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SCORE Award: American Product Distributors

CHARLOTTE, N.C. ( MainStreet) -- American Product Distributors can sell you a pen or plumbing supplies. You can buy toner cartridges and paper from it, or baseball caps with your company's logo. You can also buy all those things and hundreds more in any combination and quantity -- or software solutions that link customized catalogs with company purchasing systems.

It's all part of the so-called business consumables industry, work founder and CEO C. Ray Kennedy made his own with the launch of American Product Distributors in 1992.

American Product Distributors warehouses can ship everything from pens and plumbing supplies to toner cartridges and customized baseball caps.

His epiphany: noticing that the efficiencies and automation he took for granted in his two decades in banking -- and second nature to him since a stint in the U.S. Army -- "were non-existent in sales and distribution of the business consumable supplies industry," he says. "I decided to start a company that would fill a void and bring sustainable value to customers."

The company now employs 55 people in eight offices and works with corporations and institutions nationwide.

Winning SCORE's Outstanding Minority-Owned Small Business award for 2011, the company is the first of six winners to be profiled by TheStreet. A conversation with Kennedy follows:

What does this award mean to you?

Kennedy: We have won many national awards over the years from customers such as Bank of America (BAC - Get Report), Johnson & Johnson (JNJ - Get Report) and the U.S. Postal Service, among others. All of the national awards we have received were from customers or suppliers. The SCORE award is the first national award that we have received from an entity which is neither a customer nor supplier. So receiving a national award from an independent entity like SCORE verifies our real value and affords us unbiased recognition and exposure.

What has been your biggest lesson learned as an entrepreneur?

Kennedy: As you become bigger and more successful, you attract more competition. In order to sustain success, you must stay well ahead of your competition by providing real value to customers.

What advice would you give to startups?

Kennedy: Prepare yourself financially and emotionally to be patient, yet persistent. Think outside the box in terms of securing capital to fund your growth. Consider differentiating yourself and your business from others in order to offer something unique to your customer base.

What's been the toughest part of the past year given the economy?

Kennedy: The ability to secure debt capital and traditional lines of credit in the face of the challenges experienced in the banking industry.

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