Two longtime stalwarts in business machines merge

It’s been more than 75 years since a Collins and a Hilyard shared space in the same building. But today, a caller to Hilyard’s Business Solutions is greeted with this: “Thank you for calling Hilyard’s, the new home of Collins Business Systems.”

It’s a new chapter in a story that began back before World War II, when company founders Paul Collins and Charles Hilyard were students at Wilmington High School. They’d each later return from that war to stake claims in the regional business equipment market of the day — Hilyard with typewriters and Collins with dictation equipment.

Last month, the two longtime Delaware companies finalized a plan where Hilyard’s purchased Collins Business Systems, and welcomed the company and its employees to its Newport-Gap Pike location.

“By merging our two companies we will be able to offer every possible necessity to our customers for their business needs, in both equipment and software technology,” said CEO Robert Hilyard, in a statement on the company’s website. “We are truly a one-stop shop for any business. The merger of Collins Business Systems, Inc. will enhance our ability to fully cover the products needed by our customers.”

Both companies have been longtime players in the business systems market: CEO John Collins built a business in sales and service of business phone systems, while Hilyard focused on business equipment, IT network services, document and print management. Occasionally, they’ve even referred business to one another.

Under the merger, all 11 of Collins’ employees have been hired by Hilyard’s, adding to their staff of 31. John Collins has also stayed on. Employees will all be cross-trained to leverage maximum services for customers of both companies, according to Hilyard.

“You don’t just have two family businesses,” said Collins. “You have a common philosophy and reputations for providing great customer services.”

For both companies, that reputation began more than 50 years ago. Collins’ father was the first employee of Gray Audograph Agency, when he was hired in 1948 to sell dictation equipment, according to John Collins. He bought the company in 1965, and John joined the company in 1977. They later changed the name to Collins Business Systems and by the late 1990s streamlined their business to focus on telephone systems.

“At one point, we had 20 employees,” Collins said. Many had 20-plus years at the company. But with no family to take over the business and the sudden death of his manager, Collins said he wondered about the future of his employees.

“It was the choice of finding a good general manager fast or a good merger fast,” said Collins, who added that he did not have a “burning desire” to leave or walk away from the company.

Meanwhile, Rob Hilyard and his wife, Susan, have two sons involved in the business. When he heard that John was looking to sell, he said the opportunity to expand their offerings was a good move.

And for each company, the value of strategic growth has kept them alive.

Collins Business Systems moved from dictation equipment to word processors, then telephone systems, while Hilyard’s trajectory took them from typewriters and ribbons to mimeographs. They later added copiers and adding machines.

When Rob became president in the 1990s, the company expanded to IT and document management solutions.

Both say the firm leadership of their fathers — both 92 and still living — made an impact on their own leadership style.

“My dad was very controlling, but he helped me make the company better,” said Hilyard.
Collins said his father has a very disciplined and focused approach. “Do three or four things better than the competition — don’t be scattershot.”

“There’s a lot of integrity here,” said Hilyard. “We both care about the customer — not about the money.”

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