by Claire Sykes
What can a kid and his nine siblings expect when their father owns a store? Work. As early as age eight, Andy Gattas was sweeping the floors, rounding up parking-lot shopping carts and stocking shelves at the Fred P. Gattas Company, in Memphis, Tennessee.
His Lebanese-American father was also one of 10 children, and grew up in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Fred began his career as a peddler, and then bought a wholesale-candy business in 1954. Soon he was manufacturing candy and selling it along with tobacco and other specialty items.
In 1955, Fred stopped making candy and began selling housewares, giftware and jewelry. He opened a catalog showroom three years later – one of the first in the country – and eventually added sporting goods, cameras, radios, leather, luggage and toys.
Andy took a different route to retail. He got an accounting degree, a suit and tie, and a job with Ernst & Young. Five years later he was back at the store, putting his adding machine to good use. It meant a pay cut, which he gladly accepted.
By the 1990s, the retail warehouse/showroom format had gone out of style. Fred sold the business, which included nine locations. That’s when Andy took over. In 1994 he bought a teacher-supply store in Memphis, which became Knowledge Tree. In 25 years it’s become a retail standout with five locations in Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas, and 56 employees. Andy gets “all As” for his stores’ wide selection of teacher supplies, classroom decoratives, office and art supplies, paper, instructional materials and school furniture.
But to the people it serves, Knowledge Tree is more than a store. Andy’s mission is do whatever he can to get the best teaching products into the hands of “the people who are making positive change in our world,” especially if their world needs help. He’s just living the lesson his father taught him: “Make your corner of the world a better place.”
Ed Dealer: What do you love most about being the owner of Knowledge Tree?
Andy Gattas: Honestly, I feel it’s an honor to serve the educators in our communities. I’m in contact with people who can effect change daily. They’re the nicest people with the best intentions, and I don’t think I could operate in a more congenial business environment. And I like retailing. We sell a lot of school furniture, and it’s a blast working with architects and educators to figure out the best solutions. Internet marketing and social media present a whole set of challenges that are both exciting and difficult. There’s always something to learn.
You sell online, and also from catalogs and at brick-and-mortar locations.
They all feed each other. Most of our business is in-store and then online. Our web business is growing exponentially, with a 60- to 70-percent increase in sales from our existing customer base, selling right here to people who already know us.
You have to have a website and an email-marketing plan, Facebook and other social media, along with the print catalog and brick-and-mortar. They’re all part of our brand identity and development. We look at all three as one, because that’s how customers view it.
How many different catalogs do you produce?
Since 1995, we have used Catalog Solutions to provide our customers with three different catalogs. We order 4,000 catalogs that feature all our products, 1,000 early-education catalogs, and 500 for furniture – at 440, 304 and 98 pages, respectively. We distribute them to the local schools at the beginning of the season, a couple of weeks later and again at the end of the school year when they have to spend the rest of their budget.
Plus you have five retail locations. Are they all the same size?
Our biggest store, in Memphis, is 12,500 square feet with a 30,000 square-foot warehouse attached to it. Next largest is 7,500 in Little Rock, and then 6,500 in Horn Lake, Mississippi. In the Memphis area, Germantown is 5,200 and Cordova is 3,600.
Do they all carry the same mix of products?
The mix is the same for all five stores, but the depth changes, especially for toys. Teacher supplies are very consistent, but “toys” is the one category that fluctuates, depending on the store’s market. We’ve expanded into toys more, and we’re looking to make Christmas another big selling season by using floor space to turn product during a time that has hasn’t been as busy for us.
We try to maintain the most popular items in our smaller stores.
What are your best sellers?
School, paper, and office and art supplies make up about 35 percent of sales. We have been targeting more parents buying school supplies for their children using pre-packed-supplies boxes. Furniture is 40 percent, and the rest is instructional materials.
When teachers come in, they want classroom decoratives. That’s a big category for us, especially designs from Teacher Created Resources. We sell more office supplies and paper products than anything, dollar- and unit-wise, because every business needs them. It may seem boring to sell them, because it’s not the cute colors and what everyone’s talking about, but if we didn’t, the rest of our business wouldn’t do as well.
In furniture, with the big shift to collaborative learning in the classroom, we’re selling more 21st-century, mobile and adjustable options. That’s a real positive part of our business. It’s amazing how much the school districts will spend now versus five years ago.
Where do you get ideas for new products to bring in?
We’ll attend the We Connect School Supply Conference in Orlando in November, and ECRM in February. We also go to a gift show in Atlanta, Toy Fair and ASTRA Marketplace, and occasionally to EDspaces. We also get new-product ideas from our sales reps – they’re really good sources of information. They’ve worked with us a while, so they know our business and what’s worth showing to us.
Social responsibility is very important to you. Tell me about your community support initiatives.
I’m on the board of Communities in Schools, a national organization that provides support for disadvantaged and at-risk youth, from elementary school to high school – everything from food and clothing to counseling. It’s a pretty big deal. These are kids who don’t have an equal footing. They can’t go to school if they don’t have clothes to wear.
I’ve solicited school supplies from vendors at all the tradeshows. I’ve asked them to give what they can and they all send me stuff. We add to it because kids always need extra school supplies and notebook paper, and then we take it to the schools for them. My employees love it – distributing the items is great for them. Plus, they know they’re working for an organization that’s working for the greater good.
About three years ago, Teacher Created Resources bought another publisher, and they were getting rid of stale products. The owner of TCR said we could take anything we wanted, and it was $1.4 million worth! We just had to pay shipping. So in December 2017, we set up a little pop-up shop for three months in the vacant space next door, and invited all the teachers in the inner-city schools to come for free supplies.
Last year, two other vendors gave the organization $1.1 million in products.
This year so far, we have only received about $10,000.
Many teachers in the Memphis area don’t have a budget for classroom supplies, and children’s families can’t afford them. There’s plenty of poverty here, and a lot of people are suffering. The city is stricken with racial problems and there’s a great disparity in wealth and income; inequity between the haves and have-nots.
When I was growing up, Danny Thomas often visited our home. He was also of Lebanese descent and he and my father were friends. In addition to being an actor and comedian he founded St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. That kind of giving didn’t seem unusual to me – I learned that it’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to help and contribute.
I believe now that you’re either part of the problem or the solution. So what can I do? I just do what I can. And I don’t think you can give your time, money or effort without getting more than you give.
How do you want local children, families and teachers to think of Knowledge Tree? What do you want them to appreciate most about it?
What really makes me the happiest is when I’m talking to a young teacher and she remembers coming into the store when she was a girl and playing teacher; loving all the materials she saw in the classroom. So many kids want to grow up and be teachers, and it’s great to see that as part of their childhood memories. I love that our brand is connected to that.
We’re a good citizen and a good company, serving good people doing good things. What greater legacy is there?