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OTTUMWA — Calling Bob and Stevie Witt’s purchase of Bailey Office Supplies a long, carefully considered decision wouldn’t quite be right. But it wasn’t entirely spur of the moment, either.

The transition to the Witts’ ownership came, truth be told, as a result of one of the business’ signatures: deliveries. The owner was dropping an order to the business where Bob worked and mentioned wanting to retire at some point.

“I popped out of my office and said ‘How much?’ Six months later, here we were,” he said. “The customer base was awesome. That made the decision easier. We take care of the customers. We stand behind what we sell. I am a firm believer that without customers, you’ve got nothing.”

Bob had been self-employed before, running his own trucking company. The chance to be his own boss again sounded good, and Bailey had a legacy few businesses could match. It is a local institution, one of a handful of iconic Ottumwa businesses seemingly everyone in town knows and has patronized.

The past few decades have not been kind to small, family-owned businesses like Bailey. Many have closed after missteps trying to navigate a shifting marketplace. The internet posed one set of challenges. Big box stores posed another.

You could have been forgiven for guessing that Bailey’s days were numbered when OfficeMax moved to Ottumwa. But the local shop endures while the newcomer is long gone. And the Witts have made a serious effort to get their store online. While customers still come in and browse through a wall of pens and shelves stuffed with paper and folders, they understand the value of having a digital presence.

There’s another factor that is always on the Witts’ minds. There’s a legacy to uphold. There are customer relationships that go back decades, testament to the work previous owners did. Those relationships have to be nurtured. There’s a public trust to maintain.

“They trust us to do it. That’s the big thing. You have to earn that trust,” Stevie said. “I have delivered a Sharpie. But the next time it may be a chair. The next time it may be a whole office.”

It could just as easily be a hard hat or cleaning supplies. Part of the store’s evolution includes helping people redesign offices and making sure it has whatever supplies the customer’s business needs. The Witts said that isn’t a brand-new idea, but an extension of how the company has long adapted while keeping its focus.

“It’s not just us. It’s not the new owners have all these ideas,” said Stevie. “When one area dips, another picks up.”

What the Witts perhaps didn’t fully understand when they bought the store is that they were getting in-house experts. Some of the employees have been with the company for decades. They know what customers want and how to serve them. And they want to be at Bailey.

The proof was in last year’s office Christmas party, Stevie said. The staff decided to stay in, to have the party at the office, spending the time at their second home with their second families.

“We’ve got exceptional employees. Their knowledge is unbeatable,” Bob said.

Running a business is hard work. So is keeping a legacy alive. The Witts are happy to be doing both.

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Matt Milner currently serves as the Courier's Managing Editor. Milner is a trained weather spotter and is usually outside if there are storms. He joined the Courier in 2002.