The strange origin of Staples’ big deal

June 18, 2008, 12:18 AM UTC

It looks like Staples’ (SPLS) decision to buy Corporate Express for some $4.7 billion is a smart one. Wall Street has applauded this deal. Gary Balter, who follows hardline retailers for Credit Suisse, notes that with the acquisition, Staples will dwarf other office supply distributors. It’ll have $27 billion in annual revenues vs. Office Depot’s $16 billion.

Betcha don’t know Corporate Express—beyond the label on the office-supply boxes in your hallway. I do. In my 24 years at Fortune, one of my most memorable interviews was with Jirka Rysavy, the founder of Corporate Express, for a 1998 story about bosses with remarkable houses. Rysavy, a native Czech who came to the U.S. in 1984, modeled his stationery-product startup after Wal-Mart. (Sell cheap!). He lived in a tiny cabin deep in the woods above Boulder, Colorado. (Live cheap!).

Even when he was CEO of Corporate Express, then a $4.5 billion company with 27,500 employees, Rysavy had no indoor plumbing—only an outhouse. (Trust me, I used it.) He invited me to stay for dinner—vegetarian food cooked with sticks over an open fire. I passed, politely. I remember him telling me that he liked to stay at the Four Seasons hotel whenever he came to New York—good gym, he said. He was once a champion hurdler in his native Czechoslovakia.

So whatever happened to Rysavy? After selling Corporate Express to Buhrmann, a Dutch company, he started Gaiam (GAIA) in 1998. This is a new-age media company and retailer that sells sustainable products for healthy living. Rysavy is doing just fine. Gaiam posted $262.9 million in revenues last year. Rysavy read the market right once before, and now he seems to be doing it again.

P.S. I wonder, does Risavy still live in the cabin in the woods? Jirka, please give me a ring and let me know. You have my number.