Cardinal Office Systems, an office furniture dealer with roots in Frankfort that go back to the 1950s and with operations in Lexington and Bowling Green, has been sold to a Louisville company.
Office Resources Inc., which sells similar products, purchased Cardinal Office on Sept. 4, likely making ORI the state’s largest office furniture company. Jim Gray, president of Cardinal Office and joint owner with his siblings, said, “it was the right thing to do,” but emotionally tough.
“My brother, my sister, I mean it’s our life, it was our life, that’s what we did, it’s all I’ve ever done,” Gray said. “I’ve never worked for anybody – I worked for my dad.”
Gray’s 86-year-old father, who lives in Frankfort, helped start the company, which in the early days sold office supplies in addition to furniture. Gray remembers lugging heavy typewriters in high school back and forth between schools and the company’s “hole-in-the-wall” office on Bridge Street for repair work.
“He had his reservations, but he was fine with it,” Gray said of his father’s thoughts on the sale. Gray and his siblings – his brother, Stephen Gray, headed operations and his sister, Ann Moore, ran human resources and finances – saw mergers sweeping the industry and thought selling was a good “exit plan.”
Gray said his company wasn’t in financial trouble. He put Cardinal’s average annual sales at $9 million, but declined to reveal its annual profits.
“It was an opportunity we thought might not come down the road again for us …” Gray said. “We all agreed the timing was right, the right guy was buying it, the offer was fair, and it’s time to move on.”
That “right guy” was George Bell, president, CEO and owner of ORI. Bell is a former executive for Steelcase – the high-end office furniture manufacturer that both ORI and Cardinal specialize in selling – who bought ORI in 2004. ORI itself is the result of a merger in 1993, and its predecessors date back to the 1940s. Now, by purchasing Cardinal and thus merging the top dealers in Kentucky’s two largest cities, Bell said ORI has gained quick access to the state.
“It would have been years trying to do this on our own, trying to get where Jim is,” Bell said.
Bell agreed to one of Gray’s initial requests in the deal – to keep all of Cardinal’s 30 full-time employees. The combined company now has nearly 100 employees.
“Both Jim and I believe in hiring people for life,” Bell said.
All of Cardinal’s sales contracts with state universities, health care providers and manufacturing businesses have been transferred to ORI. Bell said ORI did not buy Cardinal’s buildings in Frankfort, Lexington and Bowling Green because of cost concerns, but the company has agreed to rent them for the next five years.
Bell said it’s his intention to expand the company regionally, and the merger will allow ORI to purchase and create more sophisticated technology.
“We’re constantly investing in new trucks and hardware and software,” he said.
Bell said he will phase out the Cardinal name gradually and hopes to have it changed to ORI by next year. Gray stressed that not much would change for his customers.
“Our invoices may look a little different, but the people you’ve dealt with for years will still be the people you’ll deal with tomorrow,” Gray said.
In the early 1950s, Gray’s uncle, his father’s brother-in-law, R. A. Wunderlich, started selling typewriters, calculators and adding machines. Gray’s father joined the business in 1954 after leaving the Army. In 1956, Wunderlich and Gray’s father founded a new company called Cardinal Office Products and began selling other office supplies and furniture.
Gray said the company was doing a lot of business with the state at the time and it was named after the state bird. In 1964, Cardinal Office Products moved to East Main Street.
In 1964, the company bought a showroom in Lexington, and in 1979, it was renamed Cardinal Office Systems. Gray’s father bought the business in 1982 from Wunderlich. Gray declined to explain why.
“Suffice to say, it worked out that we ended up with the company,” Gray said.
In 2001, Cardinal bought another showroom in Bowling Green. Seven years ago, the company sold its office products division to its vice president of finance. That separate company is now known as Cardinal Office Products and is still located on East Main Street in Frankfort. Cardinal Office Systems retains a sales office there with one employee and still owns the building.
Gray and his brother have three-year contracts to continue working with ORI. Gray will be part of ORI’s leadership and be in charge of sales in Bowling Green. After that, he said he might like to continue in sales if Bell wants him to stay with the company. Otherwise, he says he has no idea what he wants to do.
He has three grandchildren he’d like to spend more time with, and though he said the sale has yet to “sink in,” he said he won’t miss the headaches of running a business. Also, there’s golf.
“I love golf, but you can only play so much golf.”