For A-Z Office Resource, Nashville, Tennessee, success is an acquired taste. In fact, Robbie Clark, A-Z president, estimates the company has made 20 acquisitions in the same number of years. How does A-Z find its prospects?
“We find dealers looking to sell in various ways,” says Robbie. “Some come from our relationships, ISG and other industry meetings; some tell wholesalers they are ready to get out. Also, our vice president of mergers and acquisitions, Tiffany Cooper, worked in manufacturing sales and for S.P. Richards, so she has a lot of contacts.”
But just because these dealers want to sell doesn’t always mean they want to get out of the business entirely. “Their company’s legacy is important to many independent dealers,” continues Robbie. “They care about their employees and communities. Some want to eliminate the day-to-day headaches but want to stay with the company. So we hire them and let the owners keep their style. We even cobrand our marketing and sales materials. It’s interesting: the companies we acquired early on, we would tell they could keep their brand name for seven or eight years. The more recent acquisitions will keep their brand for three to four years and already be saying, ‘We are part of A-Z.’ We’ve found it’s important to let them go at their own pace.”
And employees? “If they are good people, we keep them, even if we have to relocate them, and some get higher positions,” says Robbie. “So far, we’ve kept about 80 percent of the employees from our acquisitions and 90 percent of their business.”
Robbie credits the company’s culture for these impressive retention rates: “Most of our senior management have been there 20 to 25 years. They started as drivers or in the warehouse or customer service. We promote from within. When you give people a career path, they stick around.”
That’s not to say all the staff are nearing retirement—far from it. According to Robbie, the company has many younger managers and he believes this is one key to success.
Another is the company’s leadership approach. “With the right people, there’s no need to micromanage,” explains Robbie. “Our style is to give people goals, then get out of the way. We let them develop the plan and find the solutions. We have minimal turnover and I think this is why.
“The owners, Butch and Julia, are another reason for the company’s success,” he continues. “Sometimes, they care more about the employees than themselves.”
He gives an example: “The owners were fighting off Staples until, finally, the company gave them a price they couldn’t refuse. But three days later, they backed out of the deal. They couldn’t watch Staples tear the company apart. Butch said they couldn’t watch their good employees be sent home [jobless] one by one.”
For other dealers looking to stay in the game, Robbie offers this advice: “Keep up on the world and adjust. I often hear dealers complain about millennials and younger generations. Instead, these dealers should create a culture that attracts and retains younger employees and customers. Get the next generation of leadership up to speed, then get out of the way.”
And Robbie is feeling positive about the future: “Independent dealers who invest in growth can compete. A-Z’s goal is to hit $60 million by 2025 and we are well on track to meet it.”
Top management: Robbie Clark, president; Chris Giles, vice president—sales; Tiffany Cooper, vice president—mergers and acquisitions; Bill Vaughan, vice president—business development
Number of employees: 165
Annual sales: $58 million
First-call wholesaler: Essendant
Online business: 50%