Larry Flinn III ’77 strides through his company’s warehouse in Chicago’s western suburbs with the boastless confidence of someone who knows what it takes to build something from nothing.
The business administration major has gone from working in his parents’ basement 35 years ago to running the company that is now the preferred supplier of laboratory supplies and equipment to science teachers nationwide.
Today he is the chairman and principal owner of Flinn Scientific Inc., which sells essential teaching materials to almost every school district in the country. A single cart in the company’s warehouse holds orders from Lake Forest to Los Angeles, California; Boulder, Colorado; and Jericho, Vermont.
Flinn Scientific’s focus has always been on science education in middle and secondary schools. The company develops and repackages chemicals, designs and creates science experiments, and builds and distributes all the supplies and equipment a science teacher needs.
“A lot of people think a successful business is about the money. It’s not,” Flinn said. “The money thing is an after effect from everything else. What really drives us is being able to provide quality products and service to our customers. Science teachers and school teachers are the nicest people in the world. It’s an honor to be able to help them and serve them.”
Serving teachers has been a growing business for Flinn Scientific, which started with just three workers: Flinn and his parents. His brother, Patrick, joined the company as soon as the business could support a fourth partner. Today there are 170 employees at the 250,000-square-foot headquarters.
The company’s product and laboratory safety catalog, which began as a 24-page booklet, is now two catalogs with a combined 2,200 pages. More than 8,000 products are made and distributed in an operation that is a model of efficiency.
Success was built over decades through determination and hard work. The effort began in May 1977 when Flinn’s father, Lawrence Flinn Jr., proposed an idea that would change both their lives.
“The day I graduated from college, he said, ‘Larry, how would you like to start your own business?’” Flinn said. He planned on selling real estate in Batavia, the suburb where Flinn Scientific is based, when his dad posed the question. At that time his father was a vice president for a very large laboratory supply company.
“He always felt that the school teacher was treated as a second-class citizen,” Flinn said. “So as a result he had the vision to start a business where we only focus on teachers and the needs of teachers. And by golly he put everything he owned at risk. His home, his pension, and we borrowed a lot of money and we went to work.”
Things started slowly.
“My dad had these grandiose ideas, and the first year every plan that he had bottomed out,” Flinn said. “It just wasn’t working. Rather than giving up, we just stuck to it. What I mean by that is we went and got night jobs.”
Yes, the high-priced executive and his college graduate son went to work at local factories: the elder Flinn as a janitor and the younger one as a food products labeler. They would work all day at Flinn Scientific and then work until midnight at their factory jobs.
They traveled often, leaving Flinn’s mother, Margaret, to answer phones and handle orders at the company’s then modest headquarters.
“Believe it or not, the company was started in my dad’s basement,” Flinn said. “A couple of old, used file cabinets, some doors we had stained that were the tabletops, and a couple of phones. And that was it.”
After 13 months, they quit their night jobs and moved the company into a 6,000-square-foot warehouse. But things remained bleak for the next five years.
“There were plenty of nights where I didn’t know where the payroll was coming from,” Flinn said. “I didn’t. There were plenty of times where I didn’t know how I was going to pay tomorrow’s bills.
“Those were the tough years. Today you think, oh, the rent payment was $600. I’ve got news for you, that rent payment might as well have been a million dollars some months. It was just so difficult to make.”
And yet Flinn and his family never wavered from their passion.
“I think a lot of small-business people don’t have focus about what they want to do,” Flinn said. “They try to be all things to a lot of people, and as a result they fail. That’s sad because they put their life savings at risk.”
Flinn also credits his wife for his ability to prevail. In 1979 he married Laurel (Stanard) ’79, whom he had met at Illinois State. She was their breadwinner in the early going. She taught middle school in DeKalb during the school year and worked for free at Flinn Scientific during the summer.
Later she raised their children—Kelley, Bryan, and Kevin—at times singlehandedly while Flinn spent a third of the year on the road for work. Today all three are successful young adults.
“She had it covered the entire way,” Flinn said. “And she’s doing all this and yet she never once complained. What woman in her right mind is going to get married and say, ‘Look, you don’t need to make a salary for five years. You go and do your thing.’ You don’t meet many people like that.”
The company’s prospects did not brighten until the early 1980s when Flinn’s father developed ways for teachers to safely handle, store, and dispose of chemicals.
Over the years, the company expanded. Flinn Scientific moved into a 16,000-square-foot facility and then a 70,000-square-foot building. About 15 years ago the company bought the land where its headquarters now sits and built a warehouse that was eventually doubled.
But in 1991, with the business starting to grow, tragedy struck.
Flinn’s father, then 61, and his mother were about to take a rare vacation to a home they had just bought in Florida. “The night before he was going to go on vacation, he died of a stroke,” Flinn said. “He went to get his briefcase from the office and he didn’t come back.”
His father, to this day, continues to inspire Flinn. They had spent years working together, traveling together, building a company together.
“I got to be his best friend; he got to be my best friend,” Flinn said. “While it was a tremendous personal loss, he had done such a good job of training myself and my brother, Pat, that we were able to continue the business without losing a step.”
Flinn and his brother grew their customer base by working 80–90 hours per week and by reaching out to teachers. Flinn traveled all over the country personally training teachers on laboratory safety and holding demonstrations, while Pat managed the operational side of the business.
The brothers formed a foundation that for more than 10 years held teacher-training workshops at 90 universities. Later the company built a film studio where Flinn produces teacher-training videos that are posted on the company’s website and form the basis of several graduate-level courses used by Illinois State University.
That commitment to teachers was what led Illinois State Chemistry Education Professor William Hunter to nominate Flinn for the College of Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame in 2009.
“They have a reputation for being the most teacher friendly supply company,” Hunter said. “Teachers trust them. Teachers rely on them.”
Others do as well. Flinn, now 57, has formed a foundation in his wife’s honor that donates more than $100,000 a year to charities. Praise continues to accumulate, as Flinn Scientific has received awards from teacher associations across the country.
But the highest compliment Flinn can receive is for teachers to say his company was their teaching partner. If the company keeps receiving those accolades, he knows he has nothing to worry about.
“Look, I’m a pretty religious person,” Flinn said. “I know that God is going to take care of me no matter what and have a hand in whatever happens. As a result I never worried about failing. I just knew that we needed to keep pressing forward, keep talking to teachers, keep helping customers, keep providing them solutions to their issues. I knew if we kept doing all those things, we would come out on top.”