BY WILLIAM F. WEST
Staff Writer for the Rocky Mount Telegram
People driving in the 2500 block of North Church Street and wondering what COECO is may be unaware that it is the headquarters of a business that has been serving customers for 100 years.
Not only that, but COECO, which stands for Carolina Office Equipment Co., is also a fourth-generation family business presently selling and servicing office equipment, with Chuck Robbins the chairman and CEO.
Chuck Robbins’ late grandfather Grover Robbins established Carolina Office Equipment downtown and began selling office equipment, office furniture and office supplies. Grover Robbins also began operating a printing business.
“He was a banker turned businessman and saw a need — and he obviously turned out to be a very good businessman,” Chuck Robbins told the Telegram of Grover Robbins.
According to past reports in the Telegram, Grover Robbins had been a cashier at what was First National Bank of Rocky Mount before leaving and opening Carolina Office Equipment in 1921.
The business was first located in downtown’s Five Points area. The business remained downtown but in 1924 relocated to the 100 block of Southwest Main Street before relocating in 1929 to the 100 block of Southeast Main Street.
Grover Robbins’ son Austin Robbins started at the business in 1942, the year before his father died at the age of 53. Austin Robbins would go on to run the business.
By 1970, the headquarters was relocated to what was a large new building in the 2500 block of North Church. During the 1970s, Austin Robbins would be joined in the operation by Chuck Robbins’ brother Bill Robbins and by Chuck Robbins.
Austin Robbins, Bill Robbins and Chuck Robbins worked as a father and two sons team. “And that was a period of time where we experienced the greatest growth because we had three of
us working together and were able to grow the business quite a bit,” Chuck Robbins told the Telegram.
“Everything I know about the business I learned from my dad,” he said.
Austin Robbins also received the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, which is the highest award by the Office of the Governor for service to the Tar Heel State.
Austin Robbins lived until 1995. Bill Robbins lived until 2011.
Chuck Robbins, while being interviewed by the Telegram, noted he was sitting in what had been his father’s office and behind what had been his father’s desk.
During the 1990s, COECO sold the office furniture and office supplies parts of the operation to what was U.S. Office Products.
COECO today focuses on the office equipment part of the operation, namely by offering an extensive list of copiers and printers for sale.
COECO has grown through the years to have locations today in Greenville; Wilmington; Raleigh; Greensboro; Charlottesville, Va.; Richmond, Va.; Virginia Beach, Va.; Charleston, S.C.; and Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Asked why he believes the business has been able to operate for so long, Chuck Robbins said, “Because we’ve been able to change with the times.”
“As things have changed and evolved, we’ve always got something new to sell because with technology, there’s always a new product coming out,” he said. “And we’re a sales and service organization. We sell it, then we service it.
“Service is a big part of helping us maintain our customer base,” he said.
He emphasized the business is defined by operating and selling with integrity, tradition and quality.
When customers want to do business with COECO, they do not have to deal with a faraway headquarters, a board of directors or corporate guidelines.
One of Chuck Robbins’ sons, Austin Robbins III, is a COECO executive vice president who is a hands-on operator.
Austin Robbins III told the Telegram that although he is stationed in Raleigh, “I typically come over here every two weeks.”
Austin Robbins III said he had as a younger person been running about the warehouse of the headquarters off North Church since he was born.
He quipped, “I like to tell people I was born with toner in my blood.”
“Being fourth generation, we have a great story to tell,” he said. “And when I’m in front of our customers, I love to tell that story because I’m a part of it.”
Austin Robbins III acknowledged he is asked all the time whether he will be the chief of COECO someday.
He made clear his response is the same: He is going to worry about the future another day.
“I have a day-to-day job that I have to take care of,” he said. “And that’s what I focus on. I focus on day to day, one day at a time— and doing the best job I can.”
Chuck Robbins also emphasized to the Telegram that Austin Robbins III is not the only family member involved in the operation of COECO.
Chuck Robbins’ daughter Walker Coleman worked for about a decade in marketing in New York City and she is presently operating in Charlottesville as COECO’s director of marketing. Another one of Chuck Robbins’ sons, Irby Robbins, works as a COECO sales manager in Charleston.
Tom Betts, who is retired from the insurance business, told the Telegram he believes family is the keyword as to why COECO has been in business for a century.
“I’ve dealt with them for over 50 years — and they’ve always been fair and they’ve always been prompt,” Betts said. “They have grown into a huge company for their particular area.
“And I think the reason for their growth is, in spite of the fact that they’re so large, they still treat everybody like they did when they were so small,” Betts said. “They have never gotten too big for their britches.”
Rocky Mount Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO David Farris commented to the Telegram about COECO in the context of the business having gone from the days of selling ledger books to evolving into a technology-oriented business.
“Chuck and his team have done an amazing job of keeping up with a changing office environment and always being on top — and they have enjoyed a sterling reputation for a century,”Farris said. “And there are not many businesses that do that.
“They’re not complacent,” Farris said. “They’re always looking for how to improve — and that has been their hallmark.”