JOPLIN, Mo. — Their story began in downtown Joplin at 613 Main St. when Hugh and Lee Anne Howsmon purchased the former Spurgeon Book Store and opened their business of selling books, school supplies, and crafts.
"At that time, we were right next door to what used to be Cook's Paint Store," said company owner and president Lee Anne Howsmon, a Joplin native who was 19 years old went she started in the business. Her late husband (d. 1997), who grew up in Seneca, was working at Rocketdyne in Neosho, Mo. at the time and continued to work there for the first year and a half after opening, "because we needed to continue to eat."
When the original store opened, Howsmon said that she took craft items to various parts of the community for instruction and then people would come to the store to purchase the supplies to make what she had shown. "A few years later, we started selling office supplies and gradually hired many of the office supply salespeople from the area and continued to grow."
|Lee Anne Howsmon and her late husband, Hugh, started their business in 1963 selling books, school supplies, and crafts in downtown Joplin. After several moves, expansions, and contractions, Howsmon's has remained a fixture in the community that has been their life blood for 45 years. Don Wilkinson/JBJ|
And as they grew, that meant a need for more space. "We bought the Coulter-McGuire building, which was across the street from 613 Main and put some furniture there," Howsmon said as she related the history of the company. "We had a warehouse in a Quonset hut at Ninth and Kentucky, then we bought the old Ramsey Department Store building at Sixth and Main. Then we bought the four little buildings to the north as we grew, adding gift shops, art and drafting supplies."
At one time, Howsmon's leased a small building for furniture in what was the parking lot for the First National Bank (now US Bank) at Fourth and Main, and later acquired the building, which now belongs to State Beauty Supply, for their wholesale operations.
"Seven and one-half years later, we moved into the old Macy's building at 501 Main, and that building was perfect for us at the time. Every single floor was packed to the brim with merchandise because we were wholesale as well as retail," Howsmon said.
But the advent of the "big box" stores changed the complexion of business for the Howsmon's. "They gobbled up the Mom and Pop stores across the country, so we discontinued being a wholesaler and joined a buyers group instead, because we found we could get better prices that way than as a wholesaler, and pass that along to our customers," Howsmon said. "And that's how we can stay competitive today with the big box stores, and something we continue today."
Because they exited the wholesale business, that meant fewer inventories therefore, less building space was needed. Howsmon's moved into their current location at 526 Virginia and put the 501 building up for sale, where it remained on the market for several years until it was acquired by Matt Miller Co. of Springfield, Mo. That firm is in the process of renovating the building into upscale apartment and mercantile space.
When Lee Anne lost her husband to a heart attack, her oldest son, John, joined the firm as the chief executive officer, to help her carry on with the business. Joe Howsman, the second son, came aboard in 1998 and together the three of them with their staff of about 25 full-time employees continue the tradition of solid customer service.
Howsmon has watched the business environment change over the years, but much more so with the arrival of the PC into the office. Suddenly, much of the office equipment on hand became obsolete. And leaner budgets have produced a trend that has shifted away from quality and longer lasting products to cheaper.
"When computers came on the scene, our post binders that sold for $45 to $50 apiece and the sheets that went with them were no longer needed. Basically, we had a fire sale and closed all of that out. It was no longer valuable, so it was time to get rid of it and move on. We probably made 15-cents on the dollar but it was better than nothing."
During all of the moves and transitions, Howsmon said that Joplin has been supportive and they have retained their loyal battery of customers. "And there are those who haven't been loyal, but there are always those who are looking for the bottom line, and who want the very cheapest thing that they can get. It takes them a while to learn, but you get what you pay for."
|Lee Anne Howsmon stands with two of the store displays that have been part of the business adaptations to meet customer demands. The Seiko wall clocks pictured at right are a popular product line the company added to its inventory a few years ago that appeals to managers and executives. Don Wilkinson/JBJ|
Howsmon's and its 21 employees continue to provide its customers with quality office supplies, furniture, contract work and of course, signature service. "That's why we have remained successful – service. You can't be in business for 45 years and not learn something."
In addition to providing quality products, they offer their service of helping business customers plan their office space for maximum productivity. "Yes our furniture may be more expensive, but we try to get our customers to understand that this is a big business investment that will last for a long time.
"And you have to think of your people's productivity – how can they be more productive in the space that you've allotted them," Howsmon continued. "You can put a chair here, a file there, and a table somewhere else, but if they have to get up a half-dozen times to get the job done that could be done while sitting at the desk, you've wasted time as well. Those are issues that we want our customers to understand and how we can help resolve."
The long term benefits from paying a bit more up front for quality office furnishings that provide comfort, support, and efficiency, lies in reduction of Worker's Compensation claims from injuries in the office environment.
Office furniture and supplies are only part of the business. Howsmon's creates a wide array of gift baskets for corporate events, business expos, and employee incentive programs. Don Wilkinson/JBJ
Howsmon related a case in point where a business owner purchased three inexpensive chairs from a competitor that failed in short order, and replacement parts were unavailable. That owner came to their store recently looking for replacements but balked a paying the price. "I'll never pay that price" he told my son. "But you already have" came the reply. The guy thought about that for a minute and realized he had – he bought two," Howsmon said. "It goes to show that cheaper isn't always better, but the hard part is convincing people."
But, there is an answer for those "tough" customers. Howsmon's has a variety of quality, used office equipment that can fill the bill for the budget-minded business owner. "I've got used stuff on the floor that will last longer and better than anything that you can buy in the box stores. It is a good market and moves right along," Howsmon said.
So good in fact, they purchased 16 truckloads of used equipment in near new condition from a pharmaceutical company in Kansas City that was upgrading. "And it matches, and that doesn't happen very often with used furniture."
When asked if she ever looked back and regretted starting the business, surprisingly, Howsmon said, "Every day! When we first bought our little bookstore and Hugh was still at Rocketdyne, he came home one day, and I told him we had run $9. I remember looking up at him and asking if we had done the wrong thing, had we made a mistake? 'Hell no,' he said. 'One of those days we'll turn that $9 into $9,000.' He was a believer in positive mental attitude. Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill was his Bible."
Today, 45 years later Howsman's has adapted and continues to adapt to the changing economic complexion of the area and remains a fixture business in the downtown core of the community. And now that the sons have joined the business, the company name will continue. "We've done OK – hanging in there," she said. "You have to change or you die – it's that simple."
For more information about Howsmon's, visit their Web site at: www.howsmons.com.