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'Aiming' for the future, Arrow Electric Supply celebrates 40 years

When Arrow began in 1972, the Becker County Record (right) ran an article on its open house.1 / 2
Arrow Electric Supply owners Brian and Lisa Saunders (above) focus on serving local businesses, a tradition the company has had for 40 years.2 / 2

On April 20, 1972, the Becker County Record published a short article and some pictures about a new electric supply company in town.

Then-Mayor Kent Freeman was shown signing the guest book at the grand opening of the little company called "Arrow Electrical Supply."

"It doesn't seem like 40 years ago," said Ron Saunders, who along with a handful of other investors, started the company.

"I knew there wasn't anything like it in Detroit Lakes," said Saunders, who was a graduate student of engineering from the University of Minnesota.

Saunders says he specifically scoped out Detroit Lakes for this business venture, which he admits was a risky move.

"I worried about it every day for many years," he says from the office he still keeps at 960 10th Avenue S.E. "You had employees that had to feed families, and times could be tough -- there were some lean years, I'd have to admit it."

But perseverance, long hours and a continued faith in the business kept the small, local business open -- never getting too big or too small ... just slow and steady.

Over the years, Saunders acquired his partners' stock, eventually taking over the business as sole owner.

Arrow (which was reportedly named that simply because it was an "A" name that would be featured at the front of the phone book) distributed electrical supplies to local businesses and electrical contractors, and although the company has never been huge, it's been a mainstay.

As Saunders and his wife raised their family, Ron says the kids would pop in to help with minor jobs.

One of those "kids" now sits where his father once did -- at the head of the tip of the arrow.

Brian Saunders, who grew up in the business, took over the company in 1998 when he and his wife, Lisa, relocated from the Twin Cities to Detroit Lakes.

The couple says they take pride in not just being "the owners" but helping to make their business a success. And, they say, that means everybody pitches in wherever they are needed.

Although Brian is now technically "president," it's a title he doesn't often use, as he also takes pride in loading trucks, working with customers and dealing with some of the day-to-day issues that come up.

Lisa, who once worked as a food microbiologist, has traded in her telescope for a whole new world of business ownership.

"I work with the rebate program, and I also do the receiving, invoices, maintain the inventory ... stuff like that," she said, adding that she loves learning and loves the idea of helping this family-run business grow.

Arrow, which currently employs five people, isn't spectacular in appearance or in volume, but as it turns the big 4-0, those who've invested a big chunk of their lives into it are, if nothing else, thankful for that "slow-but-steady" course it's always been on.

Although they are forced to compete against million -- even billion dollar distribution companies in Fargo, Brian Saunders says the fact that Arrow is small can often be beneficial for them and their customers.

"We cater to the small electrical contractors," he said, "We work with them; we provide a service to them I don't think the big companies can provide because we can get them what they need faster. The small guy gets noticed."

Saunders also says he's proud of the fact that they tend to keep their employees for a long time -- even as times and technology change.

"I read somewhere once that 80 percent of what we sell didn't even exist 10 years ago," said Doug Fern, who has been a part of Arrow for 36 of its 40-year history.

"So it's been a learning curve, and it's going even faster than that now with LED and energy efficiency," Fern said.

But even as technology speeds forward and the small team of professionals at Arrow race to stay on top of the game, at least one of them has now gotten to slow down.

Ron Saunders may still be seen sitting in his back office now and then -- calling on just a few old clients, but the golf clubs that hang above his desk are now getting far more use than anything.

An entrepreneur of 40 years ago, the elder Saunders now gets the reward of sitting back and watching his son pick up where he left off.

"It's a source of pride when a family member can take over a business that you started and succeeded with and then watch them grow with the business," he said, "yeah, it's been good, but those 40 years sure went fast."