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Echelon Magazine

An Accidental Entrepreneur

What does it take to become the world's largest supplier of old & new china, crystal, silver and collectibles - to the tune of $70 million in sales? Bob Page, founder and president of Replacements, Ltd. is the man who would know, although he'll tell you that being the world's largest supplier of anything was never his intention.

Thirty years ago, as a North Carolina state auditor, Page was just a guy who loved going to flea markets, collecting china and crystal as a hobby on weekends. In fact, he was so devoted to his hobby—and so good at it—that when friends needed to replace lost or broken pattern pieces, they turned to Page. Eventually his own attic filled up with precious pattern pieces, the paperwork began to overtake his bedroom, and Page found himself with barely time to continue auditing. So, in 1981, he quit his day job, hired a part-time assistant, and founded Replacements, Ltd., to continue doing the work he loves. At the beginning, “no one was interested” in investing in the china replacement business, so Page kept Replacements, Ltd. afloat by reinvesting every dollar he earned. Using the technology of the times, Page recorded customer requests on 3 x 5 index cards, placed small ads in national magazines, and watched his business grow to $150,000 in its first year. It was a dramatic increase, and way better than auditing, but it was still just the beginning.

By 1984, Page had moved the Replacements, Ltd. customer records from 3 x 5’s to a computerized database, and sales reached almost $4 million. By June of 1998, Replacements, Ltd. was ready to go digital. The launch of enabled customers for the first time to identify and register their own patterns online, and receive free information regarding tableware and collectible products. The site received 1,991 unique visitors in its first month online.

Developed internally by a team including owner Bob Page, helps customers determine their own needs, with pattern identification tools, a large image library, and an in-depth dinnerware knowledgebase. To date, nearly 2 million customers have registered their china, crystal and silver patterns, and/or ordered online. In just a little over five years, the web site is getting nearly 900,000 hits per month, and sales from the site now account for approximately 50% of annual revenue.

Web watchers have taken notice. The site was selected by Internet Retailer Magazine as a “Best of the Web/Top 25” web site for 2002. That puts Replacements, Ltd. in the company of 2002 winners, L.L. Bean, Williams-Sonoma, E-Bay, Circuit City, and Eddie Bauer. Not bad. In independent benchmarking performed in October 2002 the Benchmark Portal web site research team at Purdue University, outscored the Fortune 50 Web Site Composite Average in categories including home page design, navigation, and overall design, while managing nearly 1 million online SKUs (stock-keeping units).

Even Hollywood has come calling. For the 2002 film, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, set designers at Warner Brothers wanted to create a look that would be true to the story’s time periods, and reflect the zany flamboyance of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. They approached the experts at Replacements, Ltd., who researched more than 168,000 dinnerware patterns to come up with the “Divine Tableware.” The deal was clinched when, in one scene, the script called for pieces of a discontinued china pattern to be smashed to bits. Lucky break for Replacements, Ltd!

Of course, the Warner people could have chosen almost any pattern—Lenox, Wedgwood, Noritake, Mikasa, Spode, Rosenthal, Royal Doulton. . . . Patterns ranging from plain, undecorated stoneware to hand-painted, heavily-decorated fine bone china—all are in stock at Replacements, Ltd. So are many European and Japanese patterns from the “War Years,” and—my personal favorite—china patterns which used to be sold door-to-door, or given away as premiums in grocery stores. Remember Duz dishes?

So how does the world’s largest supplier manage to please so many people so much of the time? In a recent interview, owner Bob Page said he was always partly motivated by “…the desire to provide superior customer service—a need that no one had adequately filled.” Now Replacements, Ltd. has it down to a science. Here’s how they do it:

Over 1,000 independent suppliers nationwide search out the finest estate sales and auctions. In addition, Replacements deals directly with 3,000 major manufacturers, as well as with smaller jewelry stores and department stores to obtain additional inventory. The company also buys items from thousands of individuals each year.

Every piece is carefully inspected and then assigned a location. The new inventory is then logged into the computer system, and customized software programs match the pieces with customer requests. Computers maintain specific requests for each customer’s file, allowing staff to respond quickly and efficiently to thousands of customer inquiries daily.

Combination customer notification/return order forms are then printed and mailed to customers notifying them of pieces available in their pattern. Customers place orders by mail, fax or phone, which are distributed to the warehouse to be pulled, inspected, and then shipped to the customer.

Still a smoothly running labor of love, just as it was for Bob Page when he began twenty two years ago, Replacements, Ltd. is now a vast operation, shipping 100,000 pieces of china, crystal and silver weekly. “The nearest competitor would probably not do 10% of the volume that we do,” says Page. Let’s talk numbers for a moment.

Replacements stores 10 million pieces in inventory on 50,000 shelves in 2 warehouses that cover the square footage of 5 football fields. 550 personal computers connected to 2 mainframe servers store information for over 180,000 patterns (some over 100 years old). The Replacements Ltd. Showroom in Greensboro, North Carolina, is impressive at 12,000 square feet, and shares the campus with the Museum where more than 2,000 rare pieces are elegantly displayed.

More impressive, though, is the service that Replacements, Ltd.’s 750 employees deliver to 4.6 million satisfied customers. Even at a volume of 10,000 phone calls a day, the average wait for a customer service representative is purportedly no more than 8 seconds (they keep track). But for the people at Replacements, Ltd., the numbers don’t begin to tell the real story of the company. “We create, honor and preserve traditions,” says the company’s web site, “by connecting our customers with their most cherished memories.” In letter after glowing letter, customers praise the quality of service they receive from “courteous,” “efficient,” even “generous” employees.

In fact, the best thing for business at Replacements, Ltd., say employees and customers alike, is Bob Page himself. Page maintains his enthusiasm for what he does every day, and he passes it on to his employees. “It is important for people to enjoy what they do for a living, to feel useful and to be personally satisfied,” says Page. “It’s not just about money, but about how they feel about themselves and how other people make them feel.” proudly trumpets “a work environment that is fair, open, honest and safe. An environment where differences in people’s backgrounds, beliefs or personal characteristics are respected; one where opportunity and advancement are based on individual merit and performance; one where sexual orientation is not a pitfall to a career…[in] a workforce of over 750 talented, caring individuals (including more than 100 gays and lesbians), who support non-discrimination….”

That’s no empty boast. Replacements, Ltd. was named the 2002 Crown Award winner among The Business Journal’s Best Places to Work. And it’s no wonder:

Replacements offers the standard benefits of any good job. But Replacements also offers the kind of extras that can transform a workplace into a vital community. Like classes in English as a second language—during working hours. As well, Page is developing a year-long new-hire care program to provide support beyond the existing 90-day orientation program. Employees can take advantage of OSHA safety training, CPR and First Aid classes, fire safety training and job-skill training taught by four staff trainers. And Replacements also allocates funds equal to 1% of sales annually to each department for participation in professional seminars.

“A lot of people have not had previous training somewhere else, and they want to learn and grow, and we like making that opportunity available to them,” Page told The Business Journal. “The more they learn and the better they become, the better we will become as a company.”

Replacements, Ltd. even pays employees for time they devote to “Anytown,” a Center For Community Justice program that teaches high school students about diversity, social justice and how to impact their community positively. The Business Journal of July 26, 2002, reported that “…the work environment at Replacements, Ltd. encourages commitments to causes greater than selling tableware.”

The company takes the same approach to employees’ personal concerns. Replacements offers both on-site counseling and an off-site Employee Assistance Program, as well as a company nurse. Mothers have flexible maternity leave, and a lactation room is available for them when they return to work. Flexible spending accounts allow pre-tax deductions for child care, and employees receive four hours of Parent Education Leave each year to enable them to attend school-related functions with their children.

For some employees it’s the pet friendly policy at Replacements, Ltd. that makes all the difference. Page himself has been bringing his two dachshunds to work every day for years, and he encourages employees to do the same. Replacements was a sponsor of the first Take Your Dog To Work Day® of Pet Sitters International, Inc.—not that the policy is limited to canines. Every month, the company newsletter honors a very special Featured Pet like Scooter, a frisky feline, with a bio and testimonial. Even visitors to the Showroom applaud the pet friendly policy. “Our companion animals play such huge roles in our lives, “ wrote one customer, “… I think your public acknowledgment of that is fantastic. Thank you for being a different kind of company!”

And Replacements, Ltd. was the first company in North Carolina to offer domestic partner benefits, long before it became common practice. As an openly gay employer himself, Bob Page acknowledges that “…until starting Replacements, Ltd. I was in the closet…but now any one who knows me well (and many not so well), knows that I am gay.” Pressed to say more about an explicit connection between his gay visibility and the success of his business, or the esprit de corps on campus, Page demurs.

”Having an open work environment has attracted some employees (both straight and gay) that otherwise might not have sought out Replacements. I would think there are a few more because of our involvement in the community.” Page is proud to say that people “know in the gay community that it is a good place to work (both for gay and straight employees). And,” he adds, “we don’t allow discrimination on any basis.” Asked how he handles the occasional, inevitable occurrence of intolerance, Page answers, “Basically we have just ignored the negative customers and those who didn’t want to work here.”

Apparently, at Replacements , Ltd., what’s good for business is what’s good for all. The company motto is “We Replace The Irreplaceable!”®. They mean it. And they’re not just talking about the inventory.

© 2004, K. E. WATT. All rights reserved.



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