2 rival families unite, with Cooper's joining COS

The Cooper family's patriarch, George Cooper Jr., founded their office supply business during the Great Depression, so the family knows how to make hard choices in a hard economy. But after being a Chattanooga institution for 79 years, the choice to merge with a 69-year-old rival was difficult but necessary, family members said.

Skip Ireland, an owner of COS Business Products & Interiors, once known as Chattanooga Office Supply, said that his family and the Coopers have been traditional rivals ever since his grandfather started a competing office supply store in 1941 across the street from the Coopers'.

"There's always been a friendly competition with the Coopers," Mr. Ireland said. "I genuinely like these guys, and they bring several things to the table: a real passion for the business, a loyal customer base, used-furniture expertise and they know what it takes to be successful."

Other small office supply businesses fell by the wayside through the decades as big box retailers moved in, but COS and Cooper's entered their second and third generation, respectively, as the new millennium dawned. While the Coopers focused on building relationships through old-fashioned customer service, the Irelands embraced the digital age by harnessing the Internet for online ordering and other services, Mr. Ireland said.

"We were too young and stupid to know we should sell (our business), so my brother and I began to change the company from office supplies to business consulting," he said. "Most companies say, 'Here's our website; hope it works,' but we say 'Here's our website; here are your options.'"

The companies merged partly because the Coopers felt they needed an e-commerce boost to compete with the national chains, according to Charlie Cooper.

"I feel COS has more bullets in their holster, and I thought it was a great fit because we're both local, we both value service to our customers, and COS basically does the same thing we do, just on a larger level," Mr. Cooper said.

Before the completion of the merger, Mr. Cooper and his brother George checked with their customers to make sure they didn't have reservations about the plan.

"None of our customers weren't accepting of the merger; it's really nice to have a following," George Cooper said. "When we came in here, a couple of the COS salesmen told us they had tried to get some of our customers before, but they weren't able to get a single one."

The Cooper brothers learned about selling furniture from their now-retired mother, Betty.

"My mother was a very significant part of Cooper's Office Supply," George Cooper said. "She helped to grow the business while raising a family and teaching George and I about the business."

The Cooper brothers, with 72 years of experience between them, will Mr. Ireland and his brother Jim at COS' Riverside Drive location, while Cooper's former Cherry Street location will be used for storage until the building is sold.

COS by the numbers

* Years in business -- 69

* Active accounts -- more than 1,500

* Percent of online orders -- 72 percent

* Number of available products -- more than 40,000

* Number of employees -- 42

* Number of states currently doing business in -- 48

* Number of local charities supported -- 21

* Average length of service -- 11.2 years

* Number of layoffs during this recession -- 0

* Number of regional and national locations served -- 4,500

Source: COS Business Products & Interiors

Cooper's Office Supply timeline

1931 -- Founded in by George Cooper Jr. in Lovemans office building

1938 -- 717 Cherry St. building purchased, formerly Jimmy's Saloon

1955 -- Betty Cooper joins work force

1966 -- George A. Cooper joins family business

1972 -- 715 Cherry St. building purchased

1981 -- 50-year celebration

1983 -- Charlie Cooper joins business

1984 -- Betty Cooper retires

1991 -- George Cooper Jr. dies at age of 88, never retired

2002 -- 719 Cherry St. building purchased to expanded used furniture offerings

2010 -- Merged with COS

COS over the years

1941 -- Business founded by Henry H. Ireland Sr. as Chattanooga Office Supply

1960 -- Business purchased by Henry H. "Hudson" Ireland Jr.

1969 -- Business moved to 2622 Broad St.

1980 -- Business moved to 903 Creekside

1983 -- Business purchased by Skip, Jim and Tom Ireland

1999 -- Dalton Office Supply is added

2002 -- Business moves to 1548 Riverside Drive and changes name to COS Business Products & Interiors

2010 -- COS and Cooper's Office Supply merge