When Bryon Harlan took ownership of Wilson Office Supply in Paducah, Kentucky in 2015, one of his first efforts was to change the name to Wilson Office Solutions. He says the name had bothered him for some time because he felt it really set up a perception that was untrue. Wilson sells much more than office supplies so why limit the name, he reasoned.
Harlan had originally worked at the dealership in the 80s, before leaving to go work for a local office machine dealer. During his first spell with Wilson’s, he had helped set up a machine sales and service division but after he left, the machine business had no champion and it more or less faded away.
When he returned to the dealership in the mid-90s, he brought with him a renewed emphasis on the machines side.
“I had primarily worked on machines while I was gone, so when I came back I naturally brought that back and started to sell machines right away,” he says. Today, the dealership successfully sells the full line of Konica Minolta machines along with Brother and HP. Office supplies and mid-market office furniture are also offered, along with machine service and repair.
When Harlan took over the dealership his initial inclination was to keep the payroll down as much as possible. That thinking led to a team sales approach with just two outside salespeople—one for machines and one for furniture and supplies. “I could be in any of those roles as well as my machine or furniture salespeople,” he says.
Competition has evolved. “You used to say it’s Office Depot online or Amazon, but now it is just the internet,” says Harlan. “Years ago, you sold pretty much what the catalog had and it kind of made sense. Now you overlap with pretty much everybody.”
Harlan has also noticed that customers are changing. He no longer gets as many calls asking for prices, but he gets asked for almost any product under the sun. “We try to say yes so they tend to call us for everything,” he says. Then he has to decide if Wilson’s has that capability or if he needs to refer it to another resource.
He believes that customers are getting smarter. “No matter what industry they are in they are fighting the same things I’m fighting such as someone selling something cheaper on the internet,” he reports. They no longer have to worry about where to make purchases; to simplify operations they just turn to Wilsons. “I’ve seen that over the past couple of years, which is good and builds stronger relationships for us,” he adds.
Faced with the daily challenge of selling office solutions, Harlan says his biggest concern is industry transparency “It is all about getting the right information from the wholesalers and buying groups,” he says. He says that while some industry relationships are disposable others remain necessary. “I am not naïve enough to say I don’t need Essendant, because they are part of my business model and the model of other dealers,” he says. How those industry relationships will hold up as industry forces challenge them from every direction remains to be seen, he adds.
Looking five years down the road, Harlan knows Wilson Office Solutions will still be in business but he isn’t sure what he will be selling. “Everything revolves around paper and so the less paper gets used the more we are going have to figure out what else to sell,” he says. “I think it is going to be more people products than office products.”
Products carried: office products, office equipment, software solutions, office furniture
Year founded: original company 1902, Harlan purchased it in 2015
No. of Employees: Nine
Key business partners: Konica Minolta, Essendant
% of sales generated online: 30%