Michael Gentile and Independent Stationers battle big-box stores using native power

“So, even though we’re all in the same industry, independent dealers each approach their specific business and markets uniquely and differently and we need to be open and respectful of that. I say my role is the chief cheerleader and coach and, affectionately, that I heard cats for a living.”

That’s very different from his previous life working at Boise Cascade Office Products, the predecessor of OfficeMax.

“Working for a Fortune 100 company, I had many levers to pull and buttons to push to implement corporate strategies that I had more control over than in my role today as the herder of all the cats.”

So, as the senior manager, how does one gain the trust and constituent confidence necessary to move a highly diverse organization forward when market pressures are pushing in the opposite direction?

According to Gentile, it’s all about having respect for individuals, an openness to understanding the differences in their operating philosophies and having the willingness and commitment to work together to forge meaningful change.

“The thing is, you need to get to know individuals first. Only then can you get to know their businesses and understand what they need. Then, what we have done is forged alliances and joint ventures with other vested and industry players, such as our wholesalers, our manufacturers and our trade associations, to develop programs and services that will enable the growth of those dealerships.”

That’s not something he does alone.

“We have to do it through collaboration. It’s why we call ourselves a cooperative — to get people to work together, to share a common purpose that is truly agreed upon and beneficial to all so we move forward.”

Redefining normal

Racked by a changing business landscape and challenged by the multiple needs of a diverse member base, Gentile stresses collaboration, stringent planning and the willingness to embrace ongoing change as keys to his and the cooperative’s success.

“I’m fortunate to have a very supportive board of directors that works as a team and we execute a disciplined strategic planning process,” he says.

In the past, Gentile says he and the board developed the cooperative’s strategic plans based on three-year cycles, but recently, even that relatively short timespan is proving itself to be too long.

“This year we did a two-year plan because we find the pieces on the chessboard keep changing. Six years ago we never would have had Amazon on the chessboard and six years ago we had four big-box competitors. Now there are only two.”

He cautions, however, that he has no time to become comfortable or complacent.