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Alumni Spotlight

Business Behind Bars

It was a business proposition that would change the life of Stewart R. Walkenhorst. A colleague was closing up shop and asked if Walkenhorst would be interested in taking over some outstanding retail orders.

Stewart R. Walkenhorst

What made those orders unique was where they were headed—to inmates at nearby prisons. Walkenhorst listened, deliberated, and finally agreed. That decision in 1984 put Walkenhorst’s—a company that Walkenhorst owns with his brother,

Dan—on course to become a major supplier for the US prison population.

At first “it wasn’t actually a business,” remembers Walkenhorst. “If we hadn’t had a retail store to draw goods from, it wouldn’t have survived.” But the brothers persevered. They corresponded with correctional officers to learn about requirements for items shipped to inmates. They talked to inmates to learn which items they were interested in receiving. Sales took off as the brothers listened to their customers, and by 1995 the mail-order business was bringing in enough money that they closed their retail store.

Today, Walkenhorst’s employs nearly 200 people and has contracts with prisons across the United States. From warehouses in Sparks, Nevada, and in Cincinnati, the company supplies incarcerated individuals with snack foods, electronics, clothing, shoes, and health and beauty aids of all kinds. And the company has built a solid reputation among facilities, inmates, and inmates’ families.

Walkenhorst had his first experience in retail when he was a teenager in Napa, California. His father opened a gift store in 1965 after retiring from the US Air Force, and Walkenhorst worked there on weekends and after school. “I always liked it,” Walkenhorst says. “I enjoyed waiting on customers and being the gofer.”

The 6-foot-11 Walkenhorst was also a standout center at Napa High School, and he went to BYU on a basketball scholarship. “Basketball was fun,” Walkenhorst explains, “but my primary goal was that I was going to use it to get an education—and I was going to finish in four years because I didn’t know how I was going to pay for it otherwise.”

After graduating in business management in 1976, Walkenhorst didn’t hesitate to return to the family business. He liked being his own boss, and he liked working with family. When their parents retired, Walkenhorst and his brother took over the store, building a strong partnership based on common values and respect for one another. When they had differences of opinion, “we learned to pick and choose our fights,” says Walkenhorst, “and we learned to back off when we knew the other felt strongly about something.” That connection has carried on to the brothers’ descendants: Walkenhorst’s son and two sons-in-law now lead the business along with three of their cousins.

In 2013, Walkenhorst and his wife, Shannon, received a call to serve as mission leaders of the Oklahoma Oklahoma City Mission, where they had unforgettable experiences with their missionaries and local members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The assignment provided the perfect segue for the next generation to take over the family business. “I don’t know what it would have been like to transfer the business if I hadn’t been completely separated from it,” says Walkenhorst. “I think I might have held on to more than I needed to. It was good to get me out of the way so they could take it on and have to grow with it.”

Since returning from Oklahoma, Walkenhorst has been enjoying the slower pace of life in Sparks, where the business and the family moved in 2017. He gardens, serves in the Church, and works two to three hours a day, occasionally doing new product research. Though time has brought changes to Walkenhorst’s life, the legacy of listening continues. “There are other vendors that do what we do,” Walkenhorst says, “but we like to think we do it better. We keep growing because we take care of our customers.”

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