A disabled Vietnam War veteran who spent more than two decades in banking, Ray Kennedy embraced a midlife career change in the early 1990s.
What started as small enterprise selling copy paper to banks has grown into a company with a projected $130 million in revenues this year, with customers ranging from Bank of America to Johnson & Johnson to Carolinas HealthCare System.
Based in southwest Charlotte, American Product Distributors has 45 employees and offices in three other states. Kennedy, the company's president and chief executive, spends most of his time in Charlotte, where his wife and three children also are part of the business. In addition, the family runs Kennedy Academic Learning Center, which has three area tutoring centers.
A Newton native, Kennedy, 64, was drafted into the Army and served a little more than two years – including a year in Vietnam – before being injured and discharged with the rank of sergeant in 1970. He said the Army taught him the discipline, motivation and teamwork necessary to lead a business.
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After his discharge, Kennedy went into banking, eventually becoming executive vice president of Southern National Bank. When the bank merged with BB&T in 1995, Kennedy used his reputation in banking circles to start a paper distributing company to serve NationsBank.
“They were looking for a diverse, minority-owned and -operated company,” he said. “While I didn't have any experience with that, they knew of my integrity and credibility.”
In the first year, American Product Distributors posted about $250,000 in sales – 100 percent of based on copy paper, Kennedy said. Now copy paper is about 30 percent of sales, he said, while the rest is office products, facilities maintenance, repair and operating products, and promotional items – coffee mugs, sweaters, golf balls … “anything you can put your company logo on.”
The company has 162 customers, Kennedy said in a recent interview with the Observer. Comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: What did it take to get your company started?
It took $1,000, a secured contract with a major corporation and an irreversible commitment by me and my family.
Q: Has the company grown as you expected?
I had a contract with a major bank, NationsBank, and thought other major companies would give us an opportunity for contracts because of our success with NationsBank.
The company has definitely grown to my expectations through the years. In addition to growing because of our relationship with Bank of America, we have created unique added value for customers that competitors could not match.
Q: What advantages have you had as a minority-owned business?
The “advantages” are the same that I experienced as a minority individual.
When one is confronted, born or dealt a hand where there are disadvantages prevalent, one overcomes them by figuring out alternative operating policies, strategies or procedures which circumvent those disadvantages and make them advantages.
Q: What challenges have you faced?
Access to capital and credit, and decision makers who automatically assume you cannot perform or do not have the operating experience to fulfill the performance expectations.
Q: How has your business been affected by economic downturn?
As strange as it may sound, my business has been positively affected because our competitors now have to operate under the same disadvantaged conditions that we have always operated under.
Under these circumstances, we are beating our competitors and gaining market share because we know how to operate under these unfavorable conditions.
Q: What would you have done differently?
I would have secured more initial equity capital to invest in technology. That would have given our company its unique added value in technological infrastructure a lot sooner.