The Dennis Company building at the corner of Fifth and Blake, circa 1925.
When you think of longevity in business, few come close to the success of Dennis Company. Founded at the turn of the LAST century, in 1905, Dennis Company is more than just an independent retailer. It’s a part of the fabric of Grays Harbor. We sat down with Brent Dennis to learn what he thinks has led to their ability to stay in business and thrive over those many generations.

Few businesses survive beyond ten years, how has Dennis Company managed to stay in business more than 100 years?

Simply put, it’s about diversification and change. We have been able to change with the times and adapt to meet community needs.

We didn’t start as a hardware retailer – we were a shingle mill in the beginning. As the community grew, we started providing logging supplies and solid block ice. As it continued to grow, we added building materials and road construction equipment. We even did car repairs in the 1920s and 1930s because cars were becoming more commonplace, but we weren’t a large enough town for a dealership yet. We have always started with figuring out what the needs are and then looking for ways to meet those needs with the services and supplies that are in demand.

There’s a lot of competition these days, from big box stores and online retailers. How do you continue to stay relevant and competitive as an independent retailer?

We will never be able to compete on price the same way a huge box store or online retailer can. But we can always win on service. Our employees are empowered to serve our customers and make decisions without having to get permission from leadership. We do a lot of training and we always try to promote from within because we believe our business will continue to thrive if our people are treated well, and are given the ability to serve customers and our community with knowledgeable, personalized service.

It sounds like company culture is really important at Dennis Company. How do you build a culture that embraces service?

Company culture is a huge part of our ability to stay competitive and relevant. We used to focus much more on product knowledge in hiring, but we’ve realized those are things we can teach. We can’t teach a positive attitude or a commitment to serving customers, or a desire to help others. We also try to make sure our employees know they are valued and are given enough flexibility to perform their jobs well.

You mentioned diversification of products, how do you stay on top of what the community needs and how do you make sure you know what the latest tools and trends are?

First, we are a part of this community and we pay careful attention to what people need and what they want. We go out and talk to people – longtime customers, other businesses, and families. Whether it’s clam digging supplies or fidget spinners, we are always staying on top of industry trends. We go to buying markets and meet with others in our industry to make sure we are always on top of what people are looking for both here in Grays Harbor and in other parts of the country.

At the end of the day, having a diversified product mix that meets the needs of our community is always going to be critical because our sales are often so dependent upon seasonal conditions. For example, we had a pretty slow clam digging season this year so those sales at the start of the year weren’t as strong as they normally are, but then we had a tremendous summer so we’ve made up for it with gardening supplies.

Having the ability to stay in front of those changing economic and seasonal realities while providing the best products and service to our customers is key.

Dennis Company has been a part of Grays Harbor for so long. How important is giving back to the community to your success as a business and your continued commitment to the area?

We are deeply involved in the community. We like to give back as much as possible and we focus on youth activities through both direct donations and giving groups assistance, sitting on boards and being active in foundations. We like to provide support to local non-profit organizations through both our time and treasure sharing our knowledge as a well as our financial support. Every business needs to make a profit to stay in business, but we rely on our community to support us and shop with us so we want to give back as much as we can.

What advice do you have for small businesses looking to get started or grow?
First and foremost, you need to make a profit. You have to work at providing the best service and selection to your customers, but you also need to be aware of forces outside your company that impact your ability to be successful. Pay attention to the competition and know how regulations and government decisions in Olympia can impact your business. Take the time to build relationships with your legislators who are there to listen to small business owners because we create jobs and employ people. Help them understand how their decisions impact your ability to stay in business.

How has your marketing changed over the years?
Our marketing has evolved tremendously. We are heavily involved in social media now, providing not just information about what we have on sale, but sharing entertaining and educational content. We just posted a series on tips about canning and we held a canning contest because a lot of people here are canning right now. It’s about being relevant, timely and useful for our community.

Any other advice for local businesses you’d like to share?
Above all, you must make your business a little different, set yourself apart. And figure out the best way of doing it in our area. Don’t ever sit back on your laurels and take success for granted. You need to always try to push beyond the expected. And lean on your employees for ideas. They are on the front lines, so learn from them. They often have great ideas about how to make change, cut costs, and how do things differently. We look for employees who are self-starters and who just want to go out there and take care of customers. Take the time to hire the right people, make sure they are a great fit, and listen to them when they have ideas about your business.