“The one thing that we can count on is change.” I don’t know who said that but for me and my career in business, nothing could be more valid. I entered this industry when electric typewriters were still being used and just after IBM introduced the Correcting Selectric element based typewriter. Office supplies were ordered from a catalog and a door-to-door sales rep. No one had ever heard of “ergonomic furniture” and most of the copiers in businesses used electrostatic paper. Only the largest businesses had computers and they were leased (not owned) from IBM. The internet was not even a dream yet.
Great customer service was the buzz word, but as big box stores opened, the need for great customer service was certainly challenged. The proof was the packed parking lot of the local big box facility. WJ Office began with an 1,100 square foot building on a back street in West Jefferson. Three employees (including me) worked hard to keep up the pace and keep business coming in the door. Our main competition was mail order and a local company – Carolina Business Machines who was far larger than most folks realized. They were able to buy product directly from the manufacturer at far better prices than we could. We decided to compete in the areas that we could and forego the $1 per dozen ball point pens.
Moving to Boone gave us an opportunity to grow. Most of our commercial business was coming from Boone anyway. Our 1,100 square feet doubled to 2,200. Slowly we expanded our store footprint to extend up Depot Street all the way up to King Street. When personal computers hit the market, we sold computer furniture. As time went on we responded to the requests of the customers. I added a delivery person, a purchasing person, and more retail clerks. We continued to focus, however, on commercial business rather than the consumer side of the business.
After more than 20 years we had long outgrown the Depot Street store. Brendle’s closed and we were able to secure 12,000 square feet in the Greenway Business Park. Retail business spiked. Folks could park in front of the store and we enjoyed brisk retail traffic with a 3,000 square foot space. We expanded into computers and copiers. Furniture also began to grow into a larger percentage of our sales. Then, it happened – the dreaded big box invasion. Walmart and Staples opened within six months of each other. Promotions galore. Lots of the folks that promised loyalty while their buildings were going up succumbed to the lure of those introductory prices. 80% of that walk in traffic walked in somewhere else. That’s interesting, especially when you realize that office products make up less than 1% of the expenses of most businesses. Thankfully, we had a number of very loyal customers and we never lost sight of the fact that we were a COMMERCIAL office supplier. Business to business.
At the Greenway location we found after several years that we needed more warehouse space. We had to rent trailers to store furniture that was waiting to be installed. Our business had changed. Furniture was continuing to grow and required more space. In 2005 we moved into our present corporate headquarters just off Deerfield road about two miles outside of Boone. Now we had almost 16,000 square feet and 10,000 of it was warehouse space that was badly needed. Over twenty years ago we joined a national buying group for office products and furniture that now combined our purchases with those from over 500 other dealers. Our buying power continued to grow. We were now in a much better position to compete with the big boxes since folks were realizing the true cost of driving to the store to pick up goods and the frustration of dealing with an 800 number when questions needed to be answered. Each area of the business continued to grow. WJ Office became a destination for vendors who were looking for a strong partner to represent their product line. We have survived and in many ways, we have thrived!
As I look back, I see many competitors gone. Carolina Business Machines is no longer. Many of the contract stationers of the 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s are gone including Boise Cascade, Corporate Express, US Office Products, and several others. Some were acquired. Some didn’t adapt to change. Office Depot and Office Max couldn’t make it on their own. They have merged and it looks like that they cannot make it together. They are trying to mate with Staples. All of them have so much real estate with bricks and mortar, and they cannot adapt to the internet economy. It’s tough. The local Staples store has decided to shrink their store. The Staples stores in Lenoir and North Wilkesboro are closed. Staples is being acquired by a venture capital company (Sycamore Partners). Customer loyalty for all businesses is extremely sketchy. But in an era that our competition is shrinking, WJ is expanding its footprint to new geography and into new industries.
Office furniture has continued to grow and with the relocation of my son, Nate, WJ Office now has a sales office and representation in Winston-Salem and has been steadily developing a whole new commercial following with many of the leading design and architect firms in the area. With the recent construction of Chestnut Ridge, WJ Office has furnished the bulk of that facility along with the district offices of Blue Ridge Electric as well.
Our largest percentage growth is coming from out janitorial and sanitary supplies division. With certified “green” products, WJ Office has been making its mark with school systems, hospitals, urgent care facilities, universities and large commercial entities with innovative products such as a floor care product (Zing) that eliminates the stripping and waxing of tile floors and producing a shine that the most discriminating customer will love! For facility directors, that eliminates a huge expense. We now have customers from Asheville to Raleigh and each day opens a new potential opportunity.
Change. Sometimes it’s painful. Sometimes it’s good. We’re going to embrace change and make it work for us and our customers so that we’re here for the next 40 years.