath
I knew Tom well and enjoyed his dry wit and enormous entrepreneurial spirit.
He started with a limited retail range and a commitment to never buy from wholesalers! I spent many hours at his office and home trying to convince him that a full range, and especially janitorial products, would add 20% to overall sales.
He said he doubted my strategy, but enjoyed my salesmanship. So he put the programme into their telemarketing team only and quickly saw success. He eventually called and said they were wrong and opened up the doors for us. In the process he was instrumental in encouraging the entire trade to sell everything used in an office rather than just ‘office products’.
Just one example of the incredible impact Staples had on our industry. Tom was a true game-changer on many levels.
Success has many fathers, and Tom would have been the first to credit the men and women whose contributions helped Staples become a great company. There were early investors who risked capital on his idea; landlords who risked tying up their space for an unproven start-up; early employees who risked careers; suppliers who took risks in supporting a venture that threatened the industry’s status quo.
These risk takers, entrepreneurs in their own right, each helped to make Staples what it is today. But only Tom Stemberg brought us all together. And only Tom Stemberg had the vision, drive and force of personality to inspire us to build such a remarkable business and change our corner of the world.
I am grateful to Tom for the opportunities he opened for me and for the trust he had in me to be part of his great adventure. It was an honour to work with him and to be his friend.
Todd Krasnow was part of Staples’ original management team and was EVP of Sales and Marketing until 1998. He and Tom subsequently partnered in other businesses, including most recently with the Highland Consumer Fund.
Former President, ACCO Brands
Everyone knows that Tom Stemberg was a visionary in the office products industry. I would like to recall some other aspects of his personality…
I remember in the early days of Staples’ rise to prominence, their managers told fascinating stories about Tom’s ability to digest large amounts of information. They said he would sit at a managers’ meeting with a pile of reports in front of him. He would peruse these reports while various managers made their presentations.
They wondered how he could digest all this information simultaneously. While glancing through these voluminous reports, Tom would stop and ask a manager about a detailed point in his presentation.
On another occasion, my wife Jeanne and I were attending a large function in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Tom was there with his wife. The meeting organisers separated the couples to encourage conversation and to make new acquaintances.
After the dinner, I was talking to Tom and his wife when my wife joined us. Tom had met her once before. As she joined the group, Tom said to his wife, "This is Dez’s wife, Jeanne.” There was no list of attendees; he must have had a photographic memory.
Tom was a great guy and a good friend.
CEO Thompson & Morgan
Former Merchandise & Logistics Director, Staples UK
I met Tom when we were writing the business plan to launch Staples in the UK.
He could be very demanding but never left you feeling resentful. His obituaries record his personality and approach to business and I don’t think I can add anything to what has already been said.
Two recollections were that he often used to seem to fall asleep in meetings, but would suddenly wake up and ask the perfect question or make a telling comment, generally delivered in his characteristic high-speed mumble. Even if his eyes were closed, that mind was working.
He also used to ask me to drive him when he came to the UK and liked nothing better than having me exceed speed limits and generally drive as fast as possible at all times without any concern for our safety or my licence!
I learnt a lot from him as did everyone on the start-up team in the UK.
Jack Miller & Harvey L Miller
Former owners of Quill Corp
In Yiddish we would say that Tom was a real ‘mensch’ – a real man; someone who stood by his word and who always did the right thing. We knew Tom through business, following him from when he first started Staples on through to when they bought us (Quill), and then invested with him when he went into the private equity business.
In all of our dealings, Tom was straightforward, a man of his word and someone we grew to respect a great deal.
With his shirt tail flying, his aggressiveness showing, Tom was always at the top of his game when pursuing a goal. He was a true entrepreneur and the world was better for his having been here.
Much more you cannot ask.
Tom Stemberg hired me at the beginning [of Staples] and my life changed from that point forward. Up to that point in my career, I had never worked with a visionary leader like Tom.
His forward thinking from day one of what Staples would one day become was beyond comprehension. I’ve been fortunate for 30 years now to have lived his dream and seen it all come to fruition.
He poured his life into Staples and he worked around the clock, quite often without sleep. He absolutely loved his company and everyone that helped make Staples a household name.
The other attribute I loved about Tom was how he cared about the people that worked for him. He was a very sensitive guy. He loved being in the stores and was continually challenging himself and everyone else to improve our business. He was great at asking people for their thoughts and ideas.
Tom changed the lives of many people and I will forever be thankful that I had him in my life.
Chairman & CEO, Staples
I’ll always remember when I first met with Tom back in 1988. I asked him how many Staples stores there were. He said there were 15, but there would be hundreds someday. I asked him about profits and he told me that they were working on becoming profitable. I asked him about total sales and Tom told me that he hoped for total sales of $40 million in 1988, but he thought Staples could be a billion dollar company someday.
I went home and told my wife, “Well, the entrepreneur thinks Staples can get to a billion in sales… I think we can probably get to half a billion.” Almost 28 years later, Tom’s company is over $22 billion in sales.
Tom was the rare entrepreneur who could come up with a great idea and could also execute it successfully. He was a visionary and a giant of our industry.
On a personal level, he cared deeply about others. Tom was a great friend to many of us at Staples, and a great mentor to me. To everything he did, Tom brought tremendous energy, passion and, of course, a sense of humour.
Former President & CEO, Pilot Pen Corporation
When Tom was a youngster, he believed that he would become an entrepreneur when he grew up. That is probably one of the biggest understatements ever made. He turned out to be a brilliant planner and one of the most creative business leaders I have ever known.
In the days when I was the Chairman of the Anti-Defamation League dinner, we always had two honourees in our effort to raise funds to fight bigotry and hatred. I called Tom to ask him to be one of the honourees for the following year, and he told me that he had heard that I was stepping down from the role of MC/Chairman. I replied that after having done it for 15 years I thought it was about time to allow others to take that role. He quickly replied that he would not be an honouree unless I continued in the role. By that time, Tom and Staples were extremely important so I backed down – the dinner was a huge success.
Another memory I have is the time he called to tell me that he was putting on a big dinner party in Boston to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Staples. He had made his own list of invitees as the recipients were individuals who had supported Staples from its inception and this was his way of saying thank you.
It was a grand event and the star attraction of the evening was Mitt Romney. Mr Romney was an early investor in Staples and he also had a seat on the board of directors. At that time, he had also announced that he was throwing his hat in the ring to run for President of the United States.
The room was filled to capacity and the evening was a major success. Tom asked me to bring my wife and to arrive early so we could have a few minutes alone with Mitt Romney – as a special treat.
During the programme that night, Mr Romney reminded the audience that he felt that Tom Stemberg was one of the brightest business leaders of all time. He concluded that with all of Tom’s outstanding business abilities, he still didn’t know how to tie a tie, he never had his hair combed properly and his attire looked like he had slept in his clothes!
While these humorous comments received a roar of laughter, he reminded us that Tom Stemberg would go down in the books as being a genius with a mind that never stopped being creative.
I was proud to call Tom a friend. Dealing with him was always a learning experience and he will be missed.
Rest in peace, Tom.
Former Vice Chairman, Staples
Memories of Tom Stemberg: The business icon with the expansive heart and soul
Tom Stemberg was a genius, eccentric entrepreneur who ‘struck fear’ in the psyche of many at times, myself included. His intensity was feverish, his capacity limitless, his work ethic unparalleled, his competitiveness ruthless, and his pace frenetic. These attributes and traits are hardly the description of a caring, compassionate, sensitive, loyal and loving family man. Yet, Tom was just that.
We first met in 1988 at my Staples job interview. Tom was late – which was one of his many idiosyncrasies – and in this case, by a full two and a half hours! Of course, during my protracted wait, I received innumerable messages from Tom, his assistant, Staples associates and airline representatives (the alleged catalyst for the delay) assuring me to "hang in there" as he would arrive.
It was a hot, humid evening in Philadelphia, and Tom ultimately arrived completely enveloped in perspiration and dishevelled (another trait) from head to toe.
After he had freshened up, Tom conducted the interview. The most memorable moment was Tom’s challenge to me that I could join him "in making history" or continue in my present position of "watching paint dry”.
Mind you, I was then President of a $3 billion dollar real estate subsidiary of a then $30 billion dollar enterprise. Big numbers for 1988. Yet he was right on both counts.
The caring side of Tom was exhibited when he called me the next day to apologise if his remarks had offended me. I can recount endless ‘tales of Tom’, but time and space preclude that. Anyway, the few that follow illustrate and corroborate my assertions.
Traveling with Tom was exhilarating, exhausting and fun… if you were masochistic.
Our ‘red eyes’ from California to Boston were particularly noteworthy. After a full day of frenetic activity, we would dine (I utilise that term with tongue planted firmly in cheek) at Paco’s Tacos in the Westchester section of LA – a greasy spoon to many, but fine dining to Tom. Plus, he was helping a small business owner ply his craft and improve his lot in life.
After suffering though the meal, we would board the American Airlines flight. To the bemusement of the flight attendants, Tom would proudly proclaim that he would be no trouble and be as quiet as a mouse, but had a few initial and innocuous requests: chocolate cookies before take-off (typically prepared inflight after dinner) and a few large 55 gallon trash bags (nowhere to be found on the aircraft) for his discards and trash to be created.
Needless to say, the attendants were flabbergasted. All in a day and a red eye with Tom.
Another memorable day was a monumental journey in 1996. We began in Hamburg, Germany, with a scheduled hotel departure of 6am. I decided, as I was unaware of the complete schedule (as was typical), to be cavalier and be a few moments dilatory. Tom was furious over the lost ten minutes, which I found curious as I was never late and he always was.
After a brief meeting with our German colleagues, we were off to Heathrow. On the flight, he explained that we would be taking Concorde to New York. It was unheard of to take Concorde, but Tom later explained we were utilising complimentary promotional tickets from BA. I should also note that Tom had set aside time in Heathrow to meet with an associate who had concerns about his career path.
After landing at Kennedy, we had another business meeting and caught a flight to Boston to participate in a specially-called late meeting – again unbeknown to me – with the Board of Directors to approve the merger with Office Depot. Three countries, four major cities, an Atlantic crossing and four meetings in one day. A half day’s work for Tom Stemberg!
My last anecdote is one of a personal nature, of sorts. It was during my early days with Staples and I had a temporary apartment in downtown Boston not far from Tom’s residence.
On a sleepy Sunday morning, I attended church service. To my pleasant surprise, Tom arrived (late of course!) with his then three young sons. As is my want to do, I occupied the last row. Tom did not see me and occupied a row further towards the front. It was so touching to watch him interact with his sons with such joy, care and devotion. Time spent with his children was obviously very important to him, and it was remarkable and surprising to me to witness this compassionate and soft side of Tom. I never related that experience to him, or anyone else for that matter, until now, but the memory is vivid and profound.
The loss of Tom Stemberg, especially for Katherine, his devoted wife, his children and grandchildren is intolerable and immeasurable. Yet, that loss pales by comparison to the indelible, positive and pervasive impact his life had on them and countless others, myself included.
President of Europe, Staples
The things I remember most about Tom were his boundless energy, his incredible intellectual horsepower and witty sense of humour, as well as his tendency to speak at 90 miles an hour!
To win an argument with Tom, you had to prepare better than you ever had in your life and then deliver the facts rapidly and with overwhelming conviction.
I loved our debates and discussions. Win or lose, I came out stronger and better educated every time!