The odds were stacked against Vernon Stevens 25 years ago. He and his wife, Jennifer, dared to enter a totally dominated market, aiming to provide the same service as well as — or preferably better than — their competitor but with a firm handshake and a kind smile to boot.
“I think that’s probably our crowning achievement,” says Vernon, owner and founder of Evansville’s Southern Business Machines. “This market was totally dominated by one company, but we built ours anyway, essentially on a shoe-string budget and a lot of creativity.
“No bank or lending institution would even lend us any money because none of them thought we’d be in business longer than six months,” he adds with a chuckle. “One even told me I should just start it in the basement of my home, that way I wouldn’t be in the middle of a long-term lease when we went out of business. But now many of those same lending institutions are our customers.”
Southern Business Machines, in short, deals in paper handling equipment. Most Tri-State companies, from home-based to multimillion dollar corporations, likely depend every day on some piece of equipment in its growing product line.
Dealing now in multiple brands, including Hasler, Neopost, Toshiba, and OKI Data, they sell and service mailing equipment, postage meters, scales, folding and insert machines, copiers, printers, and a variety of mail management software programs, just to name a few.
“We’ve branched out a lot over the last 25 years,” says Jennifer, now the company’s president. “We have customers who work out of their homes all the way up to major manufacturing facilities, like Toyota (Motor Manufacturing of Indiana). Pretty much anybody out there conducting business and doing any kind of paper handling is our potential customer.
“Once you have that printed piece of material, we can help you fold it, insert it, stamp it, stuff it, and send it.”
Vernon and Jennifer, both Kentucky natives, moved to Evansville in 1987. Vernon had previously worked for a major mail products company in Louisville, Kentucky, and immediately recognized that Pitney Bowes, a national corporation and Fortune 200 company, dominated the Tri-State market.
They saw a niche, an opportunity to break up a monopoly, and dove right in, first opening their doors in the fall of 1989 in a small, 800-square-foot space on Bond Street.
“It was just the two of us,” recalls Jennifer. “Vernon was selling, and I was the service person. We even shared a restroom with the other tenants in our office building.”
Southern Business Machines started out with just 127 clients but today boasts more than 2,300.
In 1998, the Stevens purchased a new 10,000-square-foot space in the Weinbach Shopping Center, 2040 Division St., enabling them to serve 52 counties in Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois. Currently, the company controls more than 60 percent of the Tri-State market share, and in 2011 Pitney Bowes’ local Evansville office closed.
And the employee pool has grown as well, mainly along with the Stevens’ family. Vernon Stevens Jr. joined the team in 2003 followed by his wife, Dawn, shortly thereafter in 2008.
Today, Southern Business Machines has about a dozen employees, and while not all of them carry the Stevens’ name, they pride themselves on treating everyone like family.
“We’re a tight-knit group,” says Jennifer proudly. “We work day-to-day alongside one another. Everyone is needed, and there’s a lot of job security here.”
Over the last 25 years, the company’s gross sales have more than doubled — all while maintaining a small, efficient staff — and many of their customers are repeat clients. While similar companies may be able to order a product and have it delivered directly to your door, few, the Stevens say, strive to provide the same level of customer service.
It’s the mission on which they’ve built an entire company.
“That’s where we’re different than our competitors,” says Vernon Jr. “We teach our customers to be more efficient using all of the resources available to them. We go one step farther in helping them fit the products we offer to their specific needs.”
“We have a lot of the same customers we did back then,” adds Jennifer. “It was quite a risk 25 years ago for them to let a small company like ours in their doors, but they trusted us, and so we feel very lucky to have been able to maintain those relationships and earn their business over and over again.”
As Jennifer and Vernon work toward retirement, Vernon Jr. and Dawn are preparing to take over, leading Southern Business Machines into the future.
Technology has changed the way the grassroots company has done business over the years — some things are easier, others harder — but Vernon Jr. says he won’t stray far from the firm handshake that made his parents’ company what it is today. Mixing the old with the new, he says, is what will keep their doors open another 25 years.
“My parents’ mentality was to establish a business relationship and figure out how to help our customers take the equipment and make their business better,” he says. “It sounds easy, yes, but it’s really an older approach in a world full of technology, email, and texts. People don’t believe in walking in and shaking hands with a customer anymore, but we do. We’ll stick to our roots.”
For more information on Southern Business Machines, call 812-475-8895 or visit southernbusinessmachines.com.