Staples founder shares personal experiences at lecture series

Date: 11/10/2008

Tom Stemberg (right), founder of Staples Inc., shared his own experiences as an entrepreneur as advice during his speech. "Always live in reality," he said, "but don't forget to dream the dream."

By Courtney Llewellyn

Reminder Assistant Editor

LONGMEADOW Think about what sits on your desk at work most likely, pens, paper clips, a stapler, blank CDs, highlighters, folders, Post-It notes and more. Now think of one place you could go to replenish all of these supplies.

That's what Tom Stemberg, founder of Staples Inc., did in 1986. Under his tenure as CEO, Staples grew to more than 1,700 stores all over the globe, becoming one of seven companies in U.S. history to reach $3 billion in sales within a decade.

Stemberg was the featured speaker at Bay Path College's fifth Innovative Thinking and Entrepreneurship Lecture Series, which took place Nov. 5.

The Staples founder presented himself as a former master of office supplies and anecdotes, sharing his entrepreneurial experience through a number of stories during the event.

"You need to figure out what area you want to work in for example, retail and then work for them to learn what you need to do," he told those in attendance. Current business owners, those interested in starting their own ventures and Bay Path students were present for the morning lecture.

"Learn the fundamentals," he stressed. "The most successful entrepreneurs are those grounded in the industry."

Stemberg started his work with Star Market, based in Boston. He said he applied what he learned while working there to his concept of an office supplies superstore.

"The whole thing is identifying a real need," he said. The reasoning behind Staples was a simple one small business needed a place to purchase the wide variety of supplies they needed at a low cost.

With the money he made through Staples, Stemberg joined Highland Capital Partners in 2005, where he helps build new enterprises. He mentioned specifically his interest in lululemon athletica, which produces workout clothes for yoga a specific product that had a real need.

"As you go forward in your entrepreneurial endeavors, use both sides of your brain," he stated. "There are no more swashbuckling, flying by the seat of your pants entrepreneurs. If you aren't conservative, you'll have a train wreck, but you also have to trust your gut.

"Turn adversity into opportunity," he advised. "Have a healthy balance between the details...and a broad vision that is truly a dream."

Stemberg also mentioned that businesses should use their own staffs to create new ideas, and Bay Path College President Carol Leary said she'd be taking that concept with her from the lecture.

"He offered very real, simple, straightforward advice," Leary added.

Robert Melillo, a National Sales Consultant with Sun Life Financial in Windsor, Conn., said he would be using some of Stemberg's advice as "grains of sand to help build my own castle."

"A few things resonate for me," Melillo said. "[Stemberg said] we need to be risk takers. We need to stick to the fundamentals."

Bay Path freshman Meghan Donahue said the most important advice she took from Stemberg's speech was "you have to try." She plans on working with animals once she's finished with college.

The annual Innovative Thinking and Entrepreneurship Lecture Series addresses the concepts of creativity and innovation with a specific emphasis on leadership, results and the process of innovation. The series is part of the Entrepreneurial Program at Bay Path College.

Past speakers include William Burke III, president of LENOX American Saw; Jeffrey Taylor, founder of; Craig Rydin, CEO of Yankee Candle Company; and Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots.

The fourth annual Innovative Thinking & Entrepreneurship Summit will be taking place at the college on Nov. 12 from 7:45 to 11 a.m. To register, visit