Staples’ Founder Beat the Odds to Create Billion-Dollar Empire

Thomas Stemberg started as an entrepreneur who owned a chain of warehouse stores, but when he was fired, he thought his entrepreneurial days were over. As it turned out, he couldn’t have been more wrong.

Stemberg, after he was let go from his role as President at the First National Supermarkets' Edwards-Finast division, was unemployed for about a month. He spent that time brainstorming his next venture, and ultimately, he decided to take the big box model that has been so successful and apply it to another product. As he was printing business plans, his printer broke, and the only store in town was closed for the weekend. That's when he got the idea: selling paper goods and office supplies year-round at affordable prices.

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In an interview with the Hartford Courant in 1996, he also mentioned that the book "Megatrends" predicted that there would be a massive rise in home office use, necessitating a dependable office supply resource. Stemberg was concerned, as attracting local buyers would mean breaking bonds they had already built with small businesses who provided consumers with fancy stationery. But with thorough research and his own knowledge of warehouse store operations, he opened the first Staples store in Brighton, Massachusetts, in 1986.

The store's success was instantaneous, as Staples was the only warehouse office supplier at the time. Soon, the store reached annual sales of $6 million – more than $2 million over Stemberg's projections.

Unfortunately, less than six months after the store launched, another entrepreneur had a similar idea and opened up the first Office Depot in the Southern United States, with the first Office Max soon following. Stemberg fought competitors by ramping up expansion and opening new stores as quickly as possible. By 1989, he had 23 stores with $119 million in net sales. He then took the company public, and the rest is history.

Stemberg passed away in 2015 after a battle with stomach cancer, but his tenure with Staples ended in 2006, when he retired to pursue a life of philanthropy. The Staples venture had given him a net worth of $202 million by the end of his life, much of which he donated to educational causes.