In 2007, the American economy tanked and suffered what has since been termed the Great Recession. Richard Cummings was one of the millions of Americans who lost his job. Cummings, who had worked 19 years for an electrical automation company doing everything from working in the warehouse to sales manager to store manager, decided it was time for a change. So, he and his wife, Trisha, opened up 911 Supply, a uniform and equipment retailer in the Pacific Northwest.
While starting a retail shop was certainly a leap of faith, the couple looked before they leapt. They wrote a business plan and had a number of people view and comment on it. Between Trisha’s financial acumen – gained from her career in accounting – and Cummings’ experience as a volunteer for law enforcement, the couple felt confident that they could make it work. Despite their confidence, Cummings says, “It was a scary time. We took everything we owned and mortgaged our house for the business.” While Cummings says that first year was a blur, it was also successful and turned out better than the couple expected. Cummings says, “We met with a lot of agencies and end users to get their business.” By their second month, 911 Supply was already turning a profit, which was slowly reinvested back into the company.
The 7,500-square-foot 911 Supply is located on a main road in Keizer, Oregon, about 1.5 miles from the interstate. The retail showroom in the front of the store takes up half the space and is open to the public. The back is divided into two parts. One part is a warehouse that serves as a shipping and receiving area. The other part is a tailor shop. Three tailors are on the premises at all times. 911 Supply does sewing, embroidery, heat press and cuts its own vinyl. While they’ve expanded the space since they’ve owned it, Cummings says, “The way the building was set up when we got it made it logical to organize it as we have. A product comes in and ‘does a loop’ so to speak. There’s room for everything.”
The majority of 911 Supply’s sales come from uniforms. The store works with police departments, individual officers, fire departments, private security departments, local EMS and ambulance facilities, state and community college security staff, and hospital security staff. According to Cummings, private citizens often also come in for different types of holsters. He adds that body armor is a huge part of the business, mainly the Safari Land brand.
One popular brand of uniforms is Blauer. Also popular is the Oregon-based Danner boots, which offers a broad line for law enforcement, fire and EMS. 911 Supply also has a very good partnership with 5.11 Tactical. Cummings says of the brand, “They market themselves well. People come into the store for 5.11 Tactical because we are one of only a handful of dealers in Oregon.” To get this right, 911 Supply had to make a big initial order when the brand was young. It’s another risk 911 Supply took that has worked.
One new product that is proving popular is the Blauer Armor Skin TacVest. It takes the traditional uniform shirt and breaks it into two pieces. The two pieces make it easier to put on and remove. “It allows people to remove the body armor and cool down, and it goes back on in seconds. You can’t do that with a regular shirt,” says Cummings. It’s a more comfortable way to wear body armor with a uniform. Even better, it looks like a traditional uniform shirt. It’s durable as well, as it’s made from tough rip-stop polyester and is reinforced with a fused backing material, built for years of wear.
Beyond the excellent products available, 911 Supply has succeeded for a few key reasons, says Cummings. “We are in a highly detailed business. We get orders done quickly and we get them right the first time.” When speaking to potential customers in the Pacific Northwest, Cummings found that it’s typical for uniform delivery to take 30 to 60 days. 911 Supply smashes that record, getting uniforms to its customers in one to two days. This rapid delivery time has helped 911 Supply get and retain business. When meeting potential customers, Cummings attempts to get them to “try us once or twice and see how we do it.”
So how does 911 Supply manage to be so much quicker than the competition? “Our strategy is to not try to be everything to everybody,” says Cummings. The store stocks a relatively limited amount of fabric bodies and brands but stocks those items very deep.
“We get agencies in a product that we stock in our store. When they place an order, we can pull the product from the shelves and get it out the door.” The brands 911 Supply does stock are of good quality as they are not trying to beat the competition on price but instead offer great service and great quality products at a fair market price.
A second key to getting the product out the door quickly is the on-site tailor. Cummings says because 911 Supply is able to do custom work in house, they are able to control quality, cost and delivery time. The decision to do this was done after Cummings consulted people in the industry beforehand about what it would take to be successful. Each person wanted to know, “Why does it take so long to get my stuff?” This process helped the couple make the decision from the very start of the business to do everything on the premises. Cummings notes that this is a big difference between 911 Supply and other stores. Plus, they are not a big corporate entity and pride themselves on customer service and empowering their staff to make decisions at a local level.
The store is made up of 12 employees including Cummings and his wife. According to Cummings, the small staff is a tight-knit group that gets along well. As is often the case with small businesses, Cummings says, “We all do a bit everything on a daily basis.” He takes calls, meets with customers, goes to trade shows, etc. The only thing he doesn’t do is the financials. “My wife handles the financials; she’s a financial genius.”
Cummings particularly enjoys getting out and seeing customers face to face. “I appreciate meeting with law enforcement officials. Having worked side by side with them for many years, I’d like to think we have a good understanding of their needs and expectations.” He is committed to helping all public safety personnel stay safe and do their jobs better.
Cummings believes having a dedicated, knowledgeable sales team and being a solution provider is a key to the business. They contact a police or fire department, for example, and ask to make an appointment. Then, they can better understand the agency’s needs and what 911 Supply can do to provide better service and delivery. 911 Supply also participates as a paying vendor at a number of regional trade shows in order to get in front of the decision makers for their industry.
In addition to sales calls and trade shows, 911 Supply has gained business through word of mouth. They do some advertising in publications such as Oregon Criminal Justice Directory and other association websites. Cummings adds that the company does have an online and social media presence, including Facebook. Purchases can be made through the store’s website, but custom uniforms typically go through a more traditional order process due to the complexity of them.
The store is also expanding by adding another brick and mortar site. The new 911 Supply store will be opening in September in Washington state, which will be a duplicate of the store in Oregon. There is a need for it as 911 Supply does a lot of business in Washington and eight other western states, and Cummings says, “Customers and vendors were pushing us to have a store up there.” Cummings expects to spend the first six to nine months at the new site running the store and handling store operations. At that point, the store manager and crew will be ready to proceed without his constant on-site involvement. “Trisha and I will still be very involved but will rely on a skilled leader to manage the local day-to-day operations.”
Opening another store is a large undertaking. Currently, Cummings estimates he works 70 to 80 hours per week. But he’s not complaining, “I absolutely love what we do. I work with great people, there’s pride in owning your own business, and I don’t ever dread getting up and going to work.”
911 Supply, Inc.
4484 River Road N
Keizer, OR 97303