The ringing of a doorbell and a simple sales pitch in the 1970s is all it took to get Jim Quesenberry started in his 36-year sales career. As a student at what was then Central Missouri State, Quesenberry took a summer job selling Bibles door to door to finance the remainder of his education. “I found that I could do it, and do it better than most, and I made more money than what most college kids are accustomed to,” Quesenberry says. After his summer epiphany, he switched his major to business administration. Right out of college, Quesenberry took a job with Xerox, launching him into the office equipment business. From Xerox, Quesenberry then worked for Savin Corporation before taking a position with Modern Business Systems, which became Ikon Office Solutions. There he was district sales manager, covering four branches in southwest Missouri and Arkansas.
Although Quesenberry felt he was performing well, he and his boss did not see eye to eye on how to run the business. “This is going to sound crazy, but on Friday the 13th, April of ʼ89, I got fired,” Quesenberry says. “When you are among the top performers, you don’t really anticipate something like that happening.”
Quesenberry capitalized on his five years of industry experience and got a job with another office equipment manager in the Midwest. His job consisted of working with independent dealers by helping them meet their sales quotas and by examining their sales methods. “What that affords you the opportunity to do is learn best-of practices,” Quesenberry says. He was able to dissect how certain companies became successful and what strategies they used to stay on top. After enough studying, “I felt like I could do it better,” he says.
Despite the learning experience it afforded him, the job wore on Quesenberry because of the amount of traveling it required. “I woke up one day in a Chicago high-rise hotel,” he says. “It was my daughter’s 4th birthday, and I had missed three out of her four birthdays because I was on the road. It just hit me: Never in my youth did I experience that.” With that realization in mind, Quesenberry resigned and decided to launch his own business. On September 3, 1993, Corporate Business Systems was born.
Bringing Business to Life
Through the years, Quesenberry built that confidence by hiring an exceptionally talented team with years of industry know-how. “My dad always said, ‘Don’t be afraid of hiring someone smarter than yourself.’ I think he knew that in my case that wouldn’t be that difficult, and that’s really been the key to Corporate Business Systems,” Quesenberry says. When he first founded the company, Quesenberry began hiring employees who had been in the industry for many years and could deliver the demanding results needed to grow a young company. “You’ve got to go after and bring on board people that are highly skilled, that are ambitious, that are growth-oriented, that are career-oriented, and I think if you can consistently hire above-average talent, as a business owner, you have every right to expect above-average results,” Quesenberry says.
Going in, the plan was to optimize the existing relationships Quesenberry had in the market. “I think everyone wants to help new entrepreneurs and new business ventures,” he says. “America was built on hard work and core ethics, and as a purchaser or business owner sees other people making the same leap of faith that they made, they like to be a part of it in whatever small way that they can.” His first products were supplied by a contact from his days at Savin, and his business partner was a former Xerox co-worker.
In the early days, the challenge was taking on customers. They struggled to prove their legitimacy until they were able to land a large account with Springfield Public Schools. “If you as a fledgling business can handle the requirements of a high-demanding customer, that should give other people confidence in your ability to handle their needs,” Quesenberry says.
Hitting His Stride
Quesenberry’s aggressive push toward growth early on paid off. Now, after 22 years in business, Corporate Business Systems has bought five companies, has locations in four cities and currently employs 78 associates. Through the purchase of related businesses, such as the IT company Aztec Computing, Corporate Business Systems has expanded its capabilities to cover the spectrum of technology-related office equipment and services.
Although the capabilities of the company have evolved, the prized culture that has attracted Corporate Business Systems’ talented staff has remained. “We do look at culture very, very heavily,” Quesenberry says. The company rarely experiences turnover and offers numerous incentives and bonding and training opportunities for the employees to create an environment employees—Quesenberry included—are excited to work in.
“I wouldn’t trade [this job for] anything in the world,” Quesenberry says. “It’s been a great, fun ride, and here I am still doing it. This is a fun industry. It’s one that’s built upon solutions.” It’s not often that such incredible success follows a moment of career collapse, but Quesenberry has made it happen. When asked if he would thank his former boss for firing him and for setting him on the path to Corporate Business Systems, Quesenberry noted that the two have kept in touch. About 12 years ago, Quesenberry sent his former boss an email. “He wouldn’t admit that he had made a mistake,” he says. “That’s what I was trying to get out of it. He wouldn’t admit to that, but he did congratulate me on the successes we’ve enjoyed. I thanked him once again, and I wished him well and said if he ever came to southwest Missouri, I’d buy him lunch.”
If you hadn’t been let go, do you think you would have ever ended up starting your own business?
“I’ve often asked myself that same question, and I don’t know to this day if I can properly answer it because I didn’t see it coming … As a matter of fact, me and my company president took a little road trip and spent the evening at Lake of the Ozarks in the home of my boss’s boss who approved my [boss’s firing] me. I did ask him, ‘What were you thinking? Why did you allow that to happen?’ because I would have probably still been there today.”