Spokane Journal of Business

Jensen family extends legacy of its Spokane hardware distributorship

Pair of sibling executives are fifth generation to lead hardware distributorship

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-—Staff photo by Mike McLean
Micah Dunlap and brother Chris Jensen have taken over day-to-day operations of Jensen Distribution Services from their father, Mike Jensen, who remains CEO.

Two top executives at Jensen Distribution Services now represent the fifth generation at the helm of the big family-owned hardware wholesaler here.

The company named Micah Jensen Dunlap the president and chief operating officer at the beginning of the year. Her brother, Chris Jensen, is executive vice president.

Their father, Mike Jensen, great-grandson of the company's co-founder O.C. Jensen, remains as CEO and chairman of the board. He's still active in the upper end management of the company, but has put more day-to-day responsibilities in the hands of his daughter and son, Dunlap says.

Both siblings grew up in the hardware business, tackling odd jobs as youths at the company's distribution facilities and business offices.

"I always knew I wanted to be hardware salesman," says Chris Jensen, who's been with Jensen Distribution Services officially since 2001, starting as a California-based territory manager, and returning to Spokane in 2007.

In addition to being executive vice president, Jensen is the company's chief business and development officer. In that capacity, he spends a lot of time on the road soliciting new business and maintaining customers, he says.

"This is still a relationship business," Jensen says. "Even in these days of conference calls and video communications, you've still got to touch customers."

Dunlap, an attorney with an undergraduate degree from Gonzaga University and legal degrees from the University of San Francisco and the University of Washington, had set course on a legal tack for a while.

"I had been practicing law for seven years when dad approached and asked if I would be interested in coming back into the family business," she says. "I loved law, but doing contract work, I wasn't on a partnership track. I came back in 2008."

She still maintains her license to practice law in Washington and California, and she often relies on her background to negotiate contracts and navigate compliance issues.

Her brother adds, "We use attorneys a little less with Micah around."

Dunlap works most days in the company's corporate offices downtown, at 314 W. Riverside, and one day a week at its big distribution plant, at 10110 W. Aero Road, on the West Plains.

Jensen Distribution Services stocks nearly 70,000 different items at the 575,000-square-foot distribution complex, which includes an expansive array of rack and conveyer systems, and buzzes with constant motion of forklifts, motorized carts, and other stocking and shipping equipment.

Most of the company's 250 employees are based at the distribution plant, working in multiple shifts that keep the facility operating from 2 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily.

Most items that move through the plant are hardware goods, such as hand and power tools, and plumbing and electrical supplies.

Jensen Distribution Services also wholesales housewares, a category driven by customer request, because other distributors didn't want to compete with the likes of megastores such as Walmart, Jensen says.

Also outside of the traditional hardware lines, the company distributes toys and cosmetics.

"If we can put it in a box and ship it, we'll consider selling it," Jensen says.

Jensen Distribution Services' customers include mom-and-pop shops, regional hardware store chains, lawn-and-garden stores, nurseries, and drugstores.

The company's core territory covers 11 Western states.

Jensen says the company is concentrating on increasing its market share within that territory, rather than expanding its reach, although it accepts orders from outside of its core area.

"We seldom turn down an order, no matter where it is," he says. "We've done some business with Safeway on the East Coast."

Jensen Distribution Services also is doing substantial business via the Internet, which has no regard to geographical territories, as someone ordering over the Internet likely isn't concerned where the shipment originates from, Jensen says.

For instance, the company recently shipped an order of step ladders to a customer on Manhattan Island, N.Y.

Through the recession, Jensen Distribution Services saw annual sales gains, and 2012 was a banner year, Jensen says.

"Many competitors can't say the same thing," he says.

Jensen declines to disclose the company's annual revenue except to say sales topped $100 million several years ago and have seen substantial growth since then.

Jensen Distribution Services recently has implemented a new warehouse management system that includes voice-picking technology.

Instead of printing out order slips, the system's virtual shipping clerk communicates with employees via wireless earpieces and microphones.

The system has helped reduce picking errors by 75 percent, Dunlap says, while her brother is quick to point out that picking errors, or orders filled incorrectly, were below 0.5 percent to begin with.

Orders received before 10 a.m. are shipped out the same day, she says.

With the exception of Hawaii and Alaska, customers who order on Monday will receive shipments by Friday, Dunlap says.

Spokane remains an ideal location for Jensen Distribution Systems, and the company isn't looking to buy or build other distribution plants within its territory, she says.

"We looked at adding facilities in different states," Dunlap says. "We find Spokane is a good gateway for shipping products out. It helps to be centrally located."

Jensen adds, "We can negotiate incredibly good shipping rates in Spokane. A lot of full trailers come into Spokane and not as many are going out."

O.C. Jensen and partner Henry Brooks founded the company in Sprague, Wash., in 1883 as Jensen Brooks & Co., a small retail hardware shop.

The business, later named Jensen King & Co., moved to Spokane in 1896, when it merged with Wolverton-Byrd Co. to become Jensen-King-Byrd Co. By 1925, when the company was renamed Jensen-Byrd Co., it had entered the wholesale end of the hardware business.

In 1958, Jensen-Byrd Co. left the retail sector altogether after it bought the Spokane branch of wholesale hardware distributor Marshall Wells Co., acquiring the six-story warehouse building now known as the Jensen-Byrd building east of downtown.

The company moved the distribution operation to new facilities on the West Plains in 1987, and took its current name in 1995.

The Jensen family is staying out of the debate about whether the long-vacant warehouse building, now owned by Washington State University, should be razed or rehabilitated.

"It's part of our heritage," Dunlap says, adding that the family also understands the difficulties of trying to repurpose the building.

"We are Switzerland on that," her brother says.

Mike McLean
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Reporter Mike McLean covers real estate and construction at the Journal of Business. A multipurpose fisherman and vintage record album aficionado, Mike has worked for the Journal since 2006.

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