In the course of a person’s life, a single event can change everything. For David Guernsey, the founder and CEO of Guernsey Office Products, a forty-year-old company and one of the largest independent office products dealers in the United States, that event came in his senior year of high school, in Falls Church, Virginia.
“At the time,” David recalls, “I was really lacking focus. I had been accepted to college, and I had a vague plan to work and go to school once I graduated from high school. But I was an average student, and sports and girls were more interesting to me than my studies.”
It could have been this lack of focus, or it could have been that David spent most of his life up to his junior year of high school outside of the United States, traveling the world as part of a military family. Whatever the reason, as graduation approached, David got into a car accident, colliding with a pristine Cadillac and causing $150 worth of damage. In the 1960s, this was no small amount. David did not have adequate insurance and needed to pay for the damage himself. Suddenly, without a dime to his name and about to graduate from high school, David found himself in a critical, defining moment. Without any other option, he postponed his plans to go to college and took a job with the Royal Typewriter Company, a division of Litton Industries.
“The job was a necessity,” David says. “I didn’t have any money, and it was my responsibility to pay for the damage. I had to put college on hold and work full time. I didn’t have a choice, really.” And so, driven out of necessity, David began his career in office supplies in the humble position of driver’s assistant, delivering office equipment for the Royal Typewriter Company. “Clearly,” he explains, “coming in just having hit a Cadillac, they wouldn’t let me operate the truck, itself.”
David rode along with the delivery driver through downtown Washington DC and unloaded the equipment and supplies at each destination. Although he had seen himself as an average student, he had always been a hard worker. During the school year and in summers, he had ushered at local theaters, flipped burgers at McDonald’s, and worked in construction crews doing paving and roofing. “I knew what hard work was,” he affirms, “and I knew there had to be a better way to earn a living than to do asphalt paving in the middle of summer.”
David was quickly able to pick up the technical aspects of the equipment he was delivering. Royal Typewriter recognized that he was bright and a hard worker, and rewarded him with further opportunities. Before long he was promoted to sales. “In every area,” he says, “I did well. They looked at me and said, this is a well-rounded kid. He’s ambitious, and he sees things that need fixing.”
But David wasn’t just observant. When he saw something that could be done better, he would verbalize his observation and what needed to be done without hesitation. According to David, he learned this from his experience traveling with his family.
“We traveled all over the world,” he says. “As a military family, we did not have very much income available, and there was only so much we could do. But my dad bought a Volkswagen camper, which afforded the opportunity to really see the sights. I was immersed in many new and challenging situations. It was a great experience because it taught me not to be afraid of anything. It taught me to just jump in, because any barrier can be overcome.”
It was this adventurous spirit that first took David’s career to the next level. When Royal Typewriter offered him the chance to open his own dealership in Arlington County, he jumped at the opportunity and founded Guernsey Office Products in May of 1971. With no business experience whatsoever, David approached the challenge with an attitude of “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Still, as he began developing a clientele and marketing his products to local businesses, he realized that he would need an education.
“I was sitting with the accountant and the lawyer who helped me form the business,” David explains. “They were talking, and I had no idea what they were saying. I had no clue. It was one of those moments where the light goes on, and I said to myself, you better spend your evenings going to college and learning about all of this.”
This began a five-year period where David worked during the day and went to classes at night. Money was still scarce, and David only took the classes he needed in order to understand his own business, first at George Mason and then at the University of Virginia. And just as before, when the simple necessity of the Cadillac bill drove David to work his way up through Royal Typewriter, now the necessity of understanding his own business drove him to spend all waking hours working and studying. “At that age,” he points out, “you can live on three hours of sleep and do just fine.”
He completed all but a few of the credits of the core business program at George Mason and UVA and later took a few graduate courses, primarily in finance. Before long, he had a solid educational background with which he could lead his business to new success.
“The interesting thing about that period of time,” David remembers, “was that while I was going to school at night, I was actually applying what I learned at work during the day. For me, studying wasn’t just something I would do after the workday ended. It was something that I did during it. It was nonstop, and those were difficult but rewarding years.”
Through those years, David learned the critical lessons that would turn him into a keen businessman. He learned that a strong balance sheet was crucial to a growing business. Realizing he was dangerously under-capitalized, David directed every penny that didn’t go to food or housing back into the business. Again, necessity drove him to build his business and invest everything into it. After those five long and intensive years, David found himself and his business on solid ground at last.
But it wasn’t just his work ethic that drove him to succeed. Leadership, too, came naturally to David. When he was in high school, he was elected president of his fraternity. On his sports teams, he was made captain. When he went to sales school with Litton Industries, his class elected him president, too. And it was about the time that he was finding his business on firmer footing that he was able to hire his first employee. “Now that I was running a business,” David says, “I had to be a leader in a way I hadn’t been before. When I was taking business classes, that gave me a more academic sense of what leadership was. But I didn’t truly understand it until that real-world application that went along with actually hiring, training, and motivating a staff.”
As he progressed through his business career over the years, and as Guernsey Office Products grew and grew, David would go on to serve as Chairman of both the Arlington and Fairfax Chambers of Commerce, and as Chairman of the Office Products Industry Association. Today he is Chairman of the Board of the National Federation of Independent Business. “As this all unfolded,” he explains, “I wasn’t surprised by it. From early on, I knew folks perceived me in that way. And as we all grow even more through our experiences, we understand more about why people perceive us the way they do.”
David learned that he was a good consensus builder. He was never authoritarian in leadership, and always happy to give credit to the other guy. He found that people would warm to him very quickly. He placed a high priority on being fair and consistent, but also on making strong decisions confidently, and on having a clear head about where the company needed to go, what they needed to do to get there, and finally, how to communicate that to his employees.
In locating the initial source of these abilities, David returns to his childhood. One reality of moving around the world so much with his family was that he never spent more than a few years at any one school. This meant that he was constantly thrown into new situations where he had to learn to make new friends and understand new environments. “It was just like wrecking my car and hitting the Cadillac,” David says. “I was thrown into something, and good things came out of it. I never really wanted to move from school to school and have to make new friends. And, no doubt, at the time I was frustrated and unhappy about it. But from all of that came really good experiences.”
Through David’s continuous hard work and strong leadership, Guernsey Office Products experienced growth every year leading up to the financial crisis of 2008, followed by only a brief stagnation in 2009 before resuming its pattern of growth in 2010—a trend that has continued ever since. In fact, over the past 40 years, David’s company has expanded from a single distribution center in Arlington County, with him as the sole worker traveling door-to-door selling his wares, to one of the largest of a shrinking number of independent office supply dealerships. Guernsey has over two hundred employees spread across offices from just south of Baltimore, through Washington and Northern Virginia, down to Richmond and Tidewater.
David’s brother, seven years his junior, is also involved in the company, and David says he’ll be at it longer than David himself. Also involved is a senior manager who has been with Guernsey for thirty years, Gordon Thrall. Gordon isn’t the only employee who has been with the company for a long time. In fact, one of David’s proudest accomplishments has been that he’s never laid anyone off in forty years—not in the turmoil of 2008, and not even when faced by the enormous challenge that was the emergence in 1989 of Staples and Office Depot. David sees a younger group ready to take over as crucial to any office product company’s continued survival. “There aren’t so many of us independents anymore,” he affirms. “The process is that, if you don’t have competent folks to take over from you, then it gets sold. And typically it gets sold to a public entity. That’s why so many of us are slowly disappearing.”
Reflecting further on what he’s learned as a business leader over the years, David focuses in on how he has learned the value of a holistic approach to one’s professional journey. “A business is many things,” he says. “When you’re running it from the top, there’s sales, operations, marketing, finance, hard assets, people, and business strategy. I think one thing that successful business owners probably share is the ability to grasp it all. You need the capacity to understand how all the parts move together. I found out early on that not only could I do that, but I enjoyed it.”
In evaluating his own success, David also places a strong emphasis on community. Having been a leader of business and neighborhood communities alike, he has worked hard to give back to the environments that have made his personal and professional successes possible. “When you live in a community, and raise a family in that community, you have the obligation to give back in a substantive way. You can do that in many ways, and you don’t necessarily have to be a leader, but you must be somebody that helps push it along, whatever it is.”
David’s last and perhaps most urgent word is on the crucial importance of balancing work and family. “You can always come up with a legitimate argument to do more in your business,” he says, “and you’ll find yourself with no time for your family. But as a father or a husband, finding that balance is something that must be done.” Like so many other aspects of life, it’s just another product of necessity that enriches one’s experience, both professional and personal, in unimagined yet vital ways.