Sharon Hoffman Avent

Even in a digital age, she has kept her family’s office-products company relevant and stable.
Sharon Hoffman Avent

When Sharon Hoffman Avent became president and CEO of Hastings-based Smead Manufacturing Co. in 1998, she benefited from the long stewardship of her mother, Ebba Hoffman. Still, everything wasn’t rosy when Avent took the helm of the fourth-generation family-owned company. She inherited a business contending with a rapidly changing work environment that had less use for the file folders, accordion files, and other organizational products Smead had produced since 1906.

Avent has kept Smead in good form by constantly developing new products, as well as acquiring companies to open new channels or lines of business. Over the years, Smead has added shelving, personal document-organization kits, and other products. Avent also maintained important traditions that date back to Smead’s earliest days—notably, a strong loyalty to customers, employees, and community.

“Mother taught me to listen,” says Avent, who visits regularly with employees across the company and the country. “If someone had an idea and at first I thought, ‘That’s not going to work,’ I learned to listen first and then talk about it. Sometimes it might fit better than you think.”

Growing up at Smead prepared Avent. She formally joined Smead in 1965, starting out in the credit department. Over time, Avent took on more responsibilities—as assistant to the president, then senior executive vice president and board member. After her brother died, Avent and Hoffman ran Smead as a mother-daughter team with 100 percent ownership. As a team, they were twice named to Working Women magazine’s Top 50 Business Owners (in 1994 and 1995), and in 1995 Smead was listed as the 35th-largest woman-owned U.S. business. (Smead is currently the largest woman-owned company in the Twin Cities.)

A culture of adaptability and durability has also carried Smead and Avent through many personal hardships, such as the unexpected death in 1955 of Harold Hoffman, Smead’s president and Avent’s father. That led to the long tenure of Ebba Hoffman, who took over the debt-laden company as a widow with two young children. Avent’s brother, John Peter Hoffman, who was vice president and a board member, died suddenly in 1986. Avent essentially ran the company for half a year while her mother grieved.

Avent also helped carry on her mother’s efforts to expand globally. Smead acquired a Dutch office-products maker in 1998, adding a Norwegian firm five years later. Avent traveled extensively to Europe to cement relations with the acquired companies. But by late 2008, Avent saw that Smead’s decade-long presence in Europe was no longer working. It had become too difficult to mesh the different business cultures. Instead, she decided to refocus on the U.S. market.

That market is a challenging one. People and companies are using fewer paper products for organizing their lives and businesses. When Avent became CEO, Smead had 2,500 employees, six plants across the country, and more than $300 million in sales. Today, it has 900 employees, five plants, and a little more than $250 million in revenue. (The company closed its Georgia facility in 2015.)

“After people started using less paper, we had to look for other ideas that can blend in with what we’re doing,” Avent says. “You have to try things, but in areas that you know something about.” Smead continues to develop line extensions and new products for the home and office, such as manila folders with coloring book-style pictures on them, to keep its offerings fresh. Thanks to the items like these—and supplying e-commerce retailers such as Amazon—sales of Smead’s home-office products have been growing.

Through internal development and acquisitions, Avent entered the records management systems sector. These software-based systems keep electronic files and records organized. It started in 1993 with Treveall, DOS-based software that helped users track and manage paper records using barcode technology. A couple of years later, the company introduced Smeadlink document-management software. Though Smead has since left the digital sector, these forays into electronic records management made Smead the first company to provide complete systems to handle both hard-copy and digital records.

A more modest but significant way that Avent and her employees have kept Smead relevant is treating its customers equally, whether they’re big-box retailers or the main-street stationery shops.

“We were never trying to create a situation that gave someone an advantage,” says David Fasbender, senior vice president of sales and marketing, who recently retired after 55 years. “We may lose some business, but the only way Sharon wanted to operate was by being fair and on a level ground with every customer. Customers felt that security.”

And, in fact, Smead has won numerous awards from those customers. They include Office Depot’s Supply Chain Vendor of the Year in 2007 and, more recently, five consecutive years named Vendor of the Year by Indianapolis-based Independent Stationers Inc., a national business-products cooperative.

“Being named vendor of the year by all of them is not an accident,” Fasbender says. “It’s from having the right service, competitive pricing, and quality.” He also believes that Avent’s continued focus on Smead’s core organizational products has been crucial to that recognition. After all, Fasbender adds, “what has our focus been for 100 years, and who brought us to the dance? We’re going to stay with who brought us to the dance.”

Avent also has a strong loyalty to the city that she and Smead have long called home. In addition to running and maintaining a major employer, Avent has served on the boards of Hastings’ Regina Hospital, the city’s school foundation, and the Minnesota Historical Society. She also helped lead an effort to bring a YMCA to town.

Avent’s sense of loyalty extends to her employees. Many have worked 30, 40, 50, even 60 years at Smead.

“She’s just a very loyal person to family and employees and the community. She doesn’t criticize or talk down to people,” says John Poepl, CEO of Hastings-based Vermilion Bank and a longtime family friend. “She’s a genuine, good person who is fiercely loyal to the people around her. She treats employees like they are part of her family.”

“I’m proud of Smead because I think it has been a company where everyone who works here is part of the Smead family,” Avent says. “They have the opportunity to make suggestions about what might be better or what we could do differently. I’m proud of how we’ve been able to treat our employees, and I think we’re fair. That’s what is really important in life.”

Timeline

1946 – Born in Hastings to Harold and Ebba Hoffman, owners of Smead Manufacturing Co.
1965 – Joins Smead as an office assistant in the credit department.
1986 – Takes over as executive vice president upon the death of her brother, John Peter Hoffman.
1998 – Becomes president and CEO after Ebba Hoffman retires.
1999 – Takes Smead into the electronic organizational-products realm with the purchase of California-based Document Control Solutions.
2003 – Honored with the Spirit of Life Award from City of Hope, the first and only woman to receive the honor.
2011 – Earns the Women’s Business Development Center Entrepreneurial Woman of the Year Award, one of numerous recognitions she has received throughout her career.
2016 – Smead enters a joint venture with Justick to distribute the South Africa-based company’s electronic whiteboards and bulletin boards.
2016 – Names stepson Casey Avent president; she remains CEO.
2017 – Smead takes majority ownership of California-based U Brands, known for its distinctively designed pens, clips, and other stationery products.