If you happen to know my husband, you know he lives for a good deal. This is why every Saturday, without fail, we head to the gas station to grab a copy of the Evergreen Country Shopper. We’ve bought and sold more cars, sleds man cave toys than I’d like to admit via this Shopper. Sure, we love our Craigslist as well but in northwest Wisconsin, print is still king when it comes to selling your treasures. This past fall, I had an opportunity sit down with the man behind the Shopper and learn the rich history of the company and why he believes print will remain king when it comes to his shopper. It ran in the December issue of Business North. But in case you missed, it, here’s you go:
Ashland Wisconsin businessman Gary LaPean, 70 considers his day-to-day management of multiple businesses a way to stay young. He says he learned it from his business friend Don Moore who formally owned a business on Main Street Ashland.
“Even though he’s retired and his kids have taken over the business, he still goes in to work every day. He goes from morning to night and never seems to age. I’m modeling my life after this,” LaPean says.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Over 40-years ago, LaPean set a goal of owning his own business by the time he was 30. He dreamed of owning a radio station and was managing several Ashland stations at the time, along with some weekly shoppers out of Michigan.
Before he knew it he was 31 and he hadn’t reached his goal. It was at this point he knew he needed to act. “My first choice was to buy a radio station in Ashland but I needed to come up with a plan b if that didn’t work,” he says.
At the time, the Ashland market didn’t have a weekly shopper. “I saw potential there,” he explains. But, while he knew the finance side of a weekly shopper, he didn’t know the day-to-day side. To learn it, he drove to Waupaca, Wisconsin and spent some time learning the day-to-day operations of a shopper by the owner down there. Then, in the spring of 1974, he and his wife Kay launched the Evergreen Country Shopper.
“We worked 60-80 hours per week those first years,” LaPean says. “But we were young and could do it.” It wasn’t a walk in the park. “It was tough in the beginning. We were trying to build a brand and establish a reputations for ourselves.” It didn’t help when the daily paper in-town launched a shopper within their newspaper in response to LaPean’s product. But, it lasted less than a year. Meantime, LaPean has been in business for 39-years and counting.
Over the years, he’s grown his businesses to include owning multiple storefronts in Ashland, Printing Plus Screenline and additional shoppers.
The shoppers came first. Within a couple of years of launching Evergreen Country Shopper, LaPean added the North Country Sun out of Ironwood, Michigan and later the Park Falls Shopper to his portfolio. By owning all three, he could justify the purchase of his own web press that allows him to print his shoppers along with other papers as far away as Chicago. But, his bread and butter remain the weekly shoppers.
Today, the combined three shoppers reach about 40,000 homes in northwest Wisconsin. And, while most daily print newspapers are scrambling to find ways to make money on the web, LaPean says his business model is different.
The paper, which features items for sales and ads about upcoming events and deals in the region, is a good news alternative to what else is available in the market. But, it is also a cost-effective way for folks to reach a large audience.
“For less than $5, you can place a want ad that will reach 40,000 homes,” LaPean says. “Where else can you do that?” While online options like CragisList are free, LaPean says they don’t have the same effectiveness in northwest Wisconsin as his product does.
LaPean says his annual research shows that about 90% of those who receive the Shopper, read it and prefer to have a hard copy in hand. In the Ashland market, this equates to about 12,500 readers. “There is nothing with even half that distribution in our market,” LaPean says. When you add in the Ironwood and Park Falls distribution, that number grows even higher.
The paper can be found online, but not until Monday. This is in part because a large portion of LaPean’s revenue comes from the inserts within the shopper, such as the grocery store and big box store ads. The best way to view those is through the hard copy of the paper.
“Reading our product online is not a natural fit for us,” LaPean says. “We’re ready to evolve if the market demands but right now it isn’t our focus.”
They don’t see that changing in the immediate future. “Right now we are really good at what we do and we have a solid future ahead of us.”
In terms of succession plans, LaPean’s daughter and son-in-law left strong careers in the Pharmaceutical industry down in Texas to return home and work at the Shopper. While LaPean refuses to give up doing what he loves, he does say it provides some peace of mind for his employees. “They could run the place if needed. And, it assures that my long-time employees will have a place to retire.”
The paper is more than just a business to LaPean. As a good community steward, he shares some of his success by giving back to the community. He’s served on the Ashland County Board, Ashland’s Unified School District Board of Education, Ashland Airport Commission, Ashland Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors and the Northland College Board of Trustees.
He’s active within his church formerly serving on the church council. He enjoys theater and has starred in several area productions along with MC’ing dozens of local events. Throughout the years he’s been recognized as the JC of the Year, Elk of the Year, Ashland’s Outstanding Person of the Year along with the Evergreen Country Shopper being named Business of the Year. LaPean also brought smiles to hundreds of folks as a stilted clown for more than 40-years. He recently had to retire at this gig but says he plans to do an encore performance when he turns 75.
Back at the paper, he regularly donates ad space to regional nonprofits. He employs 46 people, 34 of which are currently full-time. In addition, there is a large network of delivery folks delivering the shopper door-to-door.
Ashland Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mary McPhetridge says the community is fortunate to have the LaPeans.
“They are committed to the success of the Ashland Area and have many vested interests both financially and socially. They are native to the Ashland area. They are a second generation company, with the possibility of grandchildren that may eventually run their business. In my opinion this is the definition of Hometown. They love this area and the people that live here and have made a commitment to stay for the long haul.”