Independent Dealers Go To Washington (Virtually)
By: Paul A. Miller, IOPFDA Director of Government Affairs

 

Last month, the office products industry celebrated National Workplace Solutions Week (March 28-April 3) across the United States and in our nation’s capital. In what used to be considered “normal” years, independent dealers would descend on Washington, D.C. to both celebrate the industry and participate in the Independent Office Products Association’s (IOPFDA) annual legislative fly-in. This two-day event has centered around discussing key industry legislative and regulatory priorities with congressional leaders. Last year due to the pandemic, independent dealers didn’t get a chance to participate in this event, at a time when we needed to be heard the most. That didn’t stop us from being heard, it just meant that members of U.S. Congress serving every congressional district in the country didn’t get to hear directly from their constituents and small businesses. This year was very different.

I want to start by saying “THANK YOU!” to S.P. Richards Co.,  Independent Suppliers Group (ISG), and Essendant for their continued support of the independent channel and this event. Events like these take a lot of time and money to put together and without our amazing corporate partners, this event would not be possible. Our partners make it possible for independents to be successful.

Although this year’s event was virtual, it might have been the most successful in the association’s history. “Why?” you ask. Every election cycle our industry becomes priority number one to our elected leaders. They know that using us in campaign speeches, literature, and campaign ads gets attention. After the election we tend to be forgotten about. Last year changed all that. Since March 2020 it has been clear that it took a global pandemic for Congress and the White House to understand the important role your businesses play in the local economy as well as the overall global economy. 

This year Congress has started to stand up and take real notice of our issues and the job creators we are.  That is why this year’s fly-in, while virtual, was so critical. Hosting a virtual event also meant more individuals could attend and we could attract people who might not have decided to travel to Washington to participate in-person. We are now starting to see the rewards of all that hard work. 

Evidence of the growing voice of independents in Washington starts with a bipartisan effort by Representative Rob Wittman (R-VA) and Representative Henry Cuellar (D-TX), who introduced H.R. 184, expressing support for designating March 28-April 3, 2021 as National Small Business Workplace Solutions Week. To some they may not understand what that means or why it may be a big deal. For independents it is now a chance to have that moment each year where the national focus is on them. Yes, I will agree every day should be focused on you, but I live in Washington and those types of requests only appear in fairytales.  

National Small Business Workplace Solutions Week gives us an opportunity to spend five days telling our story nationally. With technology driving the world we live in; we can reach more people quickly and effectively with our messages. It is a week to share stories of the work you are doing in your community. How many of you support your local schools, local sports teams, local marching bands, contribute to educational scholarship programs, or volunteer in the community? These are the untold stories and why this week is not only important for every community, but more important for the target audience in Washington–Democrats and Republicans.

Each of you continue to be challenged by the lockdowns and effects of COVID-19. What most people outside your business do not know is the work you continue to do, even when you do not have too. Take Melissa Ball, owner of Ball Office Products in Virginia for example. Last year, her congressman called her and asked if she could help his fellow congressman from Texas, who needed critical personal protective equipment (PPE), and needed it quickly. Ball did not ask twice; she got on the phone and made some connections, and the story goes like this. Ball did not have the specialized gloves the person in Texas needed, but she found someone in Ohio who then connected with the congressman, who then connected his Texas constituent. It was not a sale opportunity for Ball and her company, but a community connection. I share this story because it’s what we all would do and what we have been doing even before the pandemic. We are now just in the sights of those who make the laws in this country. We need to remain there and this national recognition and annual fly-in event helps send that message.

IOPFDA’s fly-in this year was an opportunity for independents to hear from members of Congress on their issues. Representative Wittman kicked-off the two-day event by thanking the industry for being there at a time when we all needed you. This was followed by Representative Ken Buck (R-CO), who has been a champion of small businesses. As  member of the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary, Representative Buck is always looking at ways he can level the playing field between us and the likes of Amazon. Representative Buck spoke to the group and knew of our concerns regarding the  General Services Administration’s (GSA) online marketplace being dominated by Amazon. Representative Buck understood our concerns about Amazon being both a platform provider and a re-seller on these same platforms. He is not alone in his support for our industry or position on the GSA marketplace. We have talked to both Democrats and Republicans who agree with our position. We will be working with each of them to ensure that our language is included in any anti-trust legislation that reaches U.S. President Joe Biden’s desk for his signature. 

During the fly-in we also heard from Michael Kades, who serves as the director for markets and competition policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. Kades talked about the impacts monopolistic practices have on competition. From our meeting with Kades, IOPFDA learned of other avenues we can proceed to get the President’s attention. 

The real influence came through with the individually scheduled congressional appointments for each attendee. The early feedback from dealers who attended were very positive. Members were interested in learning more about the issue and how they can help. We have already started following-up with these offices and are building a bipartisan effort to bring about real changes to the GSA online marketplaces.

It was our dealers who championed the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act back in March of last year. This effort has the support of organizations representing 310,460 companies spanning 50 states, plus Washington, D.C., and represents 9 million jobs. We thank Congress for acting quickly on implementing the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) around the same time. These were critical lifelines to a lot of small businesses in every community across the country. The reality going forward is that PPP loans are not the long-term solution for us. The solution, which does not break the deficit bank, is access to long-term capital at low-interest rates and paid over a longer period.

While the PPP loans were a necessary survival tool, our plan forward focuses on the recovery phase that is immediately needed to ensure the long-term economic prosperity of our country. Our plan does the following:

  • Creates new funding pool for small businesses of $100 billion.
  • Creates a $15 billion set-aside for minority small businesses.
  • Eligible businesses must: 
    • Employ 500 or fewer employees.
    • Demonstrate at least a 15% reduction in gross revenue in 2020 relative to the same 2019 quarter. 
    • Revenue cannot be over $25 million annually.
  • Borrowers may receive a loan of up to three times their annual revenues, up to $2 million, with a maturity of 12 years at an interest rate of 2% to the borrower. 
  • Loan repayment would begin three-years after the loan was received.
  • Business must be in business for minimum of three years and prove economic viability.
  • The U.S. Small Business Administration’s (SBA) guarantee is 100%.
  • No collateral is required. 

Independents do not come to Washington for handouts, we come with solutions! As this year’s fly-in will attest, we are being heard and we have real solutions to the issues facing the industry. Not only do our proposals not increase the deficit, but they also streamline the government in a way that makes them more efficient and open to fair competition for all, not just some.

As we look back on National Workplace Solutions Week, remember, it’s about keeping it local. Your voice is being heard. Join IOPFDA and help increase that voice!