After 31 years in business, Office Furniture Outlet & Supplies in Lansing’s Eastside Neighborhood will permanently close on Wednesday, Sept. 20. There will be a half-off sale on many showroom items through this Saturday.
Independent retail stores with their own showrooms are practically relics in the commercial world, particularly as e-commerce is putting the squeeze on even the biggest of the big box store. For 31 years, however, Office Furniture Outlet & Supplies, in Lansing’s Eastside Neighborhood, has thrived as a fullservice consultant and supplier for local professionals. But next week, the longstanding business will close for good, going out on a high note.
“It’s a basic inside man/outside man operation,” said co-owner Rod Simonson about the store started by his partner, Tim Bennett, in 1986. “He is a great salesman and really great at customer service, but the back office gets in his way. The reason I got into it was simply because it presented itself in a five-line newspaper ad in the Lansing State Journal and it looked kind of cool.”
It was 1988, and he had just quit his career as a math and physics instructor to move to Lansing and pursue a master’s degree in material management and logistics at Michigan State University.
“I said to myself, ‘How can you do any better than that?’” Simonson said. “‘You’re buying yourself a job. If you like it, great, if not, you can go do something else that you like doing and you still own it. How can you go wrong?’ Well, I found out later how you can go wrong. When you’re a small business owner, sometimes you can’t pay yourself.”
Despite the lean times, Simonson helped Bennett build OFOS into a thriving operation, with a built-in customer base split between MSU and the downtown Lansing political machine. Simonson said he and Bennett never once fought in their 29 years together as partners, weathering 27 competitors and creating a new business model based on rewarding returning customers.
“We set out to do the office supply, office furniture business differently than anyone had ever done it,” Simonson said. “It’s one of reasons we stayed around as long as we did, but it was also one of the reasons we couldn’t grow larger than we were. We couldn’t clone ourselves.”
Bennett was the company’s “outside man,” working with customers to best determine what their needs were and matching them up with office furniture and supplies that would best suit their business. Simonson, meanwhile, handled all the behind-the-scenes action.
Simonson said he plans to retire, while Bennett said he will go to work for Kentwood Office Furniture, a former competitor on the city’s west side. Whatever merchandise doesn’t get sold on the 50 percent off sale that OFOS is holding through Saturday will make the move with him. As for the building, city records show it was purchased by a domestic profit corporation operated by attorney Edwar Zeineh. Simonson speculated that Zeineh may use the space as a new location for his Lansing-based law office, now in a suite at 2800 E. Grand River Ave., but Zeineh didn’t return a call for comment.
Simonson recalled having a conversation with a client who was an instructor/researcher in one of MSU’s business departments. The customer had finished work on an international study of successful entrepreneurial small businesses and was determining what aspects they all had in common. The study had found 10 similarities, but the researcher was still puzzled by one of them: in almost every case, one or more of the entrepreneurs had a technical, mathematical or scientific background. The former physics teacher lit up.
“If you’ve got somebody involved in the business who has specific and explicit training in problem solving, then that comes naturally to them," Simonson said. "The likelihood of success is greatly improved.’ And he said, ‘Huh, I think I’ll add that to our paper.’”
Office Furniture Outlet & Supplies (closing Wednesday, Sept. 20) 1910 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday; 9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Saturday; closed Sunday (517) 484-4420, theofos.com