Emerald Business Supply, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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When there are five O’Connell brothers, all in the same industry, it is understandable that people might get confused. Yet out of this confusion was born Emerald Business Supply in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
“It’s actually a great story,” says Mike O’Connell, Emerald Business Supply managing partner. “I had five uncles. Three worked for what is now Office Depot and two worked for its biggest competitor. They would call on a lot of the same accounts and people would get confused. They’d say ‘O’Connell? You were just here.’ Eventually, they realized they had the background and decided to go into business together and open their own office products dealership.”
Today, office products remain Emerald’s highest-grossing category. But it is far from the only one. “Office furniture is our second top-selling category, followed by janitorial, which is booming,” Mike says.
According to Mike, janitorial products—mostly personal protective equipment, such as masks and hand sanitizer—“sustained us” during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet the main “boom” in “booming” has occurred in the last 11 months. “I guess the normal janitorial suppliers fell short, so customers are coming to us,” he says. “It’s business we didn’t ask for but got, which is nice.”
Other categories the dealer carries range from breakroom and copiers to print and promotional products, which provides insight into the company’s view on inventory diversity.
“Diversification is extremely important,” Mike says. “People are looking for a one-stop shopping scenario like Amazon. The more items you sell, the more you can get in front of your customers and the more business you can get.”

Speaking of Amazon…

Mike admits the mega e-retailer has affected the company’s business, presenting both challenges and positive change.
“We haven’t lost business to Amazon, but it’s made us sharpen our pencils because we’ve had to do more price matching,” he explains. “We also doubled our order entry from seven to 14 employees, so the customer experience with Emerald Business Supply will be the best experience they ever had in every way. I think it is vital to give them the best experience they can find. If we do that, our customers will be much more likely to pick up the phone and call us than go to Amazon to order.”
According to Mike, another positive has been the recruitment of six more furniture field sales reps and a furniture director to boost sales in this category, where Amazon’s presence is minimal.

A bright future

Overall, Mike predicts a bright future for the IDC, including Emerald.
“I think the independent dealer channel will flourish in the next five to 10 years in many ways,” he suggests. “W.B. Mason seems to have changed its business model to be more like Amazon, with few to no sales reps and more customer service representatives. This has helped us and other independents in the northeast region with recruiting sales representatives. And it may not be true for everyone, but I know we and some other dealers nationwide are seeing a pickup in business. I see Emerald doubling in size every five to 10 years—mostly because of our people. We’ve invested in very talented people experienced in the industry and it’s paying huge dividends for us already.”

Number of employees: 27
Key management: Mike, Jim, Edward and Joe O’Connell, managing partners; Jaret Lyons, vice president operations; Amanda Koch, director of operations; Anne O’Connell, office manager; Cathy O’Connell; accounts payable
Percentage of business online: 40.5%
Year founded: 1988