Audio

Business Elevated Podcast (Episode 60)

This podcast series features business and government leaders discussing what it’s like to live and work in the great state of Utah. This episode includes a conversation between Pete Codella, director of marketing and communications at GOED, and Brad Bonham, CEO of Walker Edison.

The Business Elevated podcast is also available on Apple PodcastsSpotify and Stitcher.

Transcript

Brad Bonham
Pete Codella

Pete Codella: (0:22) Welcome to the Business Elevated podcast. I’m Pete Codella. I’m the director of marketing and communications in the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, known as GOED. My guest today is Brad Bonham. He’s the CEO of Walker Edison. In the interest of full disclosure, Brad serves as a member of the GOED board

Why don’t we get started with your background, maybe share what led you to found Walker Edison.

Brad Bonham: (0:48) That’s a good question. I come from a long line of entrepreneurs, so I had never seen my father work for anyone but himself. Before my dad’s career as serial entrepreneur, his father before him started a legacy business. His father before him ran his own business.

Growing up, my father would take me to business meetings. I’d work in one of his businesses during the summers and learned the ropes. I felt like there was a great degree of training. I didn’t know it at the time, but I learned how to negotiate, purchase, and balance books in hindsight. There was a lot that I learned through those experiences working for my dad in the summertime. Growing up, that’s what I knew I wanted to do. I want to run my own business. I want to start something and be my own guy.

Pete Codella: (1:37) When did you create Walker Edison?

Brad Bonham: (1:39) We started Walker Edison at the end of 2006. It was a pretty fortuitous set of circumstances. And I’m certain we’ll talk a little bit more about this in this podcast; being here in Utah has been great and has served to establish our brand and go international and global. 

The first e-com channel partner that I landed was overstock.com. I was a college student, and I drove a piece of furniture over to overstock.com and knocked on the door. They opened up and gave me vendor paperwork and said, we’re going to teach you how to dropship. And that was a pretty new concept then. But as it turns out, every channel partner that I called on wanted it.

And now, these channel partners have a vendor basis that is mostly filled out. They rely on people like us to continue to develop product lines for them. But when we started 14 and a half years ago, there were very few of us out in the marketplace. They needed more assortment on their websites.

Pete Codella: (2:40) And to your point, overstock.com is another Utah-based company.

Brad Bonham: (2:45) Overstock.com has been a tremendous partner for us over the years. Jonathan Johnson, Ron Hilton, all of our merchandisers and buyers. They’ve been a great partner to do business with.

Pete Codella: (2:57) That’s great. Why did you name the company Walker Edison? Does that name mean something to you?

Brad Bonham: (3:03) That was my father’s recommendation. We were about to spend five or $10,000 on a domain name. Even 14 and a half years ago, it was tough to come up with a domain name that wasn’t taken and being squatted on. We were playing a round of golf and talking about this new business. And my dad suggested using my middle name, which I dislike. My dad’s middle name is Walker, and mine is Edison so we combined them. And that’s it. And honestly, we pulled it up on our phones right there on the golf course. Walkeredison.com was available for $10 on GoDaddy. So we bought all the variants while we were playing golf. And that’s how the name was born.

Pete Codella: (3:49) Isn’t it interesting how branding decisions are made based on what domains are available.

Brad Bonham: (3:54) Yes.

Pete Codella: (3:56) Talk about Walker Edison’s new West Jordan, Utah headquarters. When did your operations move into that new facility?

Brad Bonham: (4:04) We moved in there right as COVID hit. It was a little bit of unfortunate timing. We did a lot of shopping. We worked with several people to understand what our space needs were. We were in four different buildings. We’d grown so quickly that we took over some buildings near the Salt Lake International airport. And at the time, we were doing all of our warehousing there; we also had our corporate office and a photo studio. We were spread out in separate buildings. We knew we wanted to consolidate those things. And we moved our facilities from a warehousing perspective, closer to where the end consumers are.

So now we have facilities in California, Ohio, Atlanta, and Georgia. We’re opening up in Dallas and New Jersey this year as well. And that was a data-driven decision. As far as our new corporate office, we looked at big shiny office spaces down at the point of the mountain. We looked at several different options, but the number one core value at Walker Edison is ‘We Give’.

And we started thinking about how we could locate our corporate office in a place, and in a time, where that could remain true, even with our real estate concerns. So we found a vacant Shopko building in West Jordan. Shopko had gone out of business, and the building was rundown and dilapidated. And we worked with West Jordan City, mayor Burton and his team that included Paul Coats. These are some great people from West Jordan. We spent time, effort, and money to make sure this was a building West Jordan could be proud of that could bring our high-paying e-comm jobs, and that our employees would love. And it’s been a great move. We have several hundred employees here in Salt Lake. We only have 20 or so that show up every day. But we are formulating our plan to come back to the office.

Pete Codella: (6:04) That’s only about a mile from our home in South Jordan. And my wife asked me if I had seen what they did to the old Shopko building? Before I ever knew that that was your location.

Brad, you talked about being where the customers are. I suspect that’s driven by the time it takes to ship furniture to customers. And that’s why you’ve chosen those locations around the country. Is that right?

Brad Bonham: (6:29) Yes. When we order something, we want to know it’s going to be to us very quickly, the next day, today. Walker Edison is a tale of two halves. The first half was bootstrappy. We couldn’t get anybody to invest in our business. We just grew it through retained earnings for the first eight years. We went from zero to 17 million in revenue over the first eight years. And we ended up onboarding with Domo as one of their beta clients because we had a serious lack of understanding of what was going on within our business. We knew that we didn’t have many answers to what was happening with our sell-through,  products, and inventory. That data led us to understand why you can tie the hockey stick of Walker Edison’s growth back to onboarding with Domo. 

We’ve gone from 17 million at the end of  2014. This year we’ll do almost 700 million in revenue. That’s the culture Walker Edison has shifted to: What does the data tell us today? And we’ve made it actionable for every employee across the entire company. When we relocated our warehouses, we sold like a fraction of 1% of our products here in Utah. And so shipping from Utah to Florida is four to five days. It just wasn’t advantageous. You got a lot of touches and have higher breakage damage rates. And so we’ve located our facilities in areas where we get addresses for every order that’s sent to us. We know the end consumer demand is strongest so we can get that product out the door. Sometimes it’s there the same day or the next day.

Pete Codella: (8:16) That’s awesome. And you know, it’s what consumers come to expect these days when they’re ordering things online. Fast same-day or next-day delivery. Great job mentioning another Utah-based company, Domo. And I love the example you shared of how data helped you make decisions about your company. 

Brad Bonham: (8:36) Pete, we’re surrounded by this treasure trove of entrepreneurial-enabled software or retailers like Overstock. There’s not a better state in the country to start your business. And when we haven’t even talked about the governmental support and how friendly to businesses we are. I think that’s why we’re ranked number one every year in the country.

Pete Codella: (9:01) Yes, let’s do that. Let’s talk about why you are headquartered in Utah? What are those benefits you see as a CEO?

Brad Bonham: (9:09) We’re in California, Georgia. and Ohio. The talent, the beauty of the mountains, the cost of living, and not to mention all the tools at our disposal. Whether that’s Domo, whether you’re starting a brand or you’re a smaller brand using someone like a Pattern to help sell your products and manage your marketplace on Amazon. You can go through all these amazing businesses along the Wasatch Front that can leverage what you do and have the tools to help us get to this market. It’s pretty amazing when you sit down and look it up.

We recently onboarded with Divvy. Divvy is an amazing tool to help us understand where we’re spending our money and how to really be efficient with those dollars going out the door. And so it’s just fascinating for a state with only three million-plus people, the number of amazing companies we have here that are homegrown. The support we receive from the community to bring these jobs is kind of a golden age and an opportunity for entrepreneurs here.

Pete Codella: (10:27) Yes. I think that brand has been exported as Silicon Slopes talks about the IT software development industry, but you’re right; the whole entrepreneurship kind of spirit and approach of Utahns is pretty remarkable. And lots of startups are coming out of our state right now.

Talk to me about all the places you can buy Walker Edison furniture. You mentioned Amazon, Overstock. Are there a lot of places or a few? How does that work?

Brad Bonham: (10:54) If you’re a major retailer in the United States with a web presence that sells home furnishings, you are our target audience. We have a couple of thousand products that we’ve developed in-house. In most cases, we’ve filed design patents on those products. We are one of the largest vendors in the United States drop ship vendors to these major e-tailers.

So I mentioned overstock.com, a tremendous partner, and Amazon. We have a robust business with Wayfair, and they are our largest trading partner. Target.com. walmart.com, Home Depot are also great trading partners. We have unique products across a lot of these different e-tailers. Anyone that sells home furnishings on the internet in the United States, Canada, and now in Europe, we are a major trading partner for them.

Pete Codella: (11:42) That’s awesome. And can anyone go into your West Jordan headquarters and look at your furniture, or is it available on display anymore?

Brad Bonham: (11:50) Yes. We’re in the process of propping up our first showroom. We have a showroom in Las Vegas that caters to trade partners, but we’ve never sold anything directly to the public before. But we’re exploring those options right now. We have a couple of times a month warehouse-y blowout sales where we sell scratched, dented, and return items at a discount. Sometimes the boxes are a little bit banged up. We have people wrapped around the block, and with COVID restrictions, we can only let 10 or 15 people in at a time for social distancing reasons. But we would have 200 people lined up out the door.

It’s fun to see the demand for our products. It’s also fun to blow some stuff out every now and then and give people deals.

Pete Codella: (12:41) That’s great. How do you spread the word about your products? How do you get connected online to e-tailers?

Brad Bonham: (12:48) The primary focus of my business partner, Matt Davis, and I was landing those channel partners for the first nine or 10 years. I have several students I’ve mentored over the years. It’s pretty challenging getting in front of the right people if you don’t have a name and if you don’t have a brand and you’re a startup. 

I think persistence is key. You know, I’ll have students send an email to newproducts@walmart.com. I have to be honest; that’s probably filtered to a junk mail folder somewhere. I’ve never heard someone get a call back by sending through their generic portal. Networking, understanding their position within the business, trying to leverage that, getting a hold of the right people is key. There were several tricks we learned. Understanding titles across organizations, utilizing LinkedIn to find the right people, the right merchandisers over your category at any of these major retailers, all of those.

I will say that the easiest and best sale that I’ve made was overstock.com. I had no idea what I was doing. They trained me from day one. They explained how dropshipping works. For that, I’ll be forever grateful.

Pete Codella: (14:11) That’s awesome. A good peek behind the curtain there. Good tips. 

I’m going to ask a question about something I saw in your corporate newsroom on International Women’s Day. Your company announced you signed the Women’s Leadership Institute’s ‘Elevate Her’ pledge. You’re committed to increasing the percentage of women in leadership, the retention rate of women at all levels, monitoring pay and closing any identified gaps, establishing leadership development, and mentoring programs for women.

What are Walker Edison’s efforts in that department?

Brad Bonham: (14:49) Yes, that’s a good question, and it’s important for us. I think there is a serious lack of opportunity for women across the board. We hired Joanna McKenna, who was the head of walmart.com. We brought her in, and she’s now the president of Walker Edison and is largely running day-to-day operations for us.

We did an analysis across our organization that encouraged us to talk about pay parody. Let’s talk about titles. Let’s talk about leveling up the framework. And we recognized we were deficient in a number of those areas, and we asked ourselves how do we make sure we are giving equal opportunity to everyone across the board? And especially our women who contribute so much to our organization. We had Pat Jones come in from the Women’s Leadership Institute. We’ve spent a great deal of time, effort, and focus making sure the women around are appreciated, recognized, and given opportunities to succeed and be leaders of our organization. We have goals and targets internally that women are represented fairly across the board at Walker Edison.

Pete Codella: (16:04) That’s great.  I know that’s a key priority, particularly for Utah’s new Lt. Gov. Henderson and the Cox and Henderson administration. We’ve been talking about the same thing. Kudos to you for signing the ‘Elevate Her’ pledge.

One more question about your employees. I see that you provide quarterly service projects and that the employees can participate in those. What types of projects have you done?

Brad Bonham: (16:32) We supported several initiatives locally. We’ve worked with Pamela Atkinson and homeless shelters. Our efforts also include preventing child abuse and Utah Rise Against Hunger. We do things for Primary Children’s Hospital. From the very start, even when it was just he and I, we would go to the food bank, and we would box up food. We would do that once a quarter as a way of giving back. We take 300 people with us from our corporate office, and the amount of work that we’re able to accomplish with 300 people versus the two or three of us at the start of Walker Edison is satisfying. I’ve been maniacal around culture within our organization.

I want people to love working for Walker Edison. This is the greatest job I’ve ever had. That’s honestly my sincere intent with every job that’s extended. We did things, company, activities, bonuses, spiffs, and other things. And then, we would survey our employees and ask them did this move the needle? Our efforts didn’t really move the needle until we made philanthropic efforts our primary focus. It is the glue that’s kind of bound us together and made the place just an incredible place to work. Not only do we get to do awesome things in the community, but we also grow tighter as an organization every time we embark on these things.

Two years ago, we started offering volunteer time off. We present to the entire organization and note departments that haven’t taken a ton of volunteer time off this quarter. We encourage them to do it. We’ll specifically set up an activity for each department to do something. With COVID, it’s been a little bit different because we  have to do virtual events. We’ve done virtual readings to the foster care foundation. We volunteer with Make-A-Wish Utah. 

These are opportunities for us to continue to have a huge impact on the communities around us. The schools that we’ve sponsored are in West Jordan and other places. It’s been very beneficial to us and Walker Edison.

Pete Codella: (18:58) Congratulations. That’s excellent. One thing our listeners may know is Utah leads the nation in volunteerism and charitable giving. So it’s part of our culture. I love that you’ve made that part of your company culture. 

A final question, Brad. We’re going to shift gears. And from your vantage point as a member of the GOED board – I believe you’re just starting your second year of service – what’s the future of economic development, or in Governor Cox’s words, ‘economic opportunity’ in the state of Utah.

Brad Bonham: (19:31) I think the sky’s the limit. I like Gov. Cox’s focus on rural Utah. I recently spent some time in Kane County with the commissioners and the mayor. We toured Stampin’ Up. We looked at the East Zions project. COVID has been detrimental in many ways, but in some way, it’s opened our eyes to the ability to work remotely and still have a huge impact. We have people that fled urban areas in California and New York, and a lot of those people have moved here because the quality of life is incredible. I think from a governmental standpoint, policies that promote high-paying jobs in rural areas that might be underserved is a great focus from our new governor and his staff.

Pete Codella: (20:30) Great. Thank you, Brad. We appreciate you spending some time with us on the Business Elevated podcast. Anything you’d like to share in closing?

Brad Bonham: (20:38) I would say that Utah is the greatest state in the nation to do business to any entrepreneurs out there. We welcome you here. It’s a big world, and there are a lot of opportunities to do some great things. I’m very grateful for the opportunity that I’ve had to be an entrepreneur here in the state.

Pete Codella: (20:57) It’s a win-win when the whole community networks and supports each other, as they do here in Utah. I appreciate your time. Thanks for joining us.

Brad Bonham: (21:06) Thanks. Appreciate it.