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), Johnson & Johnson ( JNJ) 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.

Have you been able to expand? How so?

Kennedy: Yes, we have been able to expand both within our historical offering and with new business initiatives. Our technological infrastructure has allowed us to supply additional product lines to our existing customers and our new "software as a service" offering has attracted interest from new corporate customers.

Are you hiring? If so, how is that going? What challenges, if any, have you come across?

Kennedy: Yes, we are hiring, because we are adding new customers and expanding our services to existing customers. For us, the market is ripe for locating new bright and intelligent people because of the vast layoffs by major corporations.

What are the overall challenges of running a small business?

Kennedy: In our case, the challenges may be different from those of other small businesses. Since we sell to and service major corporations and institutions nationwide, our overall challenge is to convince major companies and institutions that we have the business model, expertise and capacity to offer unique, unparalleled value to their organizations.

What is your impression of President Barack Obama's jobs plan? What sticks out as most potentially beneficial for you?

Kennedy: I have a very positive impression of Obama's jobs plan and I think that the bill should be passed by Congress. There are two areas of the plan which seem to be most beneficial to our business: The plan will provide a tax break for companies that hire new workers; and the plan will cut payroll taxes in half for individuals and small businesses.

What are your plans for the company?

Kennedy: We have some very exciting plans going forward. In addition to offering our new "software as a service" product to major corporations, we plan to roll out a national service for small and midsized businesses as well. Small and midsized businesses will be able to save time, money and gas by ordering supplies online for nationwide next-day delivery.

Next: Gary Bickford, of Healthy Life Clinic, winner of SCORE's Outstanding Small Business Launched by an Individual Age 50-Plus.

-- Written by Laurie Kulikowski in New York.

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