Little did Bill Zimmermann know when he headed to the Lighthouse to buy ink for his printer that the business would soon belong to him and his wife, Mary.
At the time, he was vice president of marketing at Converting Inc. in Clintonville. He had been working there for 15 years.
“We were in the process of selling the company for the second time in two years. I was probably one of six people who knew what was coming down. I was also doing my MBA (Master of Business Administration) at the time,” he said.
Around that same time, his printer at home ran out of ink one night.
“I went to Kmart. They didn’t have it, so I called the Lighthouse, and Benjamin Sasse answered the phone. I knew Benjamin from church – Shepherd of the Lakes. I asked if he had an HP 56 cartridge,” Zimmermann said.
Sasse did, and in spite of the fact that he had just closed his store 15 minutes before Zimmermann’s call, Sasse agreed to stay open until Zimmermann got there to buy the ink cartridge.
After Zimmermann arrived at the Lighthouse, he purchased the cartridge and began to make small talk with Sasse, asking him how he was.
Sasse told Zimmermann that he could not be better. He had met a nice woman and was getting married.
When Zimmermann asked Sasse if she was from Waupaca, Sasse told him that she was from Cincinnati and that he would be moving there.
“What about this place?” Zimmermann asked.
Sasse told him he was selling it.
Zimmermann asked if he had a buyer and learned from Sasse that someone was considering buying the business.
The wheels started turning, and Zimmermann asked him if he could see his books.
Back home, Zimmermann’s wife was admittedly not crazy about the idea of buying a business.
“I started to negotiate with Benjamin. She started to get nervous,” he said. “When it got heavy, it was the worst conflict our marriage ever had.”
Zimmermann said he knew he was not going to be able to survive in the job he was going to be given at Converting Inc. “I knew if we didn’t do this, we would have to move,” he said.
With three children in school here, that is not something they wanted to do, and Zimmermann was also aware that finding a job at the level he was at would be difficult.
“So, we ended up buying it,” he said. “Mary’s been very active.”
It was in late 2007 that they bought the business, and Office Outfitters was the recipient of two awards during the Waupaca Area Chamber of Commerce’s annual awards program Jan. 25 at the Best Western Grand Seasons Hotel. The business was the 2010 Small Business of Year and also the winner of the Grand Facelift award.
“I was shocked. I thought we would have a great chance of getting the face-lift award because of the amount of work we did. The small business was a big surprise,” he said.
Mary Zimmermann said, “It was exciting to get two. I think it’s nice, because as a group, we worked so hard together.”
Last September, Office Outfitters moved to its new location at the corner of Badger and Washington streets in the former Fox Valley Technical College (FVTC).
The Zimmermanns bought that building in December 2008.
Bill Zimmermann said they knew when they bought the business in 2007 that they had a three-year lease.
“So, we knew we were going to have to find a new home for the business,” he said. “We really wanted to be downtown. We like our downtown. We wanted to support our downtown. It was Mary’s idea. She saw it and thought it would be a great spot for us. She had the vision for what it looked like.”
What was also important to them, after purchasing the former FVTC building, was to use local contractors, and they did.
Construction began in January 2010. In all, Office Outfitters has about 7,000 square feet, which is about 1,000 more square feet than they had in the previous location at the corner of Main and Fulton streets.
The project also included the addition of solar panels on the building’s roof.
Bill Zimmermann said one thing that amazed him, after buying the business and moving it to a new location, was the loyalty of their customers.
“When we bought the business, customers could have bailed on us, but everyone gave us a chance,” he said. “They really understand the importance of supporting local business. Probably 80 percent of our business is other small businesses, so they’ve been terrific.”
And, Mary Zimmermann said that since moving to their new location, Office Outfitters has been as busy, if not busier, than it was at its other location. “The customers have been very supportive. It was a good transition,” she said.
The Zimmermanns say they are also blessed with great employees.
“Like kids, each is different and unique with their talents,” he said. “It’s like a puzzle. They all fit together nicely.”
Their children are also supportive, realizing the time their parents must commit to the business.
Bill Zimmermann said owning a business had not been a burning passion for him. “I thought someday I would run a company, but I didn’t think I’d run my own small business. It’s by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done, because you have to know everything. You’re the financial guy, the IT guy, HR, operations, the janitor. It challenges you every day. You learn things you never knew you could do.”
And his wife, who had been a stay-at-home mother for most of their marriage, said she has a new appreciation for working mothers with young children.
Of the two awards they received this week, they say they are grateful for the recognition, especially the Small Business of the Year award, because chamber members vote for that award.
“I believe that God gave us this opportunity to do this. We love Waupaca,” he said.