Who But? Leo Meehan

By Tracey Palmer | photos by Nicki Pardo

Leo J. Meehan III ’75 got into sales because of a car. A Thunderbird, to be exact. Specifically the one owned by Joseph Flanagan ’65, the salesman he lived next door to as a kid. Back then, Meehan set his sights on a job in sales that would allow him to buy his own dream car.

And that’s just what he did. Only Meehan didn’t expect what happened next. Almost no one did.  But let’s start at the beginning.

Meehan grew up one of seven children in the Squantum neighborhood of Quincy, a Boy Scout who loved baseball, chess and plastic green army men. His mother and his father, a U.S. public health inspector at Logan International Airport, believed in education and encouraged their young son to work and save for college. Meehan’s first job was as a paperboy, delivering the Boston Globe and Patriot Ledger. “It was the best job I ever had,” he recalls. “I loved my paper route.”

With his earnings, Meehan bought baseball cards and saved the rest. After graduating from Boston College High School, he enrolled at Stonehill—again, following the path of his neighbor Flanagan—as an economics major.

With his father’s connections, he got a job loading luggage at Logan Airport to pay his tuition. “Back in the day,” Meehan says with a mischievous grin, “we used to jump the fence to get onto the runway for work.”

Meehan’s the first to admit that school was not his immediate interest and that he didn’t win any academic accolades at Stonehill. But as a young man, he never lost sight of his ultimate goal—to become a commissioned salesman and buy that dream car. “I didn’t really apply myself in college,” he says. “I was there to get through that four-year process to be in business and do what I wanted to do.”

“We both found school difficult,” says Brian Gaffney ’75, Meehan’s best friend and college roommate. Gaffney and Meehan met standing around at a freshman dance and immediately bonded. “We both had to work to pay for college, we both became bouncers at Brother Mike’s, and neither of us could afford to go away on spring break,” Gaffney recalls. “We had to work harder than most.”

Meehan might not have been a serious scholar, but Gaffney remembers him as a highly competitive, high-intensity guy with single-minded focus, especially when it came to football and guitar. Even though Meehan had never played football prior to college, he played for Stonehill during the football program’s early club days. (Later on, in 2015, in recognition of his contributions to Stonehill athletics, he would be inducted into the College’s Athletic Hall of Fame.)

But it was music that captured Meehan’s imagination. “Playing guitar and singing with my friends were the best times I ever had at school,” he says. Gaffney jokes about those days: “He got us all into guitar, whether we liked it or not. He got out the guitars, tuned them, handed them to us and told us what to play.” To this day, every night after work, Meehan can be found at home playing and writing songs. “My favorite place is alone with my guitar,” he says.

Gaffney, who went on to become CEO of Allianz Global Investors, describes his longtime friend as authentic, trustworthy and underestimated. “He’s got a quiet brilliance that’s not readily visible, but he’s always been able to see the bigger picture and recognize his own abilities when others didn’t. But,” Gaffney adds, “if there was a vote in college to pick the two people least likely to succeed in life, it would have been a horse race between me and Leo.”

Back in 1975, it seems many job recruiters agreed. As a senior, Meehan interviewed with most of the companies that visited campus. He didn’t get a single job offer. He was lying in his backyard one day when the phone rang. It was Rev. Lawrence Olszewski, C.S.C. ’61, his career counselor at Stonehill. Meehan recalls Fr. Olszewski saying, “I have a lead on a job in Brockton for an office supply company that, frankly, is tiny. Do you want an interview?”

The rest, as they say, is history.

W.B. Mason

William Betts Mason founded a rubber stamp and stencil company in 1898. From humble beginnings in a small warehouse in Brockton, W.B. Mason has grown into the second largest privately owned office products dealer in the United States, with over 70 locations across the country. When Meehan started as a salesman in 1975, the company had two delivery trucks, employed 14 people and had annual sales of $900,000 a year. Now, it has more than 1,000 trucks, employs more than 4,000 and has projected sales just shy of $2 billion. Today, W.B. Mason is the fourth largest office products dealer in the world.

Within a month of starting with the company, Meehan began handling Stonehill as a client. At the time, neither he nor the College probably imagined their partnership would last more than 40 years. “I’ve never really left Stonehill,” Meehan jokes. “This place is like Hotel California. You can check out, but you can never leave!”

Shortly after college, having achieved his goals of becoming a commissioned salesman and buying his dream machine, Meehan thought he had it made. But not all of his friends and former classmates were impressed. “I had the worst time at my first homecoming after graduation,” he recalls. “People would say, ‘You went to college, and now you sell pencils?’” Meehan smiles knowingly. “Now, I say, ‘I sell a LOT of pencils!’”

Meehan was the first college graduate and Stonehill graduate to work at W.B. Mason. As soon as he was in a position to do so, he began hiring Stonehill students as interns and employees. Today, the company employs over 120 alumni, all of whom know that Meehan encourages them to give back to their alma mater. “Our company has been incredibly successful,” Meehan says, “and I attribute much of our success to the caliber of employee we pull out of Stonehill. I’m a firm believer in giving back to the place that builds your foundation.”

Meehan’s rise at W.B. Mason was meteoric. The company named him as vice president of marketing in 1979. He was 26. In 1983, he was made a partner and by 1987, he was responsible for day-to-day operations and strategic planning. In 1994, he became president and CEO. One of Meehan’s most notable successes was the rebranding of the company. Partnering with advertising savant Paul Steven Stone, the pair introduced the iconic slogan, “Who But W. B. Mason.” The slogan, later combined with circus-like, old-fashioned lettering and a portrait of the company’s founder, became instantly recognizable. Thanks to Meehan, W.B. Mason was the first company to place an ad on the legendary Green Monster, ending the Boston Red Sox’s 50-year moratorium on advertising on its leftfield wall. Meehan also placed ads in several other ballparks. The company was the major donor for Stonehill’s W.B. Mason Stadium, which opened in 2005.

In an industry with slim margins and stiff competition from the likes of office supply retail giants Office Max, Office Depot and Staples, Meehan has managed to steadily increase W.B. Mason’s market share and profits. Whenever the economy slumped and competitors started to close stores and lay off staff, Meehan made his move. Because W.B. Mason didn’t have the retail locations and overhead of its rivals, he was able to keep salespeople, amp up customer service and add delivery trucks.

“In the ’90s, it dawned on me that our core strength is not office supplies; it’s that we deliver them. We’re a delivery company that sells office supplies,” Meehan says. “Everyone’s prices are about the same, the products are the same, but our delivery and service are better. It’s customized, more complete, more personal. This is why people love our service.”

W.B. Mason’s customer satisfaction scores are off the charts, boasts Meehan, better than Amazon’s and Apple’s. “Our customers love us,” he says proudly, but he’s quick to share credit with his partners, brothers Steve and John Greene. “We’re almost like three brothers,” Meehan says. “We really like each other, but we’re all very different, with different yet complementary strengths.”

Meehan’s strength is his ability to see the big picture and act on it. He doesn’t try to copy what others are doing, and he isn’t afraid to try innovative things. In 1997, when Meehan introduced same day delivery, his staff thought he was crazy. “Why are you doing this to us? No one is asking for it,” they said. Turns out Meehan was ahead of the curve, instituting something Amazon has been trying to accomplish for years.

Thanks to Meehan’s foresight, W.B. Mason isn’t just an office supply business any more. Ten years ago, it expanded into janitorial and facilities products, break room goods, coffee, water, food service items and shipping supplies. Just this spring, the company rolled out its first four electric delivery trucks.

“For centuries, paper has been the centerpiece of our business,” says Meehan. “All our supplies are created to manage paper—paper clips, pencils, folders, file cabinets, staples, binders—and paper is going away. I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to do in an industry that’s being wiped out.”

Family, Friends, Stonehill

Meehan is an astute businessman, but at heart he’s a family man, always has been. “Mason is number one,” he says, “until my family calls.” That tight-knit family is made up of his wife, Sara, known as Gigi, an accomplished high school tennis coach; his daughter, Sally, a New York City actress; and his son, Tucker, who plans to join his father at W.B. Mason after graduating from Colby College. He’s also very loyal to his friends and anyone who needs his help, says Gaffney: “He puts 110 percent into the people he believes in.”

Meehan’s office is unusual. It’s more like a family den than a work space, with upholstered couches and chairs, an Oriental rug, a gas fireplace and built-in bookshelves full of mementos and memorabilia. There are family photos, framed art from his favorite W.B. Mason ads and a sketch of a young Meehan, with flowing Don Henley hair, playing his guitar. On a doorknob in the corner hangs a worn Boston Globe shoulder bag with a once-bright orange strap. One thing missing from Meehan’s office is a computer. He doesn’t own one. And he doesn’t use email. He doesn’t mind texting, but what Meehan would rather do is talk—on the phone, or better yet, in person.

Meehan, W.B. Mason and Stonehill have developed a deep and lasting relationship. Meehan joined Stonehill’s Board of Trustees in 2002 and was a member of the College’s President’s Council for many years. As a Board member, he was surprised to walk into a meeting one day to find his former counselor Fr. Olszewski, who was also a trustee.

Meehan, who has always done things his own way in business and in life, has had few regrets, but not saying thank you to Fr. Olszewski was one of them. After all, if it wasn’t for him setting up the interview with the “tiny” Brockton company—who knows? Of that chance meeting with Father, Meehan recalls, “We hadn’t seen each other in 35 years. He didn’t recognize me, but I finally got to say thank you.”

Leo J. Meehan School of Business

In June 2017, Meehan, his partners at W. B. Mason, Steven Greene (who received an honorary doctorate from Stonehill) and John Greene, and their company pledged $10 million to help fund construction of a $30 million business school—a fitting tribute to their enduring relationship. The Leo J. Meehan School of Business will change the face of Stonehill’s campus, offering cutting-edge technology and adaptive, modern classrooms and collaboration spaces. “This gift is a no-brainer,” Meehan says. “Stonehill is a great school for business. I know. I hire their graduates. They’re very good.”

Fellow trustee Marsha Moses ’75, says she wasn’t surprised by her classmate’s impressive donation. “It epitomizes Leo’s love of the College and his generosity,” she says. “It’s a perfect fit.” Moses, who is the director of the vascular biology program and runs a cancer research lab at Boston Children’s Hospital and holds an endowed professorship at Harvard Medical School, didn’t know Meehan well in college, but she has served on the College’s Board of Trustees with him for years. “Because of his casual appearance and his constant kidding around, people might underestimate him, but Leo’s the real deal. He’s honest, loyal and humble. A good guy and a straight shooter, with no hidden agenda. We can always count on Leo to ask the very basic, seminal question that most people do not think of asking. He gets the Board to think about what really matters.”

With construction underway, the new building, which will host accounting, finance, international business, management, marketing, economics and healthcare administration, will open for the 2019-2020 academic year. Maybe by then, Meehan will get used to the idea of having his name etched on the facade. “This is still so weird for me,” he says. “I don’t even know anybody who’s ever done this. If you asked each person on graduation day who would have a business school named after him, I would be the last person they’d name.”