A time for fun
You have to be doing something right to be a third-generation independent office product dealer that has been in business for more than 60 years. For Walker’s Office Supply, headquartered in Rocklin, California, that something is evolving to be prepared for the next big thing—and to have fun.
“When my grandfather started the company in 1959, he sold office products, but also Hallmark and American Greeting cards,” says president and co-owner Jarrod Anderson. “We did retail, but no commercial. Then came catalogs and we started selling B2B. Then came the competition of the big box stores. Every five to 10 years there’s a new threat, like an Amazon that seeks to challenge us in a new way.”
Yet Walker’s is very much up to the challenge. “Amazon is a definite concern; it’s a big scary thing,” admits Anderson. “But so were COVID-19, the 2008-09 recession and Staples, Office Depot and Viking, with their super-scary low prices. But there’s always room for a local, healthy, community business. As long as we offer competitive prices and are capable of providing the service, there will be local buyers. I say ‘capable’ because you can’t just say you’re local and expect to have business if you can’t handle it.”
With a new centrally located 25,000-square-foot warehouse/distribution center/showroom, Walker’s has “capable” on lock; but “local” is not always so easy. “We’ve been in our hometown for 60-plus years—for three generations— so everyone knows us here,” explains Anderson. “But duplicating that is hard. Now, we are in 13 counties, so being local—being involved daily in all the chambers of commerce and rotary clubs—is a challenge for us.”
Anderson reports that, on average, Walker’s business has doubled every five years through acquisitions and sales. Only 25 percent of these sales are office supplies; furniture accounts for 25 percent, janitorial supplies for 40 percent and print and promotions for 10 percent.
“Diversification has been vital to our success,” he says. “We will always offer office products, but it’s harder to differentiate your business. Furniture and janitorial products have presented tremendous opportunities to learn and become knowledgeable about how to add value for our customers.”
And the importance of diversification is not the only lesson Walker’s has learned. “2008-09 were hard years for us,” acknowledges Anderson. “The recession hit hard, our bookkeeper retired and our top sales rep went to work for Corporate Express. It was a life lesson that helped prepare me for the COVID-19 pandemic a decade and a half later. We didn’t navigate the pandemic perfectly; it required some luck and a lot of hard work. But I knew the importance of leaning into it and having financial stability, including cash.”
Walker’s location also helped. “I was at the AOPD show last month and talking with a dealer who also was from California,” Jarrod explains. “We were less than 100 miles away from each other and it was a struggle for both of us, but he was in a much harder-hit area. We had just built our facility in a super-smart location, centralized for our customer base and employees; we were lucky.”
A future of fun
If you’d asked Anderson before the pandemic about Walker’s short-term future, he would have reiterated how the company strives to double its growth every five years. But for the rest of this year, he says the company wants to concentrate on something else. “I know we should focus on sales and technology and overall operations,” he explains. “But I want to forget sales for now; we are fine financially. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the pandemic, it is appreciation—for our suppliers, our customers and especially our staff. It was a rough time, and now we need to stop and breathe. Before the pandemic, we had barbecues, after-work parties and birthday celebrations. When the pandemic hit, all that fizzled out. We want to go back to focusing on activities, on people and teambuilding. We want to take time out and enjoy the rest of the year. We want to enjoy normalcy because who knows how long it will last. We want to focus on having fun.”
Anderson’s advice for other independent dealers looking to thrive is simplistic, if not simple: “The competition is sophisticated and growing. We need to keep an open mind and a willingness to work together to keep our amazing independent channel relevant.”
Headquarters: Rocklin, California
Key management team: Jarrod Anderson, president and co-owner; Matt Anderson, vice president and co-owner; Laura Anderson, accounting; Randy Mayer, operations manager; Stuart Camerson, furniture director.
Online business: 40%
Key supplier: S.P. Richards