The Quartermaster

This St. Albans native helps keep other businesses supplied

by Cal Workman

As the ideas of "nesting" and "cocooning" have trickled from the home to the office, St. Albans businessman Bob Larose has expanded the line of products at Office Qtrs. beyond office supplies to accommodate customers seeking more.

There's nothing flashy about the office space inside Office Qtrs. in St. Albans. Owner and president Bob Larose works out of a nondescript, windowless office, sparsely decorated with certificates of appreciation from nonprofit and business organizations and pictures of his children, 7-year-old Lauren and 11-year-old Zachary, dressed in their Little League uniforms. The interior appearance doesn't concern Larose and his staff of 30 only employees venture deep within the building off Main Street, and by operating a little on the frugal side, the company stays on top of its game in these lean times.

For everyone north of Rutland who uses office supplies, the variety and selection available is limitless. Office Qtrs. offers a broad mix of supplies, from those needed day-to-day to safety products, lunch- and break-room supplies, computer accessories, lighting fixtures and furniture. Janitorial supplies, the company's newest category, is growing at a meteoric rate of 150 percent. Office Qtrs. is known as the state's largest supplier of school furniture, the result of seeing and seizing an opportunity its competitors had overlooked.

"We really strive to be a one-stop shop for all your office needs," says Larose. Thumbing through the hefty 1,246-page catalog reveals a treasure trove of the unexpected. Pages are devoted to such surprising finds as watch batteries, eyeglasses, home theaters, W2 forms, coin wrappers, trench coats, toasters, gourmet cookies, vacuum cleaners and the hottest ticket item, Palm Pilots.

Defending his strategy, Larose makes these compelling points. Everyone needs supplies, he says, whether it's a self-employed person working out of the home or a retailer, manufacturer, hospital, school or any business in between. Office Qtrs.' customer base of 3,000 comes in every size and from every sector.

Most customers are in Chittenden County, though business is brisk in every county north of Rutland, where everyone still enjoys same-day delivery, or next-day delivery on orders placed by 6 p.m. In Newport, Larose also owns and operates a 4,000-square-foot retail store called Business Essentials, a business he acquiredin January. Larose's goal is to have Office Qtrs. be the one phone call a busy person makes to satisfy every office need.

Since closing the retail store, all of the company's sales are delivered. Furniture represents 25 percent of sales; everyday office supplies, 60 percent; and janitorial supplies account for 15 percent. Amy McGee (left) and Mariah DeMarse are customer service representatives.

Larose notes that "nesting" and "cocooning," trends prevalent in the home for several years, are traveling to the workplace.

"In a tough economy, more and more people are working longer hours in their workplace, and they want their environment to be pleasing and efficient," he says. "While everyone is tightening their belts, they still need time- and cost-saving supplies.

"Our greatest strength, however, is our people. You can buy our products anywhere: on the Internet, a big box store or mail order," says Larose.

He cites loyal customers who enthusiastically share stories of how the company goes the extra mile for them.

Lynne Croto, professional development assistant at the Stern Center, remembers a storage container she purchased for about $40. After several months, it broke. Office Qtrs.' sales representative stopped by with a replacement without hesitation. Working for a nonprofit, Croto says, "every penny counts," and she praises Office Qtrs. for consistently delivering on both price and service.

"When I call them, I don't have to know exactly what I want, because they'll do all the legwork for me. They add a real personal touch that you don't see much anymore. Their attitude really cements our business relationship."

Office Qtrs. owns a fleet of five vans, which are assigned to various regions of the territory. Karen Bennett, administrative assistant to the president of Jay Peak, recalls that when no one else would brave the potentially treacherous roads in winter, drivers from Office Qtrs. skillfully maneuvered their way safely to the resort to deliver urgently needed toner.

"The drivers are the greatest," she says. "I can really count on them. They bring the copy paper and stack it on each floor for me so I don't have to do any heavy lifting. Supporting a fellow Vermont business is also important to my boss," adds Bennett. "It's part of our culture to help one another."

Office Qtrs. is as home-grown as it gets. Larose was born and raised in St. Albans. He says that from the time he was a little boy, he wanted to own his own business. Early on, his entrepreneurial bent was expressed through a successful paper route and lawn care business. Later he attended St. Michael's College, earning a degree in business administration in 1979. Upon graduation, he went to work for Fonda, a paper products manufacturer in St. Albans where he held a number of managerial positions. He was there for over eight years.

In 1989, he teamed up with his high school buddy Mike Smith, who shared Larose's vision to start a business. An informative meeting with Carol Gorham, the owner of Orleans Office Products, sparked the idea to open a similar office supply business to serve Franklin and Chittenden counties. Office Qtrs. opened its retail shop on Main Street, operating out of humble quarters staffed by just three employees, including the business partners. Orders arrived by fax, phone or in person. Larose remembers everyone wore a lot of hats.

Office Qtrs.' customer base of 3,000 includes businesses of every size and sector, from self-employed, home-based individuals to large manufacturing firms, schools and hospitals. Ora Jewett (left) is a customer service rep; Sherry Ezzy is marketing coordinator.

"I've done everything from dismantling and assembling file cabinets to dropping off a typewriter ribbon late at night," says Larose.

Longtime employee and fellow high school chum Ora Jewett admits she's held positions in every department "except delivery." She laughs, recalling a telephone conversation she had with a customer long ago.

"I was calling to deal with an accounts payable situation, handle an order and promote some products all at the same time, and the customer said, 'Don't you have a difficult time trying to get money, pitch a sale and arrange delivery all at once?' I said, 'No, not till this moment, anyway!' And it never really was a problem, because we treated everyone like neighbors. We've always had the attitude that our customers are our friends, and without our friends there would be no Office Qtrs."

Within a couple of years, Office Qtrs. grew out of its Main Street location and moved, in 1992, to a large, 14,000-square-foot warehouse on Lake Street. Retail, however, accounted for 3 only percent of sales. The bulk of the business was mail order with limited inventory housed on site. The space served more as a showroom.

The company contracts with S.P. Richards, one of two office wholesalers in the country. S.P. Richards produces the mammoth catalog that bears the Office Qtrs. name. Richards warehouses inventory at several distribution centers, including one in Nashua, N.H., which delivers orders to Office Qtrs. every morning.

Fulfilling orders keeps seven people employed full time: five drivers run regular routes and two work entirely in the warehouse assembling modular furniture. The remaining employees are inside and outside sales representatives, accounting personnel and customer service employees.

In 1995, Smith split from the business and established a partnership with his brother. Together they purchased Orleans Office Products from Gorham, the supplier who originally mentored Smith and Larose, changing the name to Business Essentials. Over time, the partnership between the siblings fizzled, and it became increasingly difficult for Smith to operate as a sole proprietor. In January, he merged Business Essentials with Office Qtrs. and, today, directs the sales force.

"It's working out really well," says Larose. "Mike is so experienced and he's a real taskmaster. If he says he's going to do something, you know it's going to get done." Smith is especially proficient with furniture sales, a category that accounts for about 25 percent of overall income. Everyday supplies account for about 60 percent of the business, and the remaining 15 percent is tied to janitorial supplies. Larose describes his job as keeping the group together and involved as a team. He also works closely on school accounts in Fairfax, St. Albans, Williston, Essex, Burlington and Winooski, working feverishly between April and June to prepare bids.

He explains that every school handles its ordering selection process differently, but schools generally release a long laundry list of anticipated needs, and suppliers present their best prices at a scheduled time.

"We can be really bombarded with these bids, and it's an involved and time-consuming process," says Larose. "Schools have always been very cost-conscious, but with recent budget cuts, they are looking for additional savings everywhere. Larose helps keep costs down for the schools by pooling their orders and passing along the savings to each school.

Office Qtrs. has weathered its fair share of challenges. Employees have seen each other through personal struggles. The company has seen a number of independent suppliers taken over by nationals.

Staples moved into the St. Albans area in 2000. Larose took Staples' entry into the marketplace in stride, saying simply, "It made my decision to move entirely out of retail easier. Our store was a convenience for some people, but I wasn't prepared to stay open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week."

He doesn't view Staples or other nationals as too great a threat.

Office Qtrs. owns a fleet of five vans that provide same-day delivery in every Vermont county north of Rutland. Larose (right) checks with Dan Juaire of delivery-operations, in the parking lot.

"If you ran to Staples to buy a computer unit, you're basically picking up the box and bringing it home. Other people just drop supplies off at your doorstep. We're going to deliver it to your office and set it up. You don't have to lift a finger. We'll move your furniture, remove all the packing material, and we won't charge for delivery or assembly. That's what makes us different."

That isn't to say the company has been impervious to the recession. The effects of the economy have been realized internally with flatline growth for the past two years, and externally with news of layoffs.

"A rep will return with a sad report that he visited a customer and his primary contact was laid off. We're seeing a lot of companies that employ 20 people or less eliminate two positions, and that's a lot. For us, it means we need to start all over again building a relationship."

Larose's strategy in this economy is to operate "lean and mean" and to seek out opportunities by "turning over more stones." He also hopes to expand the company by going statewide in three years, either through an acquisition or by stationing more sales reps in southern Vermont. As back-up, he'll have his close-knit team of dedicated staff who, like Jewett, describe him as "my boss, my friend and confidant," and a long list of customers who appreciate his home-grown commitment to the state and its people.

Outside the office, he spends time with his children, who he says are into sports. He coaches Little League and soccer and plays an occasional round of golf; they go camping during the summer.

"I love owning my own business," he says. "I think it's the challenge," he explains. "To start something from scratch and have it grow to what it has been, to keep that movement going ... every day has different challenges."

Originally published in June 2003 Business People-Vermont