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Leading firm they played in as boys

As youngsters, Robert Cherry and Sheldon Shear spent their weekends playing hide-and-seek amid cartons of paper in their fathers’ warehouse. They sometimes helped out by sweeping floors or sealing envelopes, and eventually they learned to drive trucks and make deliveries.

“It gave us both a work ethic. We learned responsibility, what it was to get up and get to a job on time and to work very hard,” says Cherry, co-CEO of Economy Paper Co. Inc. “Our fathers had the attitude that we weren’t going to be treated special. We were expected to do our job and contribute just like anybody else.”

In the nearly half-century since Cherry and Shear began their journey at the company their fathers built, Economy Paper has grown from a handful of employees to 35. It also has diversified its product lines to accommodate a changing industry.

Cherry declines to discuss revenue at the privately held wholesale paper distributor, but says growth has come from listening to clients’ needs and doing whatever it takes to satisfy those needs.

“We have a reputation for excellent service. We have a knowledgeable staff,” Cherry says. “We tend to work on solution-based selling, rather than just hawking products. We try to solve people’s problems and place the right product for the right application that’s cost-effective for the customer.”

It is a philosophy that has been with the company since its founding in 1936.

At the height of the Great Depression—with $300 in each of their pockets—Irving Cherry and William Shear opened Economy Paper in an unassuming building on Andrews Street.

The pair worked hard doing all of the jobs themselves. They would get wrapping paper from one of their competitors and found a way to buy small amounts of paper from other competitors to wrap and resell to customers.

“My grandfather was in the printing business so my father had an affinity to paper, but he was an independent kind of guy and wanted to be on his own,” Cherry explains. “They started off very slowly and modestly until they were able to buy product directly from manufacturers.”

The elder Cherry and Shear split duties, each taking on all of the tasks required to grow the business. A visitor to the office might find Cherry cutting paper one day and Shear making sales calls, while the next Cherry might be wrapping packages while Shear was making deliveries.

After a few years of modest growth, the company moved to a location on North Water Street and then expanded to a five-story building on the same street in 1952.

In 1970, the founders’ sons joined them in the family business, sharing an office with their fathers so they could work closely with them and learn the ropes.

“We did every job in the business, whether it was sweeping floors or wrapping paper or making deliveries or filling orders. We learned from our dads how to buy, how to get quotes on product, how to figure markups and the skills of selling,” Cherry recalls. “And we went out on the road and we established customers.”

Economy Paper had outgrown its facility on North Water Street and moved to its current home on East Main Street in 1972, where it serves customers primarily in the Rochester region, as well as a smattering of clients in Buffalo and Syracuse.

In 1991, Cherry and Shear purchased the company their late fathers built and became co-CEOs.

Creating differentiation
Economy Paper chiefly serves end users, Cherry says, and the types of customers and industries run the gamut.

“We carry such a diverse group of products that almost any business uses something we sell,” he says.

The largest part of the company’s business is commercial printing papers, which includes both printing paper and copy paper. Its other offerings include industrial packaging, janitorial supplies and cafeteria supplies.

“So we can be attractive to a lot of different companies in a variety of ways,” Cherry says.

Expertise has made the company a success, he says. And being a small company has enabled a flexibility larger companies sometimes cannot offer.

“What makes our company so successful is the dedication of our employees and the longevity of our customer relationships we have developed over decades,” Shear says. “In addition, I feel that it is our company’s ability to change as our customers’ needs and the industry has changed. It’s our being nimble.”

Employees and customers also tout Economy Paper’s ability to serve its clients at a moment’s notice.

“They take a lot of the burden of locating a product I’m trying to get off my back,” says Ernie Weber, who works in quality assurance process development for ColorCentric Corp., a customer of Economy Paper. “They’ll find me products and take on the distribution to get something for me.”

Weber recalls a product he purchased elsewhere some years ago—he was forced to buy much more than he needed. When he finally ran out of it, he looked to Economy Paper for a solution. The company worked with Weber to find the right product in the right quantity, without forcing him to buy product he did not need, he says.

“They’re very flexible,” he adds. “They’ve always been very helpful. And they’ve taken on other products to give them more diversity.”

Economy Paper has a good product line and competitive pricing to help it stand out, says its account representative, William Shevlin, but flexibility continues to be the top factor in its success.

“Being a smaller company, we’re more flexible in terms of customer service. If someone needs something fast, I think working with a smaller company like Economy Paper, we have the flexibility to make things happen quickly,” Shevlin says. “When they send you a quote, there’s no point in getting it back to them in a day or two. You have to quote it fast, usually within an hour or two.”

In addition, Economy Paper has fewer levels of management, the 37-year veteran of the firm says.

“There are fewer layers you have to go through in terms of making decisions,” Shevlin explains. “I have the ability to get back to my customers faster than my competitors do.”

In many cases, Shevlin adds, when a customer calls with an emergency they can get same-day delivery.

Challenges and opportunities
Like other companies in its industry, Economy Paper was hit hard by the recession, Cherry says, so branching out to other product lines such as janitorial supplies has helped improve business.

Managing through the headwinds of the recession is his primary short-term goal, he says.

“The recession has made it very difficult on a lot of businesses, especially in Upstate New York, where there hasn’t been any growth in many years and industry continues to pull out of here,” Cherry says. “People tend to be chasing the same business so you have to distinguish yourself, which we’ve been pretty good at doing over the years.”

In an industry heavily affected by new technology—the Internet changing the way people get and disseminate news, for example—myriad challenges exist for companies such as Economy Paper, Cherry and Shear say.

“Our printers are not doing as many jobs as they used to,” Cherry says. “There are more challenges and competition to the local printers than ever before.”

Commercial printer business is being picked off by competitors in both the United States and overseas, Cherry says, and suppliers can be located anywhere. When local printers’ business is down, that directly affects Economy Paper’s business.

“One of our biggest challenges is competing against the large chains for market share; the WalMarts, BJs, even the wholesale distribution monsters that have grown out of a lot of consolidation,” Shear adds. “We’ve managed to thrive because of Rochester’s loyalty from the business community.”

Another challenge the company faces is finding qualified talent, Cherry says.

“I think there’s been an exodus from this area as industry has moved away,” he says. “Some of the quality people have moved away.”

Diversifying has helped the company in recent years.

“Sometimes you have to reinvent yourself,” Cherry says. “There were areas we were in tangentially. Because maybe in a food-processing plant we sold paper towels and toilet tissue, now we want to sell them the chemicals used to sanitize their food processing equipment.”

That has been a nice growth component, he says.

“One of our bright spots is the food-processing industry, where we’re selling more and more sanitation products to food plants, breweries, wineries and so forth. There’s some growth in those industries here and along with that we’re finding a lot of opportunities,” Cherry explains. “So while maybe our printing papers are tapering off, these other opportunities are presenting themselves and we’re taking advantage of it.”

Team atmosphere
Cherry is proud of the workforce he and Shear have developed, he says. Many employees have been with the company for more than a decade.

“There’s a lot of team effort here, everybody working together for the greater good of the company,” Cherry says. “We’re a small company and we kind of foster that feeling here, as opposed to everybody going in their own direction.”

Office Manager Brenda Callahan has been with Economy Paper for three decades. The company thrives when all departments work together, she says.

“We have excellent customer service and all the departments support each other,” Callahan says.

She calls Shear and Cherry great leaders who value their employees.

“It’s a wonderful company to work for. I enjoy our employees,” Callahan adds. “We have a diverse workforce: a lot of young people and older people. It’s great to have everybody working together and showing each other new ways to communicate.”

Account rep Shevlin says Cherry and Shear have complementary management styles. Cherry handles the information technology and administrative side of the organization, while Shear oversees sales and other aspects.

“(Shear) is pretty hands-on. He wants to be involved with what’s going on on a daily basis,” Shevlin says. “He can think outside the box. He has a take on things that might be a little different from what I might be thinking. I really value his opinion.”

Both owners have an open-door policy, Shevlin says, which makes it easy for employees to discuss issues and solve problems.

Cherry describes himself as both a hands-on leader and one who is able to delegate when necessary. His strengths are his ability to assess his managers’ capabilities and know if they are doing the kind of job he wants them to do, he says.

“My leadership style is to develop managers that are confident in making solid business decisions,” Shear says. “Over many years Bob and I have developed excellent managers in all areas of our business. This has enabled us to have the ability to take a step back and develop strategic plans.”

Cherry says his father was a mentor to him and he learned from him how to deal with customers, how to negotiate and how to make a buck.

“(He taught me) the importance of making a profit and not just giving things away. How to be smart about doing sales,” he adds. “He grew up in the depths of the Depression. They had to claw and fight their way through the difficulties of business so they really understood it.”

If he could pass on advice to aspiring entrepreneurs or other business leaders, Cherry says it would be to keep a positive attitude.

“No matter what the challenge in life, whether it’s personal or business, you have to look at the bright side of things,” he says.

What Shear learned from his father was you cannot be everything to everyone, he says.

“You need to focus on what you do well and let others do what they are good at,” Shear advises. “As a result, you have the ability to do your absolute best.”

At home
Both Cherry and Shear were born in Rochester. Cherry and his wife, Marsha, live in Pittsford, while Shear and his wife, Diane, live in Brighton.

Cherry has a son, Noah, who is 35, while Shear has two sons: Max, 23, and AJ, 30.

In his spare time, Shear enjoys playing golf and spending quality time with his family. Cherry plays golf and tennis, and over the years spent a lot of time in his darkroom, developing photos he took of Main Street in Rochester, Cobbs Hill and other places. His office walls are adorned with some of his black-and-white photography.

One of his favorite family memories, Cherry says, is of his mom dropping him off at the warehouse on a Saturday morning with a couple of brown-bag lunches and spending the day with his dad while she shopped at Sibley’s downtown.

Though his own son spent some years in the family business, there is no indication Economy Paper will one day be a third-generation, family-owned business. And that is fine, Cherry says, because he and Shear are proud of the legacy they carried on from their fathers.

“The odds of a situation that exists here today, where two men start a business and their two sons come into the business and successfully run it for 45 years, for that kind of partnership to last a second generation is kind of miniscule. And going on to a third generation … is even more miniscule,” Cherry explains. “But I think we did pretty good for ourselves with the second generation, making it as far as we have.”

Cherry and Shear have an excellent relationship, he adds.

“By virtue of the fact that we’ve been partners for 45 years, I guess it says a lot about getting along,” Cherry says. “Partnerships are like a marriage: there’s give and take. We’ve discovered the strengths and weaknesses of each. And we’ve been able to make it work.”

Robert Cherry
Title: Co-CEO, Economy Paper Co. Inc.
Age: 65
Home: Pittsford
Family: Wife, Marsha; and son, Noah, 35
Hobbies: Golf, tennis, photography, computers
Quote: “No matter what the challenge in life, whether it’s personal or business, you have to look at the bright side of things.”

Sheldon Shear
Title: Co-CEO, Economy Paper Co. Inc.
Age: 67
Home: Brighton
Family: Wife, Diane; two sons, Max, 23, and AJ, 30
Hobbies: Golf, family time
Quote: “You need to focus on what you do well and let others do what they are good at. As a result, you have the ability to do your absolute best.”

4/24/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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