Growing up in her father’s office supply business, Jennifer Smith’s entrepreneurial spirit came naturally. But she also knew exactly what she wanted to do after college: work for Dayton’s department store. She started on the sales floor in the mid-1980s, which, she points out, was rarely a path to an executive role. But Smith worked her way up to the buying office, landing in women’s shoes, a plum assignment—at least for a fashion-savvy sales professional on the rise. “I still have so many shoes,” she confesses.
Though she amassed an impressive collection of heels, Smith says what she learned on the Dayton’s selling floor was even more valuable: that the customer was always right. “I’ve carried that philosophy of customer experience throughout my whole career,” she says.
There was another Dayton’s insight that later proved key to Smith’s success building her own consumer products business. At Dayton’s, even in the days before the worldwide web, Smith learned to transmit shoe orders to vendors by computer, via the electronic data exchange. When she saw the office supply industry still writing orders by hand—one copy for billing, another for the warehouse—she zeroed in on the opportunity for disruption.
Innovative Office Solutions, the Burnsville-based company Smith has grown to nearly $170 million in annual sales, was ahead of its time when she launched it in 2001. Veterans in the office supply business balked at a woman in her 30s coming in and thinking she could compete. But Smith stayed laser-focused. While the veterans paid for warehouse space and sat on expensive inventory, Smith invested in a website and a sales team. From day one, her clients could go online to place product orders, which Innovative fulfilled through third-party vendors. She built a stockless supply company—virtually unheard of 20 years ago—making it easy to venture into new categories based on client needs. That’s why she very intentionally called herself a “solutions” provider. “It was all about relationships,” Smith says.
She set a goal to become Minnesota’s largest independent office supplier within 10 years.
She achieved it in nine.
“She’s built a culture that Fortune 500 companies would envy,” says Harry Dochelli, president and CEO of Essendant, Innovative’s primary distributor, based in suburban Chicago. “Jennifer has a phenomenal amount of drive for success, but she does it in a way that doesn’t push people aside. She stays close to everybody to ensure the customer experience is real. That makes people want to buy more from her. It’s not about the product; it’s about what they do for customers.”
Smith didn’t want to leave Dayton’s. “I loved that job,” she says. But after nine years with the retailer, she resigned and returned home to Northfield. Her mother had fallen ill; her father was struggling to care for his wife and keep up with his office supply store, Town & Country. Smith wanted to help. She wasn’t especially passionate about office goods—“I was a shoe buyer; I didn’t want to sell paperclips,” she recalls.
“She’s built a culture that Fortune 500 companies would envy.”
Harry Dochelli, president and CEO, Essendant
But it’s not her nature to pass up an opportunity. Her husband, Brooks, tells the story of the time in college when Smith wanted to get a base tan before a trip to Mexico (it was the ’80s). Instead of buying sessions at a local salon, Smith rented a tanning bed, had it delivered to her dorm room, and charged classmates $5 per session. “She made enough to pay for that trip to Mexico,” Brooks says with a chuckle. A lawyer and certified public accountant, he provided free legal and financial guidance to Innovative in the early years. In 2009, he joined as CFO and general counsel.
So when Smith returned to Northfield in the early ’90s and saw her father’s office supply business limping along, she bought it. Within two years, she grew the company from $1 million to $12 million in annual revenue and eventually sold it to a big-box retailer. “What I took from that experience was that it didn’t matter what I was selling. It’s ‘How do I inspire people to love what they do and who they do it with?’ That’s our purpose today.”
The company that purchased Town & Country went bankrupt and sold its assets to Staples. Smith’s former employees urged her to start another office supply company. And when her noncompete ran out, she did, hiring many of the same sales reps.
Launching Innovative just months before the 9/11 attacks meant Smith faced totally unforeseen challenges in the ensuing economic downtown. But by 2009, Innovative was a $15 million company. When the recession hit in 2008, Smith doubled down, updating technology, growing from 25 to 50 employees.
“I didn’t always know what I was doing, but I wasn’t afraid to take a risk,” she says. “One of my superpowers is noticing an opportunity in front of me. We aren’t in a vertical market. Everything is open to us; we just have to get out there and sell.”
Another turning point in 2009 came when Smith observed that her kids, then in high school, had all but stopped using paper in favor of screens. At the time, half of Innovative’s sales came from paper and ink; Smith knew she needed to broaden her scope to keep growing. “Anything that goes into the workplace” is how she redefined the opportunity. That includes bathroom goods, office furniture, cleaning supplies, gym flooring for schools. Today, Innovative provides paper products to Xcel Energy Center and has worked with every Minnesota pro sports team. When U.S. Bank Stadium opened in 2016, Innovative supplied all the furniture, the company’s single largest project to date.
“When an opportunity arises, you have to grab it and figure out how to do it.” Smith says. She calls those times “ROL moments”—short for “return on luck.”
With a distribution system set up across the country, Innovative can quickly serve clients where they work. Most of its larger customers are in the Midwest, but many have locations nationwide.
A strategy of diversification offset pandemic losses for Innovative in 2020. Today, schools are a fast-growing vertical. “Back-end” office supplies—toilet paper, cleaning products—are one of the top-selling product categories. That category has tied with AV as companies adopt hybrid work models.
Smith was yet again ahead of the trend in 2019 when Innovative added work culture workshops to its service menu. “We’re looking at all ways that we can help businesses,” Smith says. “Making sure you buy the right products is one way. Now, it’s more about employee engagement and how do you get people back to the office.” Companies are suddenly interested in upgrading their employee cafés and adding plant walls. “I’m always thinking ‘What’s next, and how can I be there for people?’”
It’s a Thursday in April, and Smith’s calendar is predictably packed with conference calls. She’s taking them from a chair at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center where she’s starting a new chemotherapy regimen. Now and then she mutes herself while a nurse checks her vitals.
Smith beat breast cancer in 2019. She subsequently beat leukemia. But this spring, the leukemia returned a second time. Smith, who is 55, is hoping to get into a clinical trial in California. She didn’t want to share news of her cancer recurrence with employees “until there’s hope. Then I’ll tell the team, when there’s a story to tell.”
Innovative employs 320. That includes Smith’s adult children and their spouses. Max Smith is an account executive who also developed and oversees the company’s InSports Foundation, which provides financial assistance and opportunities to get kids participating in sports. His wife, Bridget, is the company’s director of marketing. Smith’s daughter, Maddie Segovia, is a marketing coordinator, and her husband, Mark, works on Innovative’s IT team.
“Everyone loves and respects her here,” Maddie Segovia says over a Zoom call from her mom’s desk. “With every new hire, she’s the first person to reach out. She’s the most positive person I know. She’s strong, independent, and taught me to always go for it.”
Smith is a big fan of using Clifton StrengthsFinder assessments to help people uncover their talents. Some people include an address in their email signature; Smith lists her Clifton strengths: positivity, arranger, WOO (“winning others over”), futuristic, and achiever.
“I love inspiring people,” Smith says. “I love it when we help them make the sale or make a process more efficient. You’ve got to always be willing to look for opportunity, even when things look bad. Find a way to take advantage of it.”