You must be doing something right when you’re an independent, family-owned office products dealer that’s been in business for 75 years and still going strong. More likely, you must be doing a whole lot right. And sometimes, doing what’s right involves ignoring well-meaning advice—even when it comes from your father.
“My father told me business is a triangle,” explains Ben Stinson, president of Stinson’s Office Supply. “One tip of the triangle is product quality; one is price; and one is service. He said, ‘You can’t be all three; you must focus on one.’ In this case, he was wrong. We have to focus on all three—it’s what sets us apart.
A rocky start
In 1945, after graduating and serving in the Navy during World War II, Ben’s father, Ben Franklin, was teaching when he met Mary Elizabeth, also a teacher. The two married later that year. In 1946, they had a daughter and Mary Elizabeth encouraged her husband to find a potentially more lucrative job. “At the time, Bakersfield was burgeoning and had only one office products store,” says Ben. “So, my father opened Stinson’s Stationers, a 1,500-square-foot retail store. But in 1947, two other office product stores opened; Bakersfield went from one store to four. My father started delivering to offices to differentiate Stinson’s from the competition. The first five to eight years, dad was growing the business, but it wasn’t lucrative. Mom was still teaching and bringing home the bacon. By year 10, however, it was showing a little profit.”
The rest is history—albeit a history that has included some challenges
Change, challenges and competition
“In the 1960s, we were mainly retail and delivery,” Ben says. “The 1970s to 1980s saw the move from paper to automation. Today, 80 percent of our business is online.” But while this trajectory may seem simple, the transitions haven’t always come easily.
“When the big box stores arrived on the scene, it changed how we did business,” recalls Russ Haley, Stinson’s vice president. “At the time, we were probably 50 to 60 percent retail. We saw that the big boxes did a good job of retail, so we started focusing on commercial; 12 years ago, we closed our last retail store.”
Today, there’s a new competitor in town. “Amazon is more of an influencer worldwide than any big box store,” Russ acknowledges. “Amazon opened a 2.6 million-square-foot facility just four miles away from us. It is a strong competitor.”
One solution? “We usually allow customers to talk,” he says. “They talk fondly of Amazon for home buying but not fondly for business after they get three shipments from three vendors and three invoices.”
And competition isn’t Stinson’s only challenge. “With COVID-19 and the supply chain issues, pricing keeps going up at a rate we’ve never seen,” reports Russ. “It’s challenging to stay on top of it and communicate it to customers.”
Ben adds: “One quarter, you explain prices are going up. It’s hard to have the same conversation the next quarter. People think they pay $1 and Stinson’s gets $1. They forget we have to buy the product. The margins get skinnier and skinnier.”
But both Russ and Ben agree they should weather the challenges in the same way as Stinson’s always has in the past. “We have to remain relevant to our customers, add value to their business and offer competitive pricing,” explains Ben. “The rest is easy. As for the next 75 years? I haven’t a clue. But for the next few years, I expect business to be good. We are strong financially and have a great culture. We treat our employees well and they treat us very well.”
Company: Stinson’s Office Supply
Top management: Ben Stinson, president; Russ Haley, vice president; John Cowan, director of operations; Debbie Stinson, director of business development/HR; Alicia Kolbus, director of analytics; Haley Abercrombie, account management
Online business: 80%–85%
Number of employees: 38