JANESVILLE—After years clawing back from a recession that hammered some office equipment suppliers as hard as the companies they sell to, Office Pro owner Jamin Arn said his office supply company is feeling steady on its feet again.
More than that, he said, Office Pro is branching out beyond its operations on North Parker Drive.
Following two buyouts of small office supply companies in suburban Milwaukee in late 2016 and early 2017, Arn said Office Pro is poised to expand its distribution network for used office equipment and furniture, new office supplies and equipment, and other services.
Arn in September bought out 50-year-old Inter Office Products in Hartland, and last month his company tacked on Commercial Office Products in New Berlin. He said both companies will consolidate operations at Inter Office's Hartland location, which will operate as a distribution hub between Madison and Milwaukee.
The two buyouts will immediately help Office Pro grow a customer base with Milwaukee companies that have networks of offices statewide, Arn said.
Arn started Office Pro in Janesville in 2003. It grew between 2006 and 2009 with an aggressive series of buyouts of small companies whose dealings ranged between sale and distribution of office supplies and equipment, used office furniture, ink and toner refurbishing and document shredding.
Office Pro has grown itself through the eight smaller companies it bought out—including the two most recent Milwaukee-area businesses. It now employs about 30, up from 20 workers a year ago.
The company delivers new products—from LED lights to packing plastic to paper and even coffee—it buys in bulk from wholesalers. It also warehouses and sells used office furniture and equipment from its Janesville location.
Arn said Office Pro's recent pickup of two more companies comes as the company has begun to pull away from the yearslong doldrums following the Great Recession.
In 2009 and 2010, when the recession was hammering the Janesville market the hardest, Arn thought Office Pro was a company doomed.
Arn remembers one day in the middle of the month in 2010 when a national wholesaler, his main supplier of new office products, demanded $25,000 up front by the end of the day to guarantee it would deliver a shipment of products to Arn.
Arn said Office Pro earlier in the decade was “leveraged to the hilt” and was feeling a ripple effect of major cash flow problems that at the time was hitting the entire office supply sector.
“It was awful then. At the time, I thought, 'OK. We're going under.' A lot of things happened at once. The demand for used furniture went down 60 to 70 percent. The value of used furniture became almost useless, and the inventory of it seemed like it was multiplying,” Arn said.
“At the same time, businesses were closing, including clients we'd had in (Janesville). People were taking longer to pay bills. It was a forest fire—the perfect storm.”
Arn continued to do what he said he's done since he started his small company. He kept working to develop relationships with restaurants, bars, banks and even finding leads through consultants who during the recession were working with companies restructuring how they did business.
Every time he drove past a construction crane or an office renovation, he'd pull in and deliver his marketing pitch.
“We took the opportunity to go into places we hadn't gone before. If they didn't care if they could save a dollar or two on copy paper before, now it suddenly mattered,” Arn said.
The economy began to rebound in 2012, about the time Arn bought out Clark Office Supplies in Elkhorn. He saw his company's name become more known throughout the southern part of the state in part because of branching into multiple locations.
A tour of Arn's leased space in Janesville will take a visitor on a sideways ramble through an office printer toner equipment refurbishing operation, a mishmash of new and used furniture showrooms, warehousing for a growing catalog of office equipment and supplies, and company offices that all seem to blend into one space linked by doorways.
Yet Arn can tell you exactly where he got each of the hundreds of desks, chairs and cabinets in his jumbled network of used office furniture showrooms that fill parts of the 35,000-square-foot, triangle-shaped property he leases at 615 N. Parker Drive north of downtown Janesville.
One desk was a beefy U-shaped wood veneer with matching cabinets from a high-rise office suite. It's not the kind of thing you'd fit in a small dentist's reception area.
“It came from a Chicago job,” Arn said.
Arn said the desk set probably originally cost $15,000. Another desk had a small piece of veneer chipped off the foot. Arn was unapologetic.
“I don't have the time to shine it up or fix it. It comes in, and then it goes out, and somebody gets a great deal on it,” Arn said.
That coming and going is not hard to believe after watching two of Arn's workers slide a wooden bookshelf into a truck. The truck was headed out, and Arn told the movers to hook back to Arn's Janesville shop after grabbing some furniture he'd gotten in a deal at a local attorney's office.
That was after the same two workers had just emptied from the same truck a forklift load of paper documents in boxes. The papers were to be shredded that day at Office Pro's document shredding business.
Document shredding is more than a side hustle for Arn; his company shreds tens of thousands of pounds of documents a week on contract—including shredding for one local government, Arn said.
Arn said his new growth will be tied to his locations becoming warehousing hubs for a broadening selection of new supplies and equipment. He said he thinks he has found a sweet spot that allows Office Pro to compete against retailers and online sellers who can't deliver in bulk as effectively.
The recent resurgence in the economy has him optimistic, but he's taking a lesson he learned during the recession. Going forward, he said, he's more carefully monitoring growth.
“I think we still have to be very calculated when it comes to how do we grow now? Do you buy a janitorial supply company, or do you go after a food and beverage company?” Arn said. “I think the market is right for us to continue to maintain some sort of momentum because we're functioning smarter than before the recession. We learned from it.”