Omaha Paper Co.

When Omaha Paper Co. began looking at how to take advantage of the Internet it discovered the potential of an e-commerce platform. Through a trial-and-error process, the company figured out that it was possible to sell its products nationwide. Since Omaha Paper Co. was unsure of the outcome and did not want to risk the company’s reputation, President Robert Powell and his brother, Vice President Kevin Powell, decided to start a new company to work out the kinks. Within a few years, the test company was selling products to all 50 states. One customer in Hawaii paid shipping costs that were more than the product itself. The lesson was clear: Customers will pay for convenience if a business offers an easy–to-navigate website and delivery. 

The e-commerce test is nearly over. The Powell brothers plan to use the lessons from the test company to launch the new Omaha Paper Co. website in the second quarter this year, a move they expect will signal the next evolution of the family owned business. “The website is a 24-hour salesperson that presents our company to the world and it can make your company extremely efficient by providing a tremendous amount of information to potential customers,” Robert Powell says.

The new website will offer improved search capabilities so that customers can quickly find the exact or comparable product they want and purchase it online through Omaha Paper Co. “Having a smart search is one of the absolute most important things you can have on your website,” Robert Powell says. The company also sees the website as a source of specialized information for the customers. Omaha Paper Co. plans to feature product and training videos to help customers find, and teach them how to properly use the right products for their individual needs.

Traditionally, Omaha Paper Co.’s sales territory has been a 200-mile radius around its headquarters in Omaha, Neb. With the advent of the new website and e-commerce capabilities, Robert Powell expects the company will grow its sales across the country. “It has the most potential to transform our company in the future,” he adds.

A Family Operation

Robert and Kevin Powell’s father, Dave, purchased a janitorial company with three partners in 1962. The company was originally a janitorial supply business, but the owners came from a printing paper background. The partners later changed the businesses focus to supporting the printing industry and Omaha Paper Co. was born. As the years went on, two of Dave Powell’s partners retired and the third passed away. Robert Powell joined the company as a salesperson in 1982. One day in the early ’90s, he inadvertently learned his father was trying to sell the company. Robert felt the business still had a lot of promise and had a good management team in place. He convinced his father not to sell the company and in 2001 Robert and Kevin Powell purchased the business.

Like any successful family business, the Powell brothers must take care not to bring family issues into the company and to keep open communication with one another. Two years ago, Kevin Powell became concerned after hearing his brother Robert Powell wanted to hire his son A.J., a recent college graduate, for a sales position. . Neither of the brothers had plans to groom their children for future roles, and Kevin Powell was concerned that A.J. was being hired without his knowledge. But Robert Powell was just as surprised as his brother. He figured his son preferred the surfing weather of California to the flats of Nebraska and didn’t know anything about the hiring. As it turns out, the company’s sales manager, Jeff Book, had offered A.J. Powell the job on his own.

“In a family owned business you have to be on the same page,” Robert Powell says. “Kevin is one of the best partners I could have.” The two split many of the company’s duties. Robert Powell handles the management side and runs the day-to-day operations, while his brother prefers finding new products, meeting with customers and developing new business segments.

As a family company, Omaha Paper Co. feels a strong connection to its hometown. The company works to give back to its community by participating in Salvation Army initiatives and supporting the Open Door Mission, an organization that provides long-term solutions for homelessness, and the Siena/Francis House Homeless Shelter.

Eighty percent of the company’s revenue comes from its printing paper business. Omaha Paper Co. offers a range of printing products from major suppliers, including International Paper, West Linn, Mohawk, Neenah, Glatfelter, Tembec, Soporcel, Resolute and Boise to name a few. The company also offers graphic supplies and press supplies. Although printing papers remain its core business, the company has worked to diversify its offerings in recent years. It now sells packaging solutions such as bubble wrap and boxes, facility solutions such as janitorial supplies, disposable foodservice items, commercial dishwashing machines and products.

Preparing for Transition

In the mid-2000s the digital shift was in full swing and the Powell brothers realized the paper industry was headed for decline. To survive, Omaha Paper Co. had to diversify its business. Kevin Powell began exploring new areas where the company could leverage its experience as a supplier. That led to inroads in the janitorial supplies and packaging markets. “We’re all about looking for new opportunities and new products if they fit our business model,” Robert Powell says.

Omaha Paper Co. learned its customers wanted to work with fewer vendors who offer a wider spectrum of products to improve their own operational efficiencies. Growing into more segments fit that mold and made Omaha Paper Co. more difficult to replace. Today, the company is not just limited to customers in the printing industry. Omaha Paper Co.’s product lineup is now so diverse that every business is a potential customer.

The company will soon add another element to its business with training classes. Omaha Paper Co. recently joined Pro-Link, a national full-service janitorial supply, marketing and buying organization, that offers members and end-customer training. Omaha Paper Co.’s employees are going through Cleaning Industry Training Standard (CITS) certification and will begin offering training to clients through Pro-Link this spring.

Robert Powell says the company will continue to find new ways to supplement its core paper business. “If you stay with the status quo, you’re immediately in a world that will cease to exist, and you may become irrelevant. We obviously don’t want that,” he says. 

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