Wist-ful thinking


Wist Office Products has accomplished every independent dealer’s dream: it has beaten big boys Corporate Express, Staples, OfficeMax and Office Depot to nab the top spot in its regional market of Arizona.

The fact that the list, which recently appeared in Arizona Business Magazine, was collated solely on the back of reader’s votes is beside the point – or indeed, exactly the point. Wist is a massive success story.
Ian Wist, general manager of the family firm, which was set up in 1955 and now has 60 members of staff, is understandably proud of his company’s achievements, but claims its success has come as a result of hard work, not luck.


"It was a challenge for us to win the award as we have less customers [than the big boxes]," he told OPI+. "But enough of those customers took the trouble to vote for us – we feel that says a lot. Service might be ok at the big retailers, but their customers have not taken the time to vote for them."


Wist believes his company’s success is down to three factors. First, the quality of its employees. "You need good employees," he said. "We hire well, we look after all our staff well and we compensate them above the market rate, which is important. In return, we have an excellent level of customer service and a high degree of loyalty. In fact, many of the staff members have been here since before I was born."


Second, the company adopted the right technology. Five years ago, Wist moved from the Copas system and invested in the IBM AS400 platform, the earlier generation and original name of IBM’s iSeries and i5 families of mid-range business computers. This was – and still is – the server product of choice for a large number of financial institutions, banks and credit unions, so Wist’s adoption of the technology allowed it to share the same language as these important companies.


"It was a large investment to pay out at first, but it has enabled our business to grow," said Wist. "We have built our system into the business ourselves; it has been customised by our own IT staff. I believe we are the only dealer to be using the system, which has been a big part of our success. It has allowed us to offer what the big box suppliers offer and more."


The system, claims Wist, boasts all the essentials for any office product dealer. These are, among others: scalability; customer retention programmes; the ability to efficiently manage inventory as well as process and track orders; and an open IP connection with the wholesaler which, in Wist’s case, is United Stationers. "Over 60 per cent of our orders are from end-users online," said Wist. "After we recover the order, we can transmit it directly to United, then United confirms what it can and can’t ship so customers know what they will receive the next day, even if they ordered as late as 5pm. This system gives us a much greater strength in dealing with our customers." 


Wist believes the SAP-hosted solution for business product resellers, launched by United and SAP at the end of last year, is the only system available to dealers that comes close in its scalability and offerings to its IBM system.


The company’s third ingredient in its recipe for success, Wist says, is its entrepreneurial spirit. "We want to compete with the big boxes and if you have the drive you can definitely do it," he claims. "You need this spirit to succeed."


The company’s "spirit" is reinforced by its sense of community, which has been crucial in enhancing the business’s visibility in Arizona and parts of Nevada. "We have a business director, which I think is unusual for a dealership, who is always out in the community looking at options. This not only improves our reputation, but enables us that personal touch with our customers that the big boxes can never equal us on."


Geography would have played a part too in Wist’s success story. Boasting a population of 3.5 million, greater Phoenix has enjoyed tremendous growth over recent years. But then, the big boxes have also been quick to recognise the opportunities on offer in the area.


Last year – the company’s 50th anniversary year – Wist Office Products grew 15.5 per cent over 2004 and recorded annual sales of $17 million, up from $4.5 million 19 years ago when Ian Wist himself joined the business. "We’ve put our shoulders behind it," said Ian Wist. "It’s been a slow grind, but we have grown every year."


This steady growth should position Wist, which is a member of TriMega as well as nine other trade associations, well to weather future storms. In fact, the company is confident that the business can make $25 million in sales within five years by continuing to work on profitability, expanding in the small markets of the south-west,  compensating staff above the market rate, and increasing dialogue between dealers.


Of course, Wist admits the job won’t be easy – he claims the biggest threat to the dealer channel is that customers will forget about its niche. But he is convinced that this niche will always be there. "I don’t believe conditions will get tougher than they have been in the past," he said. "We’ve been in business a while and we will face the challenges today like we have done in the past. I’d be surprised if a big box can crack the code and service customers like we do. We will always be here, just like there will always be a better quality alternative to McDonald’s."