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Monday, March 13, 2000
 
2000 Small Business profiles

Office Interiors

by Dori Stubbs
Seattle Times business reporter

Chuck Lauby of Everett's Office Interiors knows what it means to run a business by the seat of his pants. Literally.

As part of customer service, he visits every client. Every week. Averaging 40 calls a day. He can't wear flannel slacks because they take on a sheen after sliding in and out of his car so often. But gabardine holds up well.

Chuck and Doreen Lauby, owners of the independent office-supply store, credit loyal customers and employees for their 26-year survival against competition from chain superstores.

"Our customers are bombarded by the big guys," Chuck Lauby said. "But they can rely on us for service."

While aggressive pricing is important, he said, the real reason customers stick around is because he learned to stick his nose in front of their faces.

"Personal contact is the best selling tool there is," he said.

The Laubys' store sits on a side street off Everett's main drag, Evergreen Way. When they opened shop in 1976 it was a cheap location, and as a commercial supplier, foot traffic wasn't vital to business.

They arranged with the owner of the 3,500-square-foot building to pay $600 a month. If they were still in business in six months, the rent would rise $50 a month. Chuck Lauby made sales calls and Doreen Lauby took on the accounting.

The $3,000 in sales they made their first month fell far short of the $10,000 they needed to break even. But the $250,000 in sales in January of this year more than makes up for those first lean years.

Instead of going under when the big-box chains moved in on their territory and customers, they bought their building and added 13 full-time and two part-time employees.

Clients are sometimes tempted away, but most return, they said.

"They couldn't get service, and they came back," Chuck Lauby said. "We have established ourselves as the brainchild of what's going on in offices."

Customers' office-supply budgets usually amount to only about 1 percent of their total business budgets. It's important to offer a good price, but the Laubys said they recognized early on to offer speedy service.

Time is saved because Chuck Lauby and his four-person sales force memorize the types of products their regular customers use.

If one should ask for paper or pens, no descriptions are needed.

The Laubys keep track of manufacturer specials, which adds up to savings for customers.

Several of the Laubys' employees have been with them more than 10 years, some 20.

"They're the face on the company," Doreen Lauby said. "We've found out customer-and-employee relationships are an acquired talent."

One of the Laubys' three children works for them as a designer. Most of the other employees came in by word of mouth. Twice, the co-owners resorted to an employment agency, with good results.

Why do their employees stay so long? The Laubys said they let their workers do their jobs without standing over them.

"I'm probably more lax, not authoritarian," Chuck Lauby said. "I let them set their own boundaries, own goals. If they can make decisions instead of being ruled, I've discovered, they make better, wiser choices."

The two promote their values -- such as honesty, paying their bills and not making promises they can't keep -- as integral to their business.

As for their future, their company grows as Snohomish County expands. But the Laubys don't see any value in opening another store -- they measure their value by how often Chuck Lauby needs a new pair of gabardine slacks.

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