By Drew Masters for TCAJoB
By November, Brutzman’s Office Solutions will move into a large new building in a high-traffic area to showcase its wares and provide more efficient service for its clients. Ken Brutzman said despite the large monetary commitment of $1.7 million for land and construction, it was time to take the plunge for a number of reasons.
“That’s a big chunk for a small business —but it just makes sense with today’s interest rates and tax laws,” said Brutzman, co-owner. “Paying rent to myself makes more sense than to someone else. The challenge over the years was having enough money for a down payment. We had some large projects that did well and gave us some extra money.”
This, coupled with the fact that the Small Business Administration is aggressively trying to stimulate the economy with beneficial loan programs, a great piece of land came available, and assistance from Community First Bank made the move a no-brainer for Brutzman.
“Everything just fell into place,” he said.
It took about a year and a half to get architectural plans in place, permitting, site work and ecological work complete. G2 Construction is the general contractor and steel was delivered the first week of April. Brutzman expects construction to take about six months.
Brutzman’s was launched in 1946 by Hal Brutzman, Ken’s grandfather. He, his wife and one employee offered office machines and supplies upon its opening.
“There was a lot of service and upkeep involved in office supplies at that time,” said Brutzman.
The store’s opening was pre-Bic ballpoint pen being invented, in fact before all disposable pens, which necessitated fountain and other pens being serviced.
Grandfather Hal was in charge of machine repair, mostly typewriters, and sales. His wife handled the retail side — greeting cards, stationery and writing implements. It eventually grew into commercial office products with a focus on filing systems.
“Back when my grandfather opened Brutzman’s, they had so much they had to do,” said Brutzman. Bookkeeping on manual ledgers was meticulous and time-consuming work. Products changed and then, eventually, technological advances transformed everything.
“We’ve been lucky,” Brutzman said. “The computer changed everything and a lot of businesses couldn’t still be viable in the 21st century after the computer was invented.”
Instead, technology has been a boon for the family-owned business — the digital world opens up the world for marketing and adds convenience for customers.
Ken, with his brother, Keith, and sister, Kathy Webber, joined their mother Mardelle, who is CEO, in the late 1970s. It was then that the siblings had to make a decision.
“We knew we’d have to grow the business to keep all three of us employed or two of us would go our separate ways,” said Ken. “We all opted to grow it and decided furniture would be the best place to grow.”
Prior to 1980, said Ken, volumes were small.
In the early 1980s, however, Brutzman’s topped one million in annual sales. Like most Tri-Cities area businesses, profits followed upturns and downturns in the economy, focused primarily around Hanford. After the N Reactor closed in the mid-1980s, Brutzman’s nearly went out of business.
“It was a tough, tough time,” said Brutzman.
The Brutzmans struggled, cinched their belts and held on — a move well worth the effort. In the early 1990s, Brutzman’s topped two million in annual sales.
“We had to grow with the industry as the panel solutions became more popular,” Brutzman said. “Business owners wanted to fit more people in less space.”
The company added a design team to create space solutions for clients.
A change in the product distribution system affected small business as well. In the 1940s, 50s and 60s, retailers bought from wholesalers and wholesalers from manufacturers, all at a particular margin. But during the 1980s, wholesalers started selling directly to the end user market.
This is when Boise Cascade was selling as both a wholesaler and retailer, Brutzman explained. The court said they had to make a decision, so they chose retail.
“As a result, the big box store was invented and super stores started to evolve. It certainly impacted us because now we were competing with the same businesses we used to buy from,” he said.
Costco arrived on the scene and within two years, Office Depot, Office Max and Staples all opened, offering Brutzman’s competition.
In 1990, the family-owned business moved from downtown Kennewick, where it had been for 40 years, to its current location on Columbia Center Boulevard. The larger space allowed them to display furniture.
The distribution changes were the catalyst for Brutzman’s to join in forming Northwest Wholesale Stationers, a conglomerate of small businesses throughout the country.
“We got together as a buying group so we could purchase directly from the manufacturer,” said Ken. Eventually, the group disbanded and Brutzman joined nearly 600 independent dealers from throughout the nation in forming Independent Stationers in the early 1990s.
“If you’re going to be an independent dealer, that’s what you have to do to stay in business,” said Ken.
The group has negotiated some national contracts, namely with U.S. Communities Contract for non-federal government agencies, in which Independent Stationers bills and each independent business delivers to their localities.
“This helps us be competitive price-wise,” said Ken. “And it gives non-federal government agencies purchasing power.”
“We’re smaller than the box stores so we can respond more quickly to trends in the industry,” said Brutzman. In addition, the company’s online catalog, competitive prices, ability to respond with hands-on knowledgeable solutions and great customer service have ensured the business thrives. In 2004-2005, Brutzman’s hit a record three million in sales.
“We’ve been over three million since then and we’re now running between $3.3 and $3.5 million in sales (annually),” he said.
Diversification in Tri-Cities has helped the business, he added.
“Things are happening in the Tri-Cities; it’s really diversifying. Agriculture has grown tremendously. Healthcare and other industries have grown. All of these are making the downturns at Hanford much less dramatic than they once were,” said Brutzman.
The new 1.1-acre lot and 10,000-sq.-ft. building at the corner of Fowler and Columbia Center Boulevard will have 5,000 sq. ft. of retail space and 5,000 sq. ft. for managing furniture projects, shipping, receiving and warehousing.
“The location is right in the center of Tri-Cities. I can get anywhere in 15 minutes,” said Ken. “It’s easy-on, easy-off freeway access and will hopefully encourage more people to stop in. The showroom will be more visible.”
The new building will provide enhanced showroom space to highlight various styles of ergonomic seating and accessories. In addition, a new product – demountable walls — will be displayed.
Brutzman’s is expanding into raised flooring systems and full-height, demountable walls, which are basically modular floor-to-ceiling walls that plumbing and wiring can run through and doors are mounted within.
“You have a truly enclosed space as opposed to partial walls,” said Brutzman. The walls are a great solution for commercial property, as they’re “reconfigurable without having to knock out existing walls and reconstruct.”
“For a long-term solution, it’s a great way for building owners or leasing businesses to change the set-up of their space. They can save on construction costs down the road,” said Brutzman. “They just make sense as a long-term investment.”
Brutzman’s focuses on small to mid-size businesses. Future goals include expanding projects to Spokane, Wenatchee, Pendleton and Yakima. Its popular Reprographics Department will continue, offering large format printing to contractors, architects, designers and estimators, as will the office supply site and engineering supply department.
“You can’t survive if you don’t take care of your clients. Our best advertising is word of mouth. Being focused on customer service has really helped us survive over the years,” said Brutzman. “We try to do our very best to take care of customers and learn from our mistakes when we make them.”