Ian Wist Battles the Big-box Stores

by Kristian Seemeyer

TrickleUp_IanWistAs Ian Wist describes what he calls his “uh-oh” moment, the tension in his voice mounts. “You live with that moment,” he explains. He’s speaking of a crossroads during a tough period in the family business, Wist Office Products. “Those were some tough, scary times. And tough on us as a family,” Wist says. “It was during the Reagan recessions. We had bad cash flow, reps were leaving; there were not a lot of good things happening at the company.”

Ian Wist is the general manager and his grandfather, Martin Wist, founded the company in 1955. Brother Robert Wist serves as president. As such, Wist Office Products is one of 12 percent of family businesses in America to survive to the third generation.

And during those troublesome times, when the third generation of Wists was enmeshed with running the company, things became a lot trickier. Because along with the day-to-day challenges of running the company, 1991 saw big-box office supply chains begin popping up in seemingly every new retail center in town.

“There was a lot of cachet at first with these big-box stores,” Wist says. “People liked to get out and go shopping for their home offices and buy candy at the checkout. And there was tremendous funding from Wall Street for the branding of it all. It was like, ‘What are we going to do here?’”

Before the influx of the big-box chains, there were more than 12,000 independent office supply stores across the United States, according to Wist. Now there are fewer than 2,000. “And what this means for the local economy,” he says, “is profits siphoned off to headquarters in Florida, Illinois and Massachusetts. It generally means lower wages for the workers and it means less money in the local economy.”

Next came perhaps Wist’s most significant “uh-oh” moment: how to compete with the ubiquitous monsters and survive amidst a barrage of advertising and uber competitive pricing. “We already knew what we did better than the big-boxes, so at this point it was all about the local angle and, most importantly, it was about perception.” The “ah-ha” moment.

It was about making a paradigm shift and conveying that shift. And that became the company’s focus: serving local clients, and concentrating on larger businesses and corporate accounts. “There has been a cultural shift, and for the past 10 years we’ve been committed to this,” says Wist. “People now understand that buying local is a good thing.”

From farmers markets to record shops to clothing boutiques to second-hand stores and artwork, Wist explains that, in buying local, consumers are helping businesses have longer life spans and offer higher wages to employees, along with benefits. The dollars stay in the community.

So by this model, Wist Office Products sought large contracts from local business and does about 90 percent of that business online. Meanwhile, the cachet of big chain stores is wearing off. “People now are tired of going out to buy their office supplies. They are shopping online, and the big-box stores are getting their teeth kicked in by Amazon,” Wist says. Indeed, in late 2012, Staples announced plans to reduce store square footage by 15 percent by 2015.

“It hasn’t been easy,” says Wist. In fact, his induction into the family business is what he calls “full of stress and heartburn.” “I went from being a college kid at ASU to working the graveyard shifts in the business in downtown Phoenix … That was a shock for me and it was a tough first seven years. Being in a family business can really take a toll on you and on your family. But I know if we stick to our core, we’ll come through.”

Wist says the institution is only as good as its people. And he conveys this emphatically: “I am proud of every single one of our employees. We have the best talent in this market and Tucson.”

That, according to Wist, along with the local business paradigm, is how to go from “uh-oh” to “ah-ha” and stay one step ahead of the big-box stores.


Champion for Independence

  • As a charter member of Local First Arizona, Wist Office Products has since 2003 helped to promote, strengthen and support local business.
  • Wist Office Products is a member of Trimega Purchasing Association, a nonprofit buying group with nearly 600 members. The association allows independent supply houses to remain competitive with the big-box chains by utilizing collective purchasing power.
  • The Wist family has owned and operated Wist Office Products for 58 years. The average life span of a family-owned business is 24 years.
  • Ian Wist’s grandfather, Martin Wist, entered the office supply industry in 1921 with PBSW Supply and Equipment.
  • Wist Office Products has been a yearly Alfred P. Sloan Award winner for workplace flexibility since 2008.

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