Gem State Paper & Supply: Family Leadership, Great Employees Keep Distributorship On Right Path

By Harrell Kerkhoff, Maintenance Sales News Editor

Shown, left to right, are Travis Anderson, Vice President of Project Management; Ryan Anderson, President; and John Anderson, Vice President of Sales. The portrait is of founder Armour Anderson. (Photo courtesy of Gem State Paper & Supply)

As was the case for many people returning to civilian life after World War II, the late Armour Anderson returned to his hometown after serving in the U.S. Armed Forces and began his next chapter. On June 15, 1946, he and a partner founded Gem State Paper & Supply Company, in Twin Falls, ID. Seventy-eight years later, the Jan/San distributorship is still going strong — involving a third generation of family leadership and four locations.

“I was recently going through my grandfather’s journal, which detailed the types of products he sold at the beginning of the company. It listed such items as mops and buckets, brooms, cones of string, paper towels, wax, butcher paper, fly swatters, mouse traps, writing pens, and pantyhose,” Gem State Paper & Supply President, Ryan Anderson said, during a recent interview. “I believe the company’s focus at the start was supplying items to local ‘mom and pop’ grocery stores. During the first month of business, the journal showed that my grandfather and his partner split a profit of $100.”

Eventually, Armour Anderson would purchase his partner’s share of the business and begin a legacy of family involvement, customer service, and looking for the best cleaning products available in the market to sell.

“My grandfather was very personable. He always knew everybody’s name, and always had a smile on his face. He started this company with a positive attitude and continued with that focus throughout his life. People loved to work for him,” Ryan Anderson said.

By the mid-1970s, Armour’s son (and Ryan’s father) John Anderson took over the company and ran it until retirement in 2015, but he continues to serve on the company’s board of directors. Today, Ryan Anderson is President of the business, with his two brothers also heavily involved in management. John Anderson Jr. is Vice President of Sales, while Travis Anderson is Vice President of Project Management.

Ryan Anderson noted the many changes that have taken place at Gem State Paper & Supply over its long history, while still maintaining a strong focus on customer service and delivering quality products.

“Mom-and-pop grocery stores are pretty much a thing of the past; over the years our focus as a distributorship has shifted to such industries as health care, retail and commercial buildings, education, lodging, and foodservice. The latter industry (foodservice) now makes up approximately 30 percent of our business,” Anderson said. “Some things, however, have not changed since the start of our company. That includes a hands-on approach and the ability to serve customers in the way they desire, such as putting deliveries on the shelves at customer locations, keeping track their inventory, and ordering their supplies at specific times.

“We know there is a lot of competition with all types of companies that provide cleaning supplies. However, Gem State Paper & Supply offers a level of service that many of those competitors can’t — or won’t — offer. Being aware of customer needs and adapting to industry changes have greatly helped our company survive and thrive throughout its long history.”

Steady Growth Wins The Race

Growth has come in various forms at Gem State Paper & Supply over the past seven-plus decades. For example, from the distributorship’s humble beginning, the company now has a workforce of 75 employees, including 15 Account Executives, and 12 Sales Consultants.

“We have been very fortunate over the company’s history to employ great people who have been very loyal to this business. They are the face of Gem State Paper & Supply,” Anderson said. “There is a lot to know about this industry and total knowledge does not happen overnight. One thing we do with a new employee is put that person to work on the night shift for a while. This training involves picking products in the warehouse and loading trucks. That way, he/she can see and touch just about every type of item that we sell. It’s important to understand the business from behind the scenes and our employee training program is always being worked on for further development. That will not change.

“It takes a lot of experience. Fortunately, many of our employees have been with the company for a long time. For example, one of our salespeople retired last year after spending 50 years here. We have another person who just celebrated her 35th year with the company.”

Known as the Gem State, Idaho is home to three of the four Gem State Paper & Supply locations. Corporate headquarters remains in Twin Falls, a city of approximately 52,000 residents located in the south-central region of Idaho. Other company facilities in the state are in Boise, the state capital with an estimated population of 236,000 residents in southwestern Idaho; and Pocatello, located in the southeastern part of Idaho with an approximate population of 57,000. The one out-of-state facility is in Elko, located in northern Nevada, with an estimated population of 21,000.

“Our company was started in downtown Twin Falls and moved into our current facility in 1986. The other three locations were added in the 1990s,” Anderson said. “Each location has a showroom for walk-in traffic, which has been very popular over the years. We know many customers appreciate being able to pick up a product ‘in a pinch’ at one of our facilities and offering a showroom is another way to help separate our company from many competitors.”

Most of Gem State Paper & Supply’s inventory is at the larger Twin Falls facility, which then “feeds” items via the company’s delivery trucks to the other three locations.

Although the distributorship operates in four well-established cities, being in the western United States means there are a lot of open spaces within the company’s service area.

“Our delivery drivers put in a lot of windshield time between locations, but the cities we operate in are good about supporting local businesses,” Anderson said. “Most of our business is conducted locally, which is where we have always shined, although we also tap into national accounts.

“I feel there remains room for growth within our service areas. For example, a large meat processing plant has just opened near Twin Falls. It’s important to reach out to new companies in our areas and let them know what we have to offer as there’s plenty of growth potential out there to help our distributorship rise.”

Gem State Paper & Supply’s service region encompasses the beauty of southern Idaho, the majesty of northern Nevada, the vastness of western Montana, and the tranquility of eastern Oregon. The company’s dedicated drivers embark from their respective locations each workday, and then venture onwards to serve more distant locations.

“As my dad always says, we make good use of a ‘hub and spoke’ delivery model,” Anderson said. “Our delivery drivers play a crucial role in not only delivering products but providing great customer service. I stress to candidates who are interested in becoming one of our team members that the position is every bit as important as our sales department. Drivers are often the representatives of our company to make the most contact with customers. Therefore, it is important drivers make sure our customers are satisfied. Drivers also operate our delivery trucks, which serve as huge billboards featuring our company’s name. It’s crucial that drivers represent our company well — and they do.”

Another form of customer service at Gem State Paper & Supply involves the amount of training the distributorship’s representatives provide to a wide variety of customers. That includes assistance with floorcare and properly cleaning the many areas of a commercial facility.

“Part of that training involves keeping up with the latest changes taking place. For example, we are seeing different types of flooring being used, compared to the past. There’s been a movement toward more concrete polishing and matte finishes that don’t require as much maintenance. Luxury vinyl plank (LVP) flooring is also becoming popular,” Anderson said. “It’s therefore important that we help our customers keep proper care of such flooring, which includes adapting our product line to meet those changes.

“My brother John (Anderson) and members of the sales team spend a lot of time behind floor scrubbers and with mops in hand while teaching customers the proper way to maintain their specific type of floor. There is a lot of hands-on training that takes place.”

Officials at Gem State Paper & Supply also collaborate with various vendor representatives during such training sessions, which is especially crucial after a customer purchases new floor equipment.

“We have often spent a day with customers to make sure they feel comfortable about operating their new machines. There is much more involved than just selling a floor machine, dropping it off at a customer’s location, saying ‘thanks,’ and then leaving,” Anderson said. “Providing hands-on service helps a Jan/San distributorship distance itself from big box stores and other providers of cleaning supplies. A person in charge of facility maintenance can wait in line and buy something for a little less in price than we can probably offer, but our specialty is helping that customer succeed after the sale.”

Another part of Gem State Paper & Supply’s service offering involves its service department, which takes care of maintaining and fixing equipment that the distributorship’s customers use. The department is overseen by Travis Anderson and involves five service technicians. The company’s four locations are fully equipped to handle this type of work in-house. Additionally, its skilled technicians can also travel to customer locations to address equipment service needs. They are also well-trained to install and service laundry and warewash dispensers.

Gem State Paper & Supply has also benefited from solid working relationships with valued suppliers. Many such relationships have spanned for years.

“Some of our most valuable suppliers are still family-owned and have remained consistent with their products and personnel,” Anderson said. “It’s hard to work with a supplier that is constantly changing ownership and members of its workforce. We look for suppliers that are easy to do business with, are consistent, and want to build a solid business relationship with us.”

Lessons Learned

Any business that has withstood the test of time — 78 years in the case of Gem State Paper & Supply — has gone through its share of ups and downs. Nothing, however, could prepare a company for what took place a few years ago during the height of the global COVID pandemic. Jan/San distributorships were thrust into the spotlight as customers were desperate for disinfectants, hand sanitizers, PPE supplies, and various other items. All were in extremely high demand.

Anderson described the ordeal as “scary, frustrating, exciting, and painful — all the feelings one would have during such an event.” He added: “For the first time since our company opened in 1946, we had to close our doors to the public. I’m sure my grandpa would not have approved of the thought of doing something like that, but it had to be done. We had to protect our core customers, the ones who have always been loyal to us. We couldn’t keep the doors open and allow the public to come in and take supplies from the businesses that we were trying to protect.”

At the same time, many of Gem State Paper & Supply’s employees were required to work from home. It greatly helped, however, that several years before the pandemic the distributorship’s employees were given laptop computers.

“That turned out well. We learned it was possible to succeed as a company in an environment where most of our employees were working from home. To me, it was like listening to a beautiful orchestra, as our workforce came together, rolled up their sleeves, and made it work during a very unsettling time,” Anderson said. “When most of our workforce did come back to the office, it reminded me of a big reunion. The whole experience made us closer as a company.”

When asked if there were any other lessons learned from the pandemic experience, Anderson said it taught him the value of not panicking — especially when purchasing supplies.

“At the time, it felt necessary to purchase everything we could get. In hindsight, that was probably not the best policy,” Anderson said. “It may have been better to tell customers, at times, that we simply couldn’t find a specific item, instead of getting stuck with merchandise that ended up being hard to move.”

Gem State Paper & Supply Vice President Madison Brubaker added: “On the procurement side, a mentality was developed by some during the pandemic to purchase everything that could be found. It’s often been hard for those who were trained in such an environment to change that mentality.”

Anderson said that overall, business is back to normal for his distributorship and the many customers and industries that Gem State Paper & Supply services.

“We are starting to see price decreases take place for many products, which is good. It remains important, however, to keep an eye on costs, which is always important when running a business,” he said. “We are also adapting to younger customers who don’t necessarily want to see a salesperson consistently. They would rather purchase products on their own. To help meet that trend, our company will soon launch a new website, allowing easier access to our products while learning about our many services.”

Community Involvement

Part of being a successful company over a long period is showing support to the communities that have played a key role in that success. The importance of community involvement is not lost on Anderson and his co-workers.

“We were interviewing a person the other day to fill a job opening. I asked him why he wanted to work for our company, and he explained that it meant a lot to him several years ago when we donated to his school’s FFA (Future Farmers of America) program, and that he would like to work for an organization that gives back to the community,” Anderson said. “As a business, we try to participate in different community events, such as fund-raisers and high school projects.”

Such work can be fun. For example, members of Gem State Paper & Supply have restored a 1946 Chevy truck — the same year the company was founded — to be driven in local parades. Instead of throwing the customary candy or toy trinkets along parade routes, Gem State Paper & Supply representatives in the truck throw rolls of toilet paper.

“You should see how excited people along the parade route become when toilet paper rolls are headed their way,” Anderson said, with a laugh. “It’s just another way for our company to become more involved with different community events.”

With all the services Gem State Paper & Supply offers, they are looking forward to seeing you in the community soon. In the meantime, you can visit www.gemstatepaper.com to learn more about this exceptional business.

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