Front windows and an office

When we broke through the wall in our warehouse location we ended up with windows and an actual front door.

We bought some desks and got ready to roll. And we had our first big idea. We would start an online store.

This was in 1998, well before other companies. But, what should we sell? School-Paks were still so new and a lot of people weren’t buying things online as such. After a trip to the store, we decided that Jansport backpacks would be a good fit.

So we called the Jansport rep in and got set up as an account. She helped us pick out a simple selection of backpacks. We got all of the jpgs, all the descriptions all the pricing, set everything up online and sat back, waiting for the sales to roll in.

The sales rep was pretty excited about our attempts as there were so few companies selling Jansport online.

Our first sale came in for a black Super Break backpack. Which we didn’t have. So we began running around to stores looking for one. We finally found it in South Milwaukee at a Kohls store, purchased at retail and sold it for a loss since we were selling at retail and never factored in our gas and time buying it. But we established the fact that customers would buy things online.

We then approached Mead to see if we could get their items online. They showed no interest in working with us. So we ended up with just Jansport at that time.

By 2000, we had a great presence online and were stunned when we received an email from a reporter at the Wall Street Journal.  He had found our site, and some others including Office Depot, and had placed an order for supplies and a backpack. We had sent them out the next day and so impressed him that we were named “Best Overall Value” in a news story. Next we found that MSNBC ran a story about it. We were getting recognized. Finally, we were mentioned on Rosie O’Donnell’s show.

Things were starting to ramp up and all we saw was the road ahead of us. We forgot to check for potholes. And they were there.



Wow! The summer is finally over, all the packs have been sent and all the summer help is now busy studying. So it's time to catch up on some blogging. And there's a lot to talk about.

This first one, a difficult one to write, is about Lori Wozniak, our office manager who passed away earlier this month.

Lori started working for us in spring of 2001. Her background had been working for an Arts and Crafts store so she had a very strong mental databank on school supplies.

It didn't take long and she was able to take on more and more tasks. She quickly became adept at preparing quotes for schools and working on a personal, albeit over the telephone, basis with many of our coordinators.

2003 became a rough year for School-Pak and we had to release her. She quickly found a job with a medical supplier. As things turned around, we contacted her about coming back and she readily agreed.

Her ability to retain information and set up procedures, spreadsheets, documents, etc., began to show results as we continued to grow. Even though we told her not to, she would take work home with her every night.

While our day started at 8:30, she was here many times at 7:00 in the morning. "That's when it's quiet and I can get more done." It wasn't unusual for coordinators and customers to get email replies from her at 3 in the morning. She was more than dedicated.

She was a dedicated Packers fan and finally was able to attend a game at Lambeau this past year. She was pretty much pumped when football met reality as Donald Driver appeared on Dancing With The Stars.

She will be difficult to replace. Her work ethic is going to be hard to match. We're trying hard to cover her assignments.

Rest, Lori.


Realizing What's Important

Running a business can be difficult. We have to be concerned with all those things that make us go. Do we have enough product? Do we have enough workers? What will it cost to ship to a school? Can we lower prices? What do the customers want?

And then we get that shock to the system that makes us step back and see real life.

The past two years we’ve sponsored, as School-Pak, a rookie girl’s baseball team. And they are definitely rookies. Some have played T-Ball in the past but most have no baseball experience. The girls range from 1st Graders to 3rd Graders and come from various schools.

This year we were stunned when one of the girls was diagnosed with leukemia. Her treatment, including chemo-therapy, has been aggressive and signs point to a good prognosis. Honestly, this is the first child that we’ve known that is facing leukemia and it’s difficult to think of her without tearing up.

We’ve attended most of the games but really, we’re sponsors not family or friends so it’s hard to convey our thoughts to the family.

Our newest shock was to learn of the accidental death of one of our student-customers during a 4th of July celebration. The difficulty of dealing with a tragic loss of a child is something unimaginable yet it happens every day.

As grandparents of four healthy grandchildren, 1 girl and 3 boys, we sometimes forget how lucky we’ve been. They were all at our house for the 4th and they were fun to watch at the local parade and fireworks.

Our hearts and thoughts go out to these two families and those that we don’t know that face difficult life events.


Early Years In The Warehouse

Having outgrown Corpus Christi’s library, we were in need of some warehouse space. What a shock to find out how much that space would cost.

Years earlier I had worked for and with Bill Kesselman (from part 2 of the School-Pak story). As a well connected Milwaukee businessman, he provided us with a list of his friends to see who could help us out.

That brought us to Max Gendelman. Max, I believe, was the founder of National Hardware and, after selling the company, had a lot of warehouse space available. My meeting with Max went well, with him basically saying, “If Bill sent you over, we can make something happen.”

Our first area was a 40 by 40 foot warehouse space. We moved our computers (we now had 2!), our production shelves and all of our stock into the space. A small corner of the room became our lunch area.

We were so excited to have finally “grown up”. And then, our first business crisis occurred.

A phone call from the our rep at a school planner company called and asked when we had opened up a location in Arizona.

Apparently, some one was using a mis-spelled version of schoolpak.com for their website.

We made a number of inquiries and found a company named Innovative Learning Products (ILP) located in Phoenix. We made contact with the owner, Ray Lopez. Ray suggested we meet to see how we could “work together”.

We flew out to meet with him and were not “sold” on his ideas. His hope was to flood the boxes, inside and out, with advertising from different companies. Schools at that time were very much against providing advertising to their students so we walked away. Ray eventually sold his company to Innisbrook and went to work for them.

Innisbrook continued to use the name as they expanded into the kit business. Customers and potential schools that went searching for us ended up with Innisbrook. Repeated attempts to get them to stop were ignored. We spent close to $9,000 in legal fees and were finally advised that, even if we spent $90,000 fighting them, they could simply stop using the address and we wouldn’t be able to recover any damages. The big guys would win. Except…

We registered a domain with "Innisbrook.com" spelled as "Inisbrook.com". We started getting their email requests. It took less than a month for them to contact us and exchange domains. Unfortunately they continue to use “Back-To-School Packs” for their kits. That still causes confusion in the marketplace but we’ve learned to live with it.

So here we were, back in Milwaukee, making packs and growing. But we needed even more space. So two years later, we broke into the next room and actually ended up with some office space.

We had made it. We thought.


The School-Pak Story, Part 3 (Corpus Christi School)

There comes a time when the neighbors start complaining about semis coming down the block leaving off pallet loads of glue and glue sticks. We knew it was time to move out of the house.

The first idea we had turned out to be the best. I called on the principal at Corpus Christi school, Barbara Nehrbass, and asked to use the cafeteria during the summer. She said that the cafeteria was used for Bingo, coffee & donuts after Mass, etc., and suggested we take the library. And we did.

The problem was that Terri was still working at the hospital and I was out calling on schools so when the trucks were ready to deliver product, they would call us at home and we'd go to the school to meet them. Terri would arrive, dressed for work, and have to help unload the truck and get them to move fast so that she wouldn't be late.

Now at that point, we didn’t own any kind of shelving or work tables. We put the library tables on concrete blocks so they would be easier to work on and started buying some shelving units.

We kept all of our stock in the library and put the finished packs into the gymnasium. As the end of summer approached, we rented a UHaul truck and began delivering the packs to the schools. We kept that up until our growth took us out of the Milwaukee area.

One of the first things we discovered was that teachers really liked the idea of having pre-sharpened pencils. We contacted the pencil makers and asked them about purchasing the pencils sharpened. No one would do it so we bought an electric pencil sharpener and began sharpening them ourselves. Then we bought another one when that one burned out. Then another one. And finally, the summer was over before we needed another one.

Eventually we were told that we could buy them sharpened but we were charged a free for each pencil! After constantly asking, today every pencil manufacturer provides sharpened pencils and it’s become the standard for all kit companies to offer them.

We also would label all the items for the student, including handwriting their names on the Fiskars scissors. It was pretty work intensive and we finally decided to offer a sheet of labels with each pack. That was back in 1994. Now every company provides name labels. This was the second idea that we had that changed the kit supply business.

 It’s also when we started hiring some help. Those first couple of years they came from family friends and our main source of students, Marquette University High School and Divine Savior/Holy Angels High School. Our son, Nick, a student at Marquette, would provide us with his friends and they worked out extremely well.

But, as we continued to grow, it was time to move on. I began looking for a larger place, hopefully a warehouse. Like anyone else, I looked to friends and associates for help. I had my own “Linked-In” program to use.

Next: The early years in the warehouse.


The School-Pak Story, Part 2

Don't know how this was missed but apparently it was never posted. Here's part 2 of our story.

Crayola became our first company to deal with.

Like most big companies that get approached by a start-up, Crayola wouldn’t give us credit. But they did come up with an interesting program.

All we had to do was send them $2,500 to start our account. (That wasn’t real easy. You see, our total start-up cost was $500. So coming up with 5 times that amount was taking a bit of a stretch.)

As we had things sent to us, Crayola would deduct that from our account until we were almost at zero. Then, another $2,500 was needed.

It’s time to step back a little at this point. In 1993, Terri was working as a group leader in the outpatient department of St. Joseph’s hospital. Her schedule had her working second shift 2 days a week for one week and then 3 days the following week. It didn’t bring in much income but it provided health insurance.

My only source of income came from an interesting place. In 1986 I became a partner in a small company, Station WVCR. We had a vending machine for VHS tapes. We were the forerunner of the Red Box, just 25 years early!

We ended up closing the business as Blockbuster became the major force for renting tapes. We couldn’t afford to keep up with the number of new release copies they provided and eventually had to close our doors.

Our main benefactor, Bill Kesselman, was the financial loser, close to $500,000. Yet, as I’ll write about in the future, he became one of the best mentors I’ve ever had.

I kept the tapes and started a small service, placing films in grocery stores (without the vending machine) and shared in the rental profits. That was now my way of earning a living.

It was tough but we held together for another 5 years before Terri could come on full time. In the meantime, I was the “missionary”, traveling across SE Wisconsin, talking to principals and parent groups about School-Pak.

It was a new concept then and it was pretty difficult getting schools to sign up. Yet a lot did and now we had another problem.

School-Pak outgrew our house!

To be continued.


Unethical Business Practice

In 1991, I founded School-Pak with the core beliefs of providing quality products, a high level of  customer service and a fair price for school supplies.

I have been unable over the years to match the sale prices of items offered by WalMart, Target, Kmart, etc., as School-Pak does not carry underwear and socks, the items that these stores want you to buy. They offer the sale prices on school supplies as a loss leader to their store.

I understand that sales model. It works for them and they will continue to do that. They don’t offer the same level of customer service and convenience that School-Pak presents.

However, I can no longer stay silent about the practices of Educational Products (EPI). I have found that our pricing has shown to be lower than theirs in many cases. EPI, however, will state that they will discount any lower bid than theirs by 3% in order to get the business.

I believe that to be the highest level of unethical business practice.

Consider the following:

You, or someone in your family, is applying for a job. The interviewer asks you what salary you need. After offering your number, another applicant, not having the same skills as you, responds that they will take 3% less than you. And you lose the job.

Or worse. Someone comes into your employment and says they'll do your job for 3% less. And you lose your job.

I can’t change the mindset of people who believe that the lowest price offsets business ethics. I can only believe that most people will do the right thing.

Terri Schulist
Founder, School-Pak, Inc


The Beginnings of School-Pak, Part 1

I had mentioned on our facebook page that we were entering our 23rd year. Boy, that time went fast.

Someone messaged me asking how everything began. So I thought I’d share a little bit about our story.

It was August of 1991 when Terri went shopping for our son, Nick’s, school supplies. Like so many people, she grabbed that list and went off to the store. We didn’t have WalMart’s in Milwaukee back then so the first destination was Target. She couldn’t find everything on the list so the next stop was K-Mart. Not good. Office Depot? Office Max? Walgreens? It didn’t matter. No one carried all the things needed.

Back in the 90’s, there was an organization named SHOPA that catered to all the major suppliers. They were the ones who selected colors for the upcoming sales year. Purple colored folders were available in 1990 but not in 1991.

Terri followed a mother and daughter from store to store looking for that elusive purple folder. Finally, the mother grabbed a folder from the shelf and a Sharpie. She wrote “purple” on the folder and gave it to her daughter with the instruction, “She can take it up with me”, referring to the teacher.

Of course, the little girl was in tears realizing she was the only kid in the school without a purple folder. Which actually wasn’t the case in the end.

So Terri came home, sat down at the kitchen table and said, “There has to be a better way for families to enjoy summer than getting into arguments at the store.” And so, School-Pak took root.

We spoke to our son’s principal at St. Catherine’s school in Milwaukee about providing a kit with everything on the teachers’ lists. She agreed to let us give it a try and also let us use her name with some other Archdiocesan schools.

That first year we worked with 7 schools. We still provide kits to St. Catherine’s, St. Monica’s, St. Jude’s, St. Mary Visitation and Holy Family. Unfortunately the other 2 closed, as so many Catholic schools do in large cities.

Buying product was the real issue. If we bought it at retail, we couldn’t make any money selling it to the parents. So we started searching for sources. Our other son, Jason, made contact with a school supply company in Skokie, IL, Swenson’s School Supplies. Karen Swenson was kind enough to help us get started by providing items at a very minimum markup.

We also started shopping the sales at the stores, but we knew that couldn’t work for long. We needed to find a way to buy direct from manufacturers. Our first contact was with Crayola and it was an interesting start.

To be continued



Time for a little personal pride.

Just welcomed Justin Tate (JT) Schulist to the world about an hour ago. Nick (our son) and his wife Mel added Justin around 4:28pm this afternoon.

This makes the 4th grandchild, 3 boys and 1 girl.

Time sure does go fast. I remember when Jason and Nick were born and now I'm the old guy. Pretty cool.

My real hope is that they can navigate these kids through life, teaching them to be as great as they are and showering them with love. Times are pretty hard to raise children now. They both seem very capable and will do a great job.

This probably isn't "Blog material", but, I'm pretty damn proud!