Century-old paper-supply business shares advice for staying current

Sept. 21, 2018

This paid piece is sponsored by the Prairie Family Business Association.

Cole Papers Inc. marks 100 years in business this year, and while its products have evolved with changing times, its ownership draws on a strong family-based foundation.

President and CEO Chuck Perkins is married to Nancy, whose grandfather founded the business in 1918. He oversees a team of more than 160 people in three divisions: industrial papers, printing papers and floor covering.

Cole Papers has nine locations in seven states and is based in Fargo.

Meet the owners as well as many other members of the family business community at the Oct. 17 North Dakota Family Business Forum in Moorhead, Minn. To learn more and register, click here.

We talked with Perkins about the company’s 100-year milestone and his advice for others on navigating change.

It’s hard to sum up a century of growth, but what are some of the keys to your company’s ability to evolve?

First, it is by the Lord’s grace and mercy that it has happened. Secondly, we have had three presidents leading us through these 100 years, and I think each has had different strengths that were especially needed during the period of their leadership.

My wife’s grandfather started the business, and it takes a special entrepreneurial DNA to do that. His son, Prentiss, was a very kind leader who built great relationships with the employees, which has laid a foundation of some very long employments and low turnover; for example, our current credit manager — whom Prentiss hired — has been with us almost 50 years.

Perhaps a couple of my strengths have been from my consulting training and my computer training/master’s degree. I helped move us to our first computer system after I arrived about 38 years ago, and now I and some others here have selected a new system that we will convert to in January.

The fourth-generation leaders will likely be our two sons who are working here now — one in finance and the other in sales. Again, their strengths are different than mine and earlier leaders here.

You’ve now transitioned through three generations of leadership. What do you think helped the company succeed in that?

The foundations and guiding principles established by the first and second generations laid the foundations for the third and now the fourth generations. One of the other factors for our success has been the way we have kept the ownership in the hands of the key members of the family and restricted the involvement of some of the family members. In some cases, this has occurred without too many “hurt feelings,” but in some cases hard decisions and definitive actions have been needed to accomplish this tighter control of those involved.

You came into the business through marriage, which is common in many family businesses. What were some strategies you found to balance your business and family roles?

Our company is a strong faith-based culture. This means that we usually share core beliefs/values and attempt to operate by Biblical principles, and we pray for each other both in our family roles and our company leadership positions.

Having clear definitions of our company roles and understanding that not all family members have equal voices in decisions have helped minimize disagreements. Also, our ownership is based on one person having a majority of the shares and others have minority interests.

We have also had a written succession plan for many years, so our family members, bank, employees, vendors and customers all know what will happen when I die or retire. We also have a buy/sell plan that we have had for many years, with life insurance helping to fund the buyout of my shares when I pass or retire.

Where do you see your industry going? How are you positioning the company for the future?

Consolidation is occurring and will continue. New, nontraditional players will continue to enter the market. To survive, we must continue to hire and retain good employees and be able to hire younger staff, which we are doing in a fairly successful way.

We must continue to be very technologically based for efficiency, fewer errors, better customer service and better management of the key assets of receivables and inventory. We just spent months looking for new ERP software, and we are very excited about our new choice, and now the conversion activities have begun.

Have you started looking toward your next generation? Do you think you’ll continue to have family in leadership?

We have four children, and all four have worked in the business; two are still here and are doing a great job. One is in the finance area and one in sales. Both will be great future leaders of the company.

How has your relationship with the Prairie Family Business Association helped you as a family business? What are some of the elements of it you find most valuable?

This is a great organization, and we have benefited from many of the gathering/seminars and events. Prairie Family is especially helpful for the smaller member companies who have more limited resources and for the connections to national and regional speakers and consultants. Being able to connect with other members to discuss our common issues has been very helpful also.

To learn more about Cole Papers, visit colepapers.com.

To connect with them and many other members of the family business community at the Oct. 17 North Dakota Family Business Forum in Moorhead, Minn., click here.

The Prairie Family Business Association is an outreach center of the USD Beacom School of Business.

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Century-old paper-supply business shares advice for staying current

While the paper business has changed a lot in a century, this family business has some best practices for evolving with the times.

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