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Office products firm takes on the big boys

DENVER - Don Kelin saw a market niche in ergonomic office products that an American Indian entrepreneur could take advantage of. That was in 1990. Now, his CADDO Solutions isn't a niche player anymore, but has moved into the office supplies market in a major way and is taking on the big boys like Office Max and Office Depot.

Kelin, who named his company after his Oklahoma-based tribe, brings a Native perspective to all his business dealings, according to his director of corporate development, Dee St. Cyr, Winnebago. This includes having 60 - 70 percent Indian employees in CADDO's headquarters and about 30 percent of its business done with Indian tribes or casinos (although its biggest client remains the federal government). Respect, honesty, humility and reciprocity, things he learned during his tribal upbringing, are its core values.

Kelin ''became an expert in ergonomic furniture,'' St. Cyr said. From an initial business mix of 90 percent office furniture and 10 percent office supplies, CADDO's concentration is now reversed, according to St. Cyr. And CADDO was an early proponent of Internet retailing, with 90 percent of its business over the last four to five years coming through that channel. Its Web site (www.caddosolutions.com) details more than 25,000 office products.

Besides office furniture and supplies, CADDO also offers promotional products, coffee and break room services, printing, computer supplies, janitorial supplies and hospitality procurement through a network of about 70 wholesalers at 100 sites around the country. Next-day delivery is standard, and its fill-order ratio on office supplies is 98 percent.

St. Cyr declined to discuss the firm's revenues but said it has 25 employees in Denver and about 20 more sales reps around the country. Some of those employees have been with CADDO since its inception.

''What that says is that not only do we have committed employees with many years of service with CADDO Solutions, we have employees that are knowledgeable in the office supplies/furniture industry,'' St. Cyr said.

Besides its Web site, which allows 24-hour ordering, ''We have a 12-person national call center that is operational 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. in every time zone to handle our customers.''

CADDO competes with larger players on price, service (there are people to answer phones, not phone trees, when a customer calls in) and technology.

''We have taken contracts away from the big guys,'' St. Cyr said. ''Mom and pop stores that stay right in their own back yard were never good enough for Don.''

Some of its bigger customers include the Seneca Nation and its casino in New York state, Xcel Energy in the Midwest and various departments of the federal government, where the firm's qualifications as Indian- and veteran-owned and HUBZone-certified give it a leg up with the federal government and federal contractors. It has achieved a desirable Blanket Purchase Agreement with the Department of the Interior, allowing it to sell to all of the department's nine agencies, and twice was awarded office contracts with the U.S. Army.

Other Native projects include providing the furniture for justice centers for both the Ho-Chunk and Gila River tribes.

Kelin was named a top minority entrepreneur in 2001 by Fortune Magazine, among other awards, and has been featured in The Wall Street Journal. Kelin is also involved with the local Native community, St. Cyr said: he personally fills Thanksgiving baskets for some in the Denver Native population of 30,000, and CADDO trucks pick up packages from food kitchens and deliver them to the Indian food bank.

Having a Native owner and top officers also gives CADDO a leg up, St. Cyr feels.

''We give back to the customer. The dominant society needs to 'get.' That's not our way. We give back.'' The firm gives out Caddo baby dolls to its customers, as well as blankets, a traditional giveaway item. It also maintains a ''green'' catalogue. ''We truly care about Mother Earth,'' she said.

CADDO seeks to maintain extreme agility. ''We can turn on a dime. We customize everything. We ask the customer what they want and give them what they want,'' St. Cyr said.

''What's glamorous about pens and paper clips? Nothing,'' she said. What she feels is glamorous about CADDO is ''our passion. We are Indians and we are good at what we do.''