Like many family independent dealers, Mark and Sandra Nolan started Nolans Office and Promotional Products—headquartered in San Antonio, Texas—from their kitchen table. Mark had experience working as a manufacturers’ rep and for various other independent dealers, while Sandra was equipped to handle the administrative side of the business. Mark’s previous experience had given him a good overview of the OP Business: for example, getting deeper discounts on volume and winning larger contracts through extended reach. So in 2010, a decade after setting up Nolans, Mark founded AHI Enterprises, LLC, a co-op group of Texas-based independent dealers that partnered up to sell office supplies, cleaning and janitorial essentials, promotional products and other categories to state and local government agencies, as well as schools and school districts.
“I opened AHI Enterprises to bid on a request for proposals for the State of Texas,” Mark says. “It was the first time a group of independent dealers worked together to bid on a big project. We teamed up with Essendant (then United Stationers), which was key to winning the business. A strategic alliance (consortium) was formed with other independent dealers—all located in different geographic areas throughout Texas. We created a single platform with unique logins that would identify and route to the servicing dealers in Texas. We won the contract—another first for a group of independent dealers.”
Since then, AHI has won other large contracts, including a PACE Cooperative state, local education contract in 2014 that carries a 10-year extension. The co-op’s reach has also been extended from five dealers in Texas to 29 dealers in 17 states.
While many were hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Mark admits Nolans’ private sector business has slowed down, that has not been the case for AHI.
“Our numbers have been exploding,” he says. “We’ve done as much business in three months as the whole of last year, with orders of several million dollars and a 50 percent-plus growth trajectory.”
AHI’s key to success? “When COVID-19 hit, we were able to pivot quickly,” Mark says. “It was like the Wild West, with people trying to get product anywhere they could. Luckily, we already had relationships with medical supply companies and various promotional companies overseas. This allowed us to get orders like 50,000 N95 masks, 1,000 IV medical pumps and truckloads of hand sanitizer, thermometers and wipes. We’ve sold everything, including COVID-19 viral tubes, swabs and tests—even hospital beds. We’ve sold to competitors, to wholesalers, to other dealers; we’ve had people calling from states we don’t usually do business with. PPE has slowed slightly from the total free-for-all; but gloves are still in very high demand.”
Obviously, orders such as these require cash flow—and trust. “If we didn’t have the money to buy supplies, we couldn’t compete. We’d have to depend on wholesalers that, at times, were low on inventory,” explains Mark. “And if we didn’t have good relationships from the start, we wouldn’t be comfortable giving large sums of money upfront because if it did go south, that could be devastating to the company’s future success.”
According to Mark, the company’s success has also allowed it to do good within the community, such as donating 150+ cases of toilet paper to the local food bank and 100 school desks and chairs to help underprivileged children learning remotely.
Mark’s advice for independent dealers who have managed to survive the pandemic so far is to stay forward-thinking: “Look ahead—if you are sitting on the fence and not thinking down the road three, four or five months, or into the next year, you may not be ready for the next global crisis.”
He also recommends exploring new avenues—advice he is currently following himself: “We’ve done so well in the PPE area, we are opening a medical supply company to focus on selling PPE and other medical items, called AHI Med.”
Year founded: Nolans Office and Promotional Products 2000/AHI Enterprises, LLC 2010
Key management team: Mark Nolan (AHI president/CEO), Sandra Nolan (Nolans president), John Howland (vice-president)
Key business partners: Essendant
Number of employees: 23
% of business online sales: 50+