Being a Sustainable, Profitable Business with Keeney’s Office Supply and Interiors’ Steven Sterne

How do you help the office of today and tomorrow become and remain sustainable without sacrificing profits?

John Shegerian: Welcome back to Green Is Good. This is the GoGreen edition of Green Is Good. We are here in beautiful downtown Seattle and we’re so honored to have with us Steven Sterne. He is the General Manager of Keeney’s Office Supply and Interiors. Welcome to Green Is Good, Steve. Steven Sterne: Thank you. It’s great to be here. John Shegerian: First of all, you’re wearing the perfect shirt for GoGreen and for Green Is Good. You’ve got the green shirt on. We’ve got the whole thing covered here, the green tie, the green shirt, we’re set. You know, before we get talking about Keeney’s and all the great stuff that you’re doing in green there, we have some wonderful products here. Can you share a little bit about the Steven Sterne story? Where did you grow up, and where did you get so excited about and interested in sustainability and green? Steven Sterne: I grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana. John Shegerian: Wow. Steven Sterne: I studied Science in Society in college in Connecticut in the 1980s, double-majored with Theatre. I moved to Seattle to go to graduate school to get my MFA in Directing Plays and studied at the University of Washington from 1985 to 1987, got my degree and realized you can’t make any money directing plays. A friend of mine who did a lot of theatre with me in college worked part-time at Keeney’s Office Supply so he got me an interview. I had done retail my whole life, and I came to work as a retail sales person and I’ve been at Keeney’s since 1988. John Shegerian: Wow. Steven Sterne: Yeah. John Shegerian: Twenty-six or so, or 27 years. Steven Sterne: Twenty-seven-plus. John Shegerian: Wow, that’s awesome. So share with our viewers out there that have never heard about Keeney’s before – and for our audience members, it’s – what is Keeney’s and what does it represent here in Seattle and why is it green? Steven Sterne: Well, Keeney’s is a woman-owned, locally-owned company founded in 1947. John Shegerian: Wow. Steven Sterne: The founder, Bob Keeney – no longer with us – sold the company to his daughter, Lisa, in the early 1980s. John Shegerian: OK. Steven Sterne: Bob was an outdoorsman, fisherman, lived on Whidbey Island and on the East Side, and believed in wilderness and preserving wilderness. He passed those values on to Lisa. Lisa had our company as one of the leaders in green offices in the 1990s. We have a plaque on our wall from 1993 showing that we were a sponsor for Offices in the Green. John Shegerian: Wow. Steven Sterne: And it was a great fit for me having studied Science in Society and the impact of technology on the environment to work for a company that had such a great sustainability story. John Shegerian: And Lisa is still the boss? Steven Sterne: Lisa is still the boss. John Shegerian: How big is Keeney’s, and how many stores do you have? Steven Sterne: We don’t run stores anymore. We closed our retail in the early 2000s to focus on commercial business. John Shegerian: OK. Steven Sterne: We are the vendor to King County, the vendor to the Seattle Mariners. We have contracts with the Port of Seattle, the City of Seattle and many, many smaller entities, law firms, Zeus theaters. John Shegerian: So you’re selling your product online and office supplies online and interior stuff online? Steven Sterne: We mostly sell interiors by having our sales people go out and do consultive selling with sales people. John Shegerian: OK. Steven Sterne: A big part of our supplies business as well. But we do have an open website. We can set up anybody to buy on our website any time. John Shegerian: At Steven Sterne: John Shegerian: So talk a little bit about buying green supplies without overspending. Steven Sterne: Sure. John Shegerian: I’ve got some of them here. Share that message and why it’s important and very doable. Steven Sterne: Completely doable. About seven years ago, the City of Seattle went out to bid for green office supplies. They provided anybody who wanted to bid a list of items they bought the most and our jobs as vendors were to come back with pricing on those items and then pricing on greener alternatives that cost no more than 10 percent more and that taken as a package would result in cost savings, and we were able to do that. John Shegerian: Wow. Steven Sterne: We have always believed in carrying green products in our own warehouse, so we buy them better than the products we sources through wholesale channels, and we can save people money as long as we know the full story of what they’re buying and how they’re using office supplies, and that’s why our consultive selling is so important when we want to set up a new customer to buy office supplies from us. We want to know what they’re buying, how they’re using it. We want to know if they’ve set their printers to duplex. If they’re not buying remanufactured toner, we’ll get them a cartridge from Magnum our local toner remanufacturer to try. Tremendous cost savings there without any loss of quality at all. John Shegerian: Steven, why is sustainability and buying locally so tied together and so imperative? Steven Sterne: You want to sustain your local community as well as the greater environment. John Shegerian: Right. Steven Sterne: One of the best ways to do that is to keep dollars in the community. There have been studies done over the years showing anywhere from three times to seven times the value of your dollar to your community if you spend it with a locally owned company. A locally owned company invests more, does their charitable donations to local companies, all of the employees are local. John Shegerian: Speaking of employees how many employees do you have at Keeney’s? Steven Sterne: Thirty-six employees. And just a year ago we had 30 so there’s tremendous growth. There is a furniture boom happening in Seattle right now. Our interiors division is doing better than ever. And we’ve added project management help, outside sales people, installers, delivery people, warehouse people. John Shegerian: And you say “furniture boom,” has it been a sustainable furniture boom? Steven Sterne: Yes. The people that we’re selling furniture to care a great deal about buying projects that help them get LEED points, that help their workers work more sustainably, lower panels, better light, better airflow, tons of sit-to-stand. John Shegerian: That’s so nice. So 36 employees. How do you make “green” your culture and your DNA? Besides the owner and besides you, how do you get the other 34 or so employees into sustainability as much as the both of you are? Steven Sterne: It’s not difficult. We live it in our office, at our warehouse, our break room are all set up to be sustainable. We had Waste Management and the City of Redmond come out and help us become a zero-waste facility a few years ago and that took work from all of our employees. Our warehouse managers found a place for us to take all the Styrofoam we get in packaging and get it recycled. John Shegerian: Wow. Steven Sterne: We used to go to Kent to the recycler for Styrofoam once a month. Then our sales people started saying, “Why don’t we do this for our customers?” So now we pick up Styrofoam, and we go to Kent with Styrofoam a couple times a week. John Shegerian: Wow. Steven Sterne: We’ve gone from having four dumpster pickups a week and one recycling pickup a week to eight recycling pickups a week and a dumpster pickup every two weeks. John Shegerian: We’re here today at the GoGreen conference here in downtown Seattle. Why is it so important for Keeney’s to be at GoGreen, and what is your role at GoGreen today with this wonderful conference? Steven Sterne: We have been at every GoGreen Seattle. This is the fifth year that GoGreen has been here. John Shegerian: Wow. Steven Sterne: We’ve been an exhibiter and a sponsor every year. It is our biggest marketing event of the year. We budget for it. We provide furniture for the stages here, furniture for the lounge. We give away a tremendous amount of useful, sustainable, imprinted swag, which we also sell to anybody who wants to buy it from us. It’s a great day for us. Our best prospecting day of the year. John Shegerian: So you don’t actually speak at the event; you actually have a booth here. Steven Sterne: We have a booth here. We did a little mini-session on ergonomics earlier. We’ll speak if they ever ask us to. John Shegerian: Talk a little bit about ergonomics and sustainability. How are they tied together? Steven Sterne: Again, it’s a matter of sustaining the employees in the work environment. You want your employees to be able to work productively and happily. If that means finding a way for them to stand part of the day, they have a chair that supports them, a keyboard tray that puts the keyboard at the proper height that they can work in alignment. All of that creates a sustainable workforce that reduces insurance claims so it’s good for the bottom line and it means that you have less turnover. John Shegerian: Talk a little bit about sustainability and green products. Show us some of the green products you’ve brought here today, and how big is your line of green products? Steven Sterne: We have tens of thousands of green items. John Shegerian: Wow. Steven Sterne: Almost anything you can think of we have a green alternative for it. These notebooks come in different sizes. This is a little tiny one with our logo on it made by Guided Products. They’ve changed their name three times. I still want to call them “Rebinder” because they started out as a binder company. They’re called Guided Products; they’re in south Seattle; they make binders, notebooks, CD holders, 100-percent recycled paper stock, 100-percent recycled covers. Great product. Very inexpensive and easy to get imprinted. Cardboard pen – bamboo clip, recyclable plastic on the bottom, refillable. Great product. This is a rapid stapler, a little tiny one that we’re giving away today for people at GoGreen, 100-percent recycled plastic. This is a great product to talk about. Whiteboard marker – you can refill this marker four times. John Shegerian: No! Steven Sterne: Yes. Yes. John Shegerian: I’ve never heard of such a thing. Steven Sterne: It’s no odor at all,so it’s completely non-toxic and it doesn’t ghost. No VOCs. John Shegerian: Oh wonderful. Steven Sterne: So it’s cost savings and it’s a sustainable product. Sustainability means you don’t waste anything and that it has to save money. John Shegerian: Who is in charge of sourcing all these amazing products? Steven Sterne: We have a great purchasing department. I would lie and tell you it was 30 people, but we only have 36 total. It’s two people. They are incredible dedicated. They do all of our purchasing, but they have tremendous depth of knowledge in sustainable products. John Shegerian: No kidding. So so many of your products are as green as these so that is what the differentiator is for Keeney’s versus any other office supply type of company. Steven Sterne: It’s partly that. Though everybody in the office supply business has access to many sustainable office supplies. The difference with us is we have the expertise in our staff from purchasing to customer service, sales, sales management, sales administration. We can take the list of things you buy now and give you a list not only of sustainable alternatives but the cost difference and the reason we consider it sustainable. We leave the customer in charge of that. We’re not “green Nazis” by any means. We’ll sell people whatever they want to buy. But we have the expertise to guide them to make the choices that their business wants to choose in order to reflect their business’ values. John Shegerian: Got you. For our audience members that just joined us, we’ve got Steven Sterne. He is the General Manager of Keeney’s Office Supply and Interiors. You can find Steven and his colleagues at Keeney’s at We’re at the GoGreen edition of Green Is Good. Steven, one of the most important things when it comes to sustainability is carbon footprints. What does logistics look like for Keeney’s in the delivery process, and how involved is Keeney’s with greening the logistics of you delivery process? Steven Sterne: It’s a constant, constant place that we pay attention. Every time we need a new truck, whether we’re expanding routes or something breaks and we have to replace it we look at every alternative that we have. So far we’re buying diesel trucks. That’s what we buy. We’ve looked at liquid natural gas, for instance, but there are only three places in our area where we can buy it, so we’d have to waste so much time idling in traffic to get to it it doesn’t make any sense for us to convert our fleet. John Shegerian: Right. Steven Sterne: So what we do is we have smaller sprinters, which get 25, 26 miles to the gallon on our more distant routes, where the trucks are less full and the distances are greater. In the core of downtown Seattle, we use Isuzu box vans. Their gas mileage isn’t so good, but we don’t need that many of them on the road where traffic is congested in order to make all the deliveries because they are bigger, higher capacity. We have flexible routing, so every day the truck that goes on route three might have some route four stops and route two stops if route three is less busy that day. Our warehouse manager works very hard to make sure that everybody is out before rush hour and everybody is back before rush hour because in Seattle traffic is very bad, especially at the ends of the day, and we want to beat that on the early side both ways. John Shegerian: So your plant warehouse manager manages the logistics of the whole company. Steven Sterne: Daily. John Shegerian: Wow. Steven Sterne: Daily. He is a very, very smart guy. His name is Charles Jackson. He not only has done that for our routing, he is really the guy who took us from being a 20-percent waste stream company to a zero-percent waste stream company. John Shegerian: Zero waste. And Waste Management helped you as you said. Steven Sterne: They helped us and they certified it. They inspected our garbage, and they gave us a little plaque. John Shegerian: Amazing. That’s so wonderful Steven Sterne: It’s nice when your garbage can win awards. John Shegerian: Yeah. That’s true. That is very true. So as you shared at the top of the show, Steven, your company is really grounded in green, grounded in sustainability from its founder to now the current owner – his daughter – and with you leading the way. But sustainability is a journey. Here we are sitting in 2015. You were way ahead of the curve. Your owners were way ahead of the curve. America’s sustainability revolution is really taking hold now but there is still so much more we can do. How do you wake up in the morning, how does your owner wake up, and what do you talk about amongst yourselves and making Keeney’s even greener in the months and years ahead? Steven Sterne: We’re going to keep looking at alternative fuel delivery vehicles. We talked with the people here from Freewheel who deliver in the core of downtown by bicycle. John Shegerian: Wow. Steven Sterne: Now some office supplies you can’t deliver by bicycle. Cartons of copy paper 55 pounds each, not a good fit. But we talked with them earlier today is there some way for us to give them downtown core deliveries that are small and light. We’re continually looking at new product. We’re putting pressure on our suppliers and manufacturers to do better at not only producing green products but giving us concrete, tangible, measureable statements as to carbon savings with each product compared to alternative traditional products. John Shegerian: Got you. Steven Sterne: The more sophisticated of our customers want to know “Well, if I buy this greener product, exactly what is the carbon impact compared with buying a traditional product?” It’s very hard for us to answer that right now, but it’s something we want to get better at. John Shegerian: With regards to we’re sitting in a city that is steeped in in the pillars and foundational elements of both pioneers and pioneering people and businesses, sustainability, innovation and innovation then has a subsector of technology. Steven Sterne: Right. John Shegerian: You have the homes and birthplace of Starbucks and of Costco and Amazon. Steven Sterne: Right. John Shegerian: How has technology affected Keeney’s for better or for worse over the years? Steven Sterne: It’s a great question. The office supply business has been shattered by technology. If you look at what you used to do on a pad with a pen you now do it on an iPad. John Shegerian: That’s right. Steven Sterne: I bought an iPad the first day they were available with a cellular connection and I’ve had an iPad with me ever since, and as a result, I use a lot less paper and ink than I used to and that’s a great thing for sustainability, right? It’s not so great if all you’re trying to do is sell the most possible office supplies to the same customer every year. John Shegerian: Right. Steven Sterne: So in order to survive we have to get better at branching into other markets. Technology gives us a whole new set of challenges for ergonomics. We’ve gotten very good at solving those problems for customers. We have a great sustainability program developed with the City of Seattle that we can now offer to any business in the region. Anyone who wants to come to us. So as we’ve seen, like customers spend less and less money and we’re helping them do that as aggressively as they want, we’ve branched out and gotten more and more customers. Very few office supply companies in the United States had a growth in the office supply category last year, but we did by having more customers. John Shegerian: That’s just great. And we’re going to leave it on that note, and we always welcome you back, Steven, to share the journey and sustainability about Keeney’s and Keeney’s great story in sustainability. We really appreciate your time today. For our audience members out there, to learn more about Steven and what he is doing with his colleagues at Keeney’s and then to buy from Keeney’s Office Supply and Interiors, please go to Steven, you are an inspirational business leader, sustainability superstar and truly living proof that Green Is Good. Thank you so much for being with us today. Steven Sterne: Thank you.