By Bethany Byrd
So often we find ourselves focused on the up-and-coming, on the new ideas and great leaps of faith. We see excited entrepreneurs opening up shop, carefully planning ribbon cutting ceremonies and sending out press releases, hoping to soon see an influx of eager faces walking through their freshly painted doors, wallets at the ready.
We love a grand entrance and we love to see others taking risks and filling old buildings with new ideas.
But, what happens next? What happens when the “newness” fades? What is it, really, that separates the new from the battle-hardened businesses chugging along month after month, year after year?
What makes one business sustainable and another a quick, bright, burst of light, soon to fade?
Finding the secret to success
Of course, our goal is to see every new and old business alike bustling happily along for years to come, slowly and steadily building Downtown Laurel into the greatest version of itself. We want to see the risks rewarded and so, we set out to find an answer to the great question: what makes a business sustainable and strong?
Our answer was waiting for us in a quiet, familiar building on one of the busiest streets in Downtown Laurel. Far at the end of 5th Avenue, right past the grand flag pole, you’ll find a simple off-white building with beautiful window displays and a seasonal flag flapping gently in the breeze.
Many years ago you would be facing the doors of the old Western Auto store and, next door, a tiny hamburger shop owned by a Mr. Upton, aptly named the “Deluxe Cafe”.
Debra Blackledge finds herself working in the same building today, fondly remembering the little cafe as it once was. She remembers, “We used to come across the railroad tracks and smell those hamburgers cooking. There was no interstate then, no McDonalds. The little glass bottles of coke were just 6 cents a piece. You could hardly find a seating place.”
The cafe was once just one long countertop, lined with barstools. That delicious smell was no accident – the smoke was funneled out of the brick wall through two pipes, beckoning all who came within a block of the old cafe to step inside for a 10 cent burger on a delicious greasy bun.
The owners of that little cafe and the Western Auto next door likely knew what the buildings’ current owners, James and Sue Smith, know today – the secret to a sustainable business isn’t in the flashy opening or the freshly painted door, it’s in something much simpler, and sometimes, much harder to achieve.
The spark that lit the long-burning flame
The Smiths didn’t set out to own one of the oldest businesses in Downtown Laurel. They were presented with an opportunity and decided to take a leap of faith.
In 1973 James was offered the opportunity to purchase the long-standing W.A. Moody & Associates typewriter company, where he had been employed as a technician for several years. The company was located on Magnolia Street and was housed in a small simple building – a reflection of the simple, speciality equipment and services they offered: selling and repairing basic office equipment.
He and his wife, Sue, decided to move the business a few blocks away to a larger space, where they could expand the offerings and services – changing the name to Office Products Center in the process.
The old cafe and auto store buildings were purchased, but were in great need of repair. Walls were knocked out, years of trash and debris removed and soon, the two buildings were ready for their new tenant.
At first, the Smiths simply offered basic office equipment and supplies. Later, they grew to offer gifts, antique furniture, even a large selection of “Mississippi-made” products. Currently, over 44,000 items can be found either in the store-front or online. Sue says, “We sell everything we legally can!”
But even today, a simple, sometimes-illusive philosophy holds strong because James and Sue know that their success has never depended on the displays of new products or the selection of office supplies.
A simple philosophy, and a challenge
James says the secret to success is this,
“You’ve gotta hang in there with the ones you’ve got!“
Every day James and Sue have a single goal – to treat their customers like friends and family, to go above and beyond to serve their needs.
James recalls an interaction with a recent customer where his team worked hard to find an item that the customer had been searching for for two long days. In 30 minutes they had the product in her hands, assisted with the install and quickly followed up to find other ways to help. The customer, another Downtown business owner, will likely refer OPC to others in the future and hopefully, learned a simple lesson herself – the secret to a sustainable business is to treat people well, day in and day out.
There is great wisdom in this simple philosophy, but it seems to be fading with time. Between the ribbon cuttings and grand openings, the social media posts and website updates, it is sometimes hard for us to focus on the more simple ideas, on the everyday interactions.
Along with James and Sue Smith, we would like to issue a challenge to you. Today – find a way to treat your customers well. Go that one extra step, give them an experience worth talking about and an interaction that makes them feel cared for.
And tomorrow, do it again.
In 20 years, as you stand in your still-thriving business, you’ll look back and realize James was right, you DO have to hang in there with the ones you’ve got and treating people well is the secret of a sustainable business.
We want to hear from you
Go to our Facebook page and leave us a comment about a time where a local business has treated you well, or, better yet, find that business and leave a review telling everyone about your experience.