Shuel-Walker builds HP Products into distribution giant

April 13, 2009

Bridget Shuel-Walker never planned to run the multimillion-dollar company where she once dabbled as a summer office worker.

Being the owner's daughter didn't hurt her chances of rising to the top at HP Products, an Indianapolis-based supplier of janitorial and sanitation supplies. But, with two brothers, she wasn't necessarily the obvious choice.

President of the company since 2000, Shuel-Walker, 42, oversees a distribution operation with $180 million in annual sales and a work force of more than 400, making it the second-largest woman-owned business in Indianapolis.

From its headquarters on the northwest side, HP supplies janitorial, health, safety and packaging products, and lighting and sanitation equipment to hospitals, schools, government entities, manufacturing firms and other customers.

Her father, Donald Ames Shuel, purchased the company in 1964 when yearly revenue amounted to about $100,000 and HP distributed its products out of an office building in downtown Indianapolis using one van.

Forty-five years later, the elder Shuel spends most of his time in Florida, having left the reins—and 51-percent ownership—of the company in his daughter's hands. The two still spend ample time discussing business, and Shuel-Walker takes every occasion to continue learning from her father.

"He's been a great mentor to me," she said. "I think that having the opportunity to work with him has given us an opportunity to grow our relationship. We spend a lot of time together and have a lot of the same industry friends."

That professional closeness started gradually. As a junior in high school, Shuel-Walker began working at HP most afternoons. "I did basically whatever they wanted me to do," she recalled. That mostly meant filing, answering the phones and other clerical work.

"I really enjoyed getting that paycheck," she said. "There was an independence factor for me."

Beyond a summer job

By the time she was enrolled in college at the University of Arizona, Shuel-Walker was coming back to HP for summer employment. Upon her graduation in 1989 with a degree in marketing, the plan was for her to work when she could, taking time off for job interviews.

In the end, she said, "I never went on one job interview."

The turning point was a sales-training course Shuel-Walker took at the firm her first summer after college. When the two-week class ended, she had two ZIP codes for her sales territory and began making cold calls.

Shuel-Walker found her sales job challenging, but not too challenging. "Our stuff is pretty easy to sell," she said. "Everybody needs toilet tissue and hand soap."

From there she climbed the HP ladder, first through the sales department, then customer service.

Now a mother of a 14-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter, Shuel-Walker has learned how to juggle the pressures of her job and the challenges of parenthood.

"As they get older, it gets so much easier," she said, admitting that the balancing act hasn't always gone smoothly.

"In the beginning, when I was trying to climb the corporate ladder, I had my priorities a little mixed up. I had to look in the mirror and tell myself, 'These kids are growing up so fast.'"

Through her laptop, e-mail and other means, she now takes advantage of technology to be with her kids more.

"I finally figured out a better way to manage it," she said.

Fresh ideas

On the business side, Shuel-Walker provides continuity as her father's successor, but lends her own style and acumen to HP, according to Executive Vice President Jim Smith. He credits her "fresh ideas" for propelling the company's growth.

"She has brought a different, more modem look at the way we do business," Smith said. "She's got her dad's ability to read people pretty darn well."

Shuel-Walker has picked up where her father left off, growing HP through product diversification and acquisition. Today, HP's original base of janitorial supplies makes up about 65 percent of its business, with the rest coming from newer product lines, such as laundry equipment and environmental cleaning products.

The company has offices in several Midwest cities, including Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit and Cincinnati.

As the third-largest company of its kind in the United States, HP has been able to ride out the economic storm while smaller rivals struggle to survive. The result in some cases has been acquisitions.

"The economy has been pretty brutal to a lot of our competitors," Shuel-Walker said. "The average size of our competitor is $3 million to $5 million, so it's been pretty easy to merge them in with our company and be able to absorb their overhead."

HP is one of the most aggressive acquirors in its industry, said Nick Bragg, deputy editor of Milwaukee-based Sanitation Maintenance magazine.

"Over the last 10 years, a lot of larger distributors have been buying up smaller distributors," Bragg said.

HP's most recent acquisition came in 2006, when it paid about $25 million for Harvey, Ill.-based Kraft Paper Sales Co., a distributor of cleaning and paper products.

As for one day letting go of her majority ownership in HP to accelerate growth, Shuel-Walker said that is not in the cards.

"I put my heart and soul into this company," she said, "and that is where it's going to reside."

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