Geoffrey Lewis, WYNIT: Serial EntrepreneurJanuary 10, 2013
Geoffrey Lewis has a simple philosophy that has served him well during a long career in the commercial and consumer electronics industry: “I go to bed dreaming of what I want to do, wake up believing I have the capabilities to get it done, and then spend the day getting it done.”
As the founder of WYNIT, Lewis and his team recently celebrated the distributor’s 25th year, an anniversary all business owners dream of but a particularly important milestone in the tumultuous CE industry. The years since the recession have claimed a handful of CE distributors, but WYNIT has managed to survive and thrive by tapping into new product and solution trends, and adjusting its service offerings to better address the changes its customers face.
The company’s line card serves as a timeline of the major digital trends that have driven commercial and consumer markets during the last 25 years: digital photography and imaging; video editing; computer peripherals and accessories, with a big focus on storage; navigation; and security and surveillance. Lewis has also steered the distributor into niche areas that represent more stable markets that are less impacted by digital trends: housewares, wide-format printing, and leisure and adventure.
Today, the North Syracuse, N.Y.-based distributor sells thousands of SKUs from hundreds of manufacturers. “Our relationships with suppliers are very strategic,” Lewis said. “The more strategic they are, the more successful they are.”
On the services side, one of the biggest challenges WYNIT has had to tackle has been the transition during the last four years from “pallet in, pallet out,” to a greater focus on customer fulfillment, which has been fueled by online sales.It essentially entails shipping many more smaller, inexpensive items one at a time to thousands of customers. “That’s a game changer that’s important to our survival today,” Lewis said. “You have to do it to survive.”
If you look at Lewis’s past, it’s probably no surprise that he ended up starting a distribution company. He got the sales bug while attending Rochester Institute of Technology in the early ‘70s. “I never graduated,” Lewis said. “I was too busy being entrepreneurial. I’d go to school when I had time, which wasn’t a lot.”
Instead, he spent his time selling ads for the school yearbook and newspaper. Fate intervened one weekend when he was visiting his parents’ home in Haverhill, Mass.
On the den table were three portable calculators, representing the cutting-edge technology of the time. His father, who worked in the shoe manufacturing industry, had picked them up from a client. Lewis asked if he could try selling them back at school. He placed signs around campus and sold them within a few days. He sent the money back home and asked for six more. Six eventually turned into nearly 200. Lewis never turned back.
During the next several years, he worked as sales manager at the Office Equipment Company of Rochester, where he learned the ins and outs of commercial sales (especially with copiers) and how to manage a sales force. He also worked with his father, overseeing shoe component manufacturing processes, a job that took him throughout Asia and Europe. Despite spending as much time in the air as on the ground, Lewis earned the equivalent of a master’s degree in import/export. He also picked up a few important lessons from his father.
“He taught me about the importance of building relationships with customers and suppliers,” Lewis recalled. “He said, ‘It’s not all about fashion and it’s not all about price. It’s all about customer service.’”
During a six-month hiatus plotting his next move, Lewis noticed an increase in grey-market sales of copier components and printer consumables. “Instead of cold-calling for hardware sales, I had a better idea. I’ll sell the supplies,” which few established players were doing at the time, said Lewis, who began leveraging his vendor contacts at Canon, Hewlett-Packard and elsewhere for supplies. “That was the beginning of my wholesale career.”
A beneficial turn to that career occurred about the time Hewlett-Packard’s laser printing began to take off. Canon was supplying HP its toner cartridges but couldn’t keep up with demand, causing extreme shortages. After a heroic attempt at trying to capture as much of the business as he could, Lewis received a call from his Canon contact, who said he could no longer buy the cartridges unless he became a full-fledged Canon wholesale distributor. Lewis signed on and the deal helped put WYNIT on the map. “I had arrived,” he said.
That move eventually led the company deep into the digital photography market (cameras, printers, memory, accessories), and many of the others it now serves.
“The key is to remain viable with disruptive technologies,” said Lewis, who lives in Providence, R.I., and relies heavily on his team in North Syracuse, led by COO Peter Richichi, to run day-to-day operations. “You’ve got to be nimble, and you can’t be afraid of new markets.” DS