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As Seen On TV: Dunder Mifflin / WB Mason

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Pushing paper on television and in the real world.

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One reason why NBC's comedy The Office has achieved such broad appeal is because anyone who has ever worked in an office anywhere can relate to it. Whether it's the incompetent boss, the drab office park location, or the awkward forced fun at conference room birthday parties, the show helps us find humor in our own mundane workday annoyances while we laugh at its characters.

Of course, few offices are as comically dysfunctional as the one Michael Scott runs. His office is the Scranton, Pennsylvania, branch of Dunder Mifflin, a "micro-cap regional paper- and office-supply distributor with an emphasis on servicing small-business clients," according to the show's writers and the faux corporate website developed by NBC.

Headquartered in New York City, Dunder Mifflin trades under the ticker DMI and has six other branch offices in the Northeast. As American as it may seem, Dunder Mifflin was inspired by Wernham Hogg, the fictional paper company in the original British version of The Office that first aired on BBC in 2001.

But it turns out that there is something very close to a real life Dunder Mifflin here in the US: WB Mason. Founded in 1898 and serving the office supply needs of businesses in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, the privately held paper company is the "official office supplier" to the Boston Red Sox, the Philadelphia Phillies, and the New York Yankees. It's headquartered in Brockton, Massachusetts.

Both Dunder Mifflin and WB Mason have evolved from the companies their founding fathers originally imagined. Dunder Mifflin, according to a recent episode, was established in 1949 by Robert Dunder and Robert Mifflin as a supplier of metal brackets for industrial construction. Exactly how it blossomed into the paper company it is today is unknown. WB Mason was founded by William Betts Mason as a rubber stamp company to serve the burgeoning shoe industry in Brockton. Once corporate cubicles replaced cobblers as the primary place of work in the Brockton area, WB Mason evolved to meet its needs.

In a world where office supply giants like Staples (SPLS), Office Depot (ODP), and Office Max (OMX) offer scale and low prices that many smaller firms cannot, Dunder Mifflin and WB Mason are survivors. The current economic recession has not been kind to the industry that serves corporate America's in-office needs. Sales at the big box retailers have dropped by double digits this year. Dunder Mifflin has suffered layoffs and was recently forced to close its branches in Stamford, Camden, and Yonkers. Although it has no presence in Camden or Yonkers, WB Mason has managed to keep the doors open in its Stamford outpost. Even though Dunder is "publicly traded," WB Mason, with 930 employees and 22 offices, is much greater in size.

This summer has been especially hard on WB Mason, which paid $545,000 in June to settle claims by the Massachusetts Attorney General that the paper company used accounting processes that removed credits from some of its customer accounts. The firm changed its systems and said it "vigorously denied any wrongdoing and remains confident today that it handled all customer accounts properly."

In 2006, of course, Dunder's scrappy Scranton office had an accounting scare of its own. Angela Martin, the head of accounting and the most unlikely office seductress in all of corporate America, had trouble balancing the books and discovered that $3,000 was missing. After interrogating everyone from the boss to the warehouse manager, she begrudgingly admitted the error was hers.

But neither Dunder Mifflin nor WB Mason is likely to let a little accounting hiccup slow them down. Both companies have adapted as the paper market has evolved during the digital age. Although the promises of a paperless office have never been fully realized, corporate drones are using fewer and fewer reams of paper as email, online documents, and web-based conferences have become mainstream. Forced to move beyond just pulp-based products, both companies sell everything from office furniture to storage supplies to calendars.

And, in keeping up with changing times, corporate web sites for Dunder Mifflin and WB Mason now let customers place orders online, thereby reducing the use of paper on both ends of the transaction.

It's limitless paper in a paperless world.

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No positions in stocks mentioned.
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