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Running into a brick wall

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When the 2008 recession hit Scott Johnson’s small business, there was no mistaking that conditions were different — really different.

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Starting The Office Shop in his hometown of Aitkin in January of 1983, Johnson’s sales numbers had gone up every single year until the Great Recession blocked that progress with all the subtlety of a brick wall.

“We were steadily increasing sales,” he said of the years before the economy nose-dived.

Even before profit margins started to shrink, Johnson said, business owners began tightening their belts.

“Everybody seemed scared,” he said.

Starting his own business at the tender age of 20, Johnson saw mostly success and steady growth throughout his career.

“I was just a snot-nosed kid,” he said of his early days as a business owner.

His first shop in Aitkin was a 400-square foot building which the business soon outgrew. Scott and his wife, Jodie, who has been active in the business, moved into a 5,000-square-foot building in Aitkin and then opened up their downtown Brainerd store on Maple Street (an 18,000-square-foot store) in 1995. In 2002 The Office Shop opened a Radio Shack franchise in its Aitkin location.

Today, The Office Shop employs 20 people at its two locations, offering business supplies, furniture, equipment and service.

Raised on a dairy farm near Aitkin, he credits his agricultural background to helping develop a strong work ethic. Family vacations were rare on the farm and calling in sick wasn’t an option.

“We had 100 cows that we milked,” he said.

He said that his business. when compared to similar small firms nationwide would probably be in the middle of the pack in terms of profitability.

The keys to maneuvering through the recession have been diversification, service and a good sense of his customers’ changing needs, he said.

“You can never be the lowest price on everything,” Johnson said.

As the Cannon copier dealer, his 20 employees include four service technicians. The Office Shop will deliver its products, set them up and make sure they work.

“I think people appreciate that,” he said.

When the recession hit, some customers started laying off employees which lessened their needs for office supplies. The customers sought out inexpensive pens, regular Post-it notes and reduced price furniture that might have small dents or scratches.

“People are buying more of the basics,” he said.

Being a locally owned business, Johnson said, is the firm’s calling card in a world where the number of corporate big-box stores seems to increase every year. About 10 years ago The Office Shop joined a nation-wide buying group, which allows Johnson to buy directly from the manufacturer.

“That’s one of the best things we’ve ever done.”

Johnson’s not ashamed to preach about the importance of locally owned businesses, particularly in communities such as Aitkin and Brainerd. Local ownership of businesses is a key to the success of local economies, Johnson said.

“You’ve got to remain competitive and I totally get that but you need to look at the big picture,” Johnson said.

The Office Shop brochures remind customers that locally owned businesses are the ones that buy pancake breakfast tickets and advertise in the high school yearbooks. They patronize area accountants, attorneys, banks and insurance agencies.

Johnson serves on the board of directors for Confidence Learning Center. The Office Shop website advertises the Zachary Johnson Kids with Cancer Fund, which is administered through the Riverwood Hospital Foundation. The fund offers monetary relief to families in Aitkin and Crow Wing counties with minor children who have cancer. It was named for the Johnsons’ son, who was diagnosed with leukemia at age 10 months, but who has now been in remission for several years.

Like his customers, Johnson said his own business has had to become “leaner and meaner” in these tough economic times. Johnson, 50, said that while the national economy is still struggling, he thinks his company has recovered from the recession and is in a good position. He said that while taxes have a huge impact on businesses there wasn’t a single government program that he was looking at for relief.

“I don’t know if there’s a magic bullet,” he said. “I’m not really looking for the government to bail us out. I think we have to work harder and smarter.”

Johnson admits to a concern that is possibly shared by every small business owner — the realization that he’s ultimately responsible to keep the doors open to a business that provides income for 20 families. That realization can be stressful he said.

“It’s a scary thing,” he said.

The satisfactions of being a small business owner, Johnson said, include being his own boss and being able to make decisions locally.

“The buck stops with me,” he said. “I’m not limited by someone looking over my shoulder.”

MIKE O’ROURKE, associate editor, may be reached at 855-5860 or mike.orourke@brainerddispatch.com. He may be followed at www.twitter.com/MikeORourkenews.

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Mike O'Rourke
Mike O'Rourke began his career at the Brainerd Dispatch in 1978 as a general assignment reporter. He was named city editor in 1981 and associate editor in 1999. He covers politics and writes features and editorials.
(218) 855-5860
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