In the late 1980s, when Erik Warner became a part-owner of TJ Russell Supply, the future looked bright.
In the 10 years to come, Warner would move the company from its small office front on Hope Street in Providence, not once, but twice, to accommodate its growing customer base. During the robust economic years of the Clinton administration, he would buy out his two silent partners and become the sole owner of the business. In 2008, he would expand the business further by acquiring Mello Supply, another cleaning-supply business based in Swansea, and see his annual sales double.
Then 2009 came. The recession hit and the bubble burst.
Now, as Rhode Island struggles to emerge from the recent economic downturn, small-business owners such as Warner are finding themselves shell-shocked from the seemingly endless opportunity of the 1990s and early 2000s to the rubble of today’s economy.
“Competition has changed a lot in the last five years. You have newer, bigger players in the industry. They’re looking under every rock scouring for every kind of business they can possibly find. The economic pie isn’t growing, so they’re trying to take market share. To a certain extent they’re taking it from guys like me,” said Warner.
The players that Warner is referring to include businesses such as Staples, which has been expanding its inventory and shifting more of its business online, along with Office Depot and OfficeMax, which merged last November to create a powerhouse supplier under the Office Depot brand.
So what does a small Rhode Island business do in a situation like this? Warner’s response: get back to basics. Focus on the company’s No. 1 asset: the customers. It’s a formula that’s pretty important to Warner, who firmly believes he has one crucial thing those big-box players can’t offer.
“[TJ Russell Supply] is still a personal-relationship business. People want to be able to pick up the phone and talk to a person or get a personal response from an email quickly from someone they know, who they’ve talked to over the phone. That’s sort of our niche – that personal service. We really appreciate our customers. … [We] take pride in finding the best, most economical solutions for their supply needs and we like to do it on a personal level.”
The company still does most of its business the old-fashioned way – through email, phone and fax, though it tries to stay current with today’s technology. Warner built out the company’s online ordering system about five years ago and its current website was created (and is maintained) in-house using template-based Web-hosting service Weebly.
Warner acknowledges that the company’s online ordering system is a still a work in progress compared to his competitors, who aren’t limited by the same kind of financial constraints. In recent years, he has put more emphasis on connecting with his customers through inbound marketing, which draws people through multichannel marketing and content creation. In the last couple years, Warner has hired a marketing and design consultant to populate the company’s website with information on its products and services. He also uses social media and small-business-friendly software like Constant Contact, an email marketing service, to inform his customers about products and specials.
“We like to offer ideas and content to show we’re thinking about and bringing value to our customers,” Warner said.
Value is one of the drivers behind the company’s rewards program, which Warner implemented roughly four years ago. It’s based on a points system that gives back to the company’s loyal customers by rewarding them with gift certificates to local restaurants and attractions like the Roger Williams Zoo, Tweet’s Balzanos Family Restaurant and Alayne White Spas among others.
As for its product line, the company offers new products every year, including green-seal-certified cleaning products and custom entrance mats, but its mainstay products continue to be its exhausting list of janitorial supply products – approximately 5,000 different kinds of items – which it makes available to its customers through its website and catalogue. TJ Russell Supply offers everything from toilet paper and trash bags, cleaning chemicals, packaging and safety supplies to food-service disposables.
A couple things you won’t find at TJ Russell Supply though: paper clips and Post-it notes. •