These days, hearing of an office products independent dealer preparing to usher in its second generation of leadership is impressive. Hearing of one ushering in its fourth generation is nothing short of amazing. But that is precisely what Eaton Office Supply, Amherst, New York, will be doing on January 1, 2022.
Richard Eaton learned about obtaining supplies—primarily books—for other students in college. After graduating in accounting, he started a bookstore at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. In 1915, he joined a print shop looking for expertise and financial backing. A year later, Arthur Eaton joined the printing company and the two brothers bought out the other partners, establishing first Eaton Brothers, then Eaton Office Supply.
Changing of the guard
Today, 106 years later, Richard’s grandson, Bruce C. Eaton, is president—until the new year, when his stepdaughter Andrea Bradly assumes the role, which Bruce says she has worked hard to earn. “Andrea started with Eaton in 2008 in the marketing department,” he says. “In 2011, she became marketing manager and in 2018 she joined the board of directors.”
Even so, the transition won’t be instantaneous. “We started succession planning back in 2018 and we are still not done,” he explains. “We’ll continue to work on it for the next couple of years. I’ve been in the business for 44 years. It’s my job to show Andrea the things I’ve learned and she will figure it out from there.”
Tips for success
Bruce has figured out a few things in his long career that have kept Eaton Office Supply successful. One of them is the need to keep up with technology.
“Investing in technology is very important,” he says. “With everyone working at home, we put in a Wi-Fi-connected route tracking system. Our truck drivers have tablets, so customers receive emails that their deliveries are on the way and once they are delivered. Our drivers take pictures of the delivered packages and email them to the customer. And thanks to GPS, we know where the trucks are and what deliveries have been made. If a truck has made 30 out of 50 deliveries, we know there are still 20 to make and can keep our customers informed.
“On the front end, a good website is critical to survival in today’s world. A good web store with A+ content is important. So too is easy accessibility and easy navigation. Finally, it needs to have an easy way to purchase. We just created an open website. Before, customers had to log in with their user names and passwords; now they can log in if they want, but visitors also can order and use a credit card.”
Bruce believes diversification is another key to independent dealer longevity.
“Office products are changing and alone are not enough, so diversification is very important,” he says. “We are always looking for additional products and services to offer customers. We offer breakroom, janitorial, print and other categories; so we are already pretty diverse. But we are looking into doing more with safety and shipping supplies. Maintenance, repair and operations is another area. A few of our peers have started down that path with some success, so it is intriguing.”
Bruce offers some further advice for dealers looking toward the future: “I’d encourage dealers to think about acquisitions if they have the cash. I also think that to drive profit, it is important to be able to look at the profit and loss, balance sheets and cash flow, and understand them. Staying close to your suppliers is also essential. We are a stocking company, so we buy direct from manufacturers, but we also buy from wholesalers. Listen to your suppliers and try to connect their brands to the marketplace.
“I’ve spent 40 years working with buying groups, as chairman, on the board of directors and as a member,” he concludes. “Buying groups help independent dealers stay competitive.”
Number of employees: 60
Key management: Bruce C. Eaton, president; Andrea Bradley, marketing manager; Bill Bunny, IT director; Kristine McMahon, controller; Paul Nasca, sales manager; Casey Hester, operations manager; Laura Dillon, customer service manager
Percentage of business
Year founded: 1916
Main wholesaler: S.P. Richards