Columbia Hobby Distribution experiencing explosive growth

Vancouver-based distributor carries the largest inventory of hobby supplies on the West Coast

Stephen Tingwall

Baseball cards Who wouldn’t want to turn their hobby into a hefty paycheck? That is exactly what Stephen Tingwall, CEO at Columbia Hobby Distribution, did.

In 2004, Tingwall started selling hobby collection supplies on eBay. These supplies include storage boxes and display cases for collectibles such as coins, stamps, comics, trading cards and autographed baseballs or football helmets.

“The company started out as a hobby to make money on the side and have a little fun with,” said Tingwall, “but it kind of exploded.”

After talking with his wife, Tingwall decided to see if he could make the company viable. She agreed to go back to work for a year to give him that chance.

“Without the support of my wife this couldn’t have happened,” asserted Tingwall. He also credits the owner of the now-closed Vancouver sports card store, Bat Cave, with giving him the idea for the company.

The ensuing ten years have seen marked growth at Columbia Hobby. From a few items on eBay, the company now carries the largest inventory of hobby supplies on the West Coast. In 2008, Tingwall opened a retail outlet because customers wanted to get supplies locally. Originally, the retail outlet was in Hazel Dell, but this past May Tingwall moved it to the Eastridge Business Park to be closer to his warehouse. The retail store, which Tingwall stated was the “only sports card store on this side of the river,” sells comic books, gaming products, niche board games, trading cards, as well as storage supplies.

Photo of store insideIn 2011, the company added a wholesale division that serves Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington. In 2010, company revenues were $562,000; by 2013, that figure had grown to $2.7 million (a three-year growth rate of 383 percent). In 2014, the company ranked 1,147 on the Inc. 5000 list, coming in at #17 in the Portland metro area and #24 in the state of Washington.

Columbia Hobby started 2014 with seven employees; it now employs 10 people, and Tingwall expects to add two more employees before the end of the year. Along with growing his employee base, Tingwall has also expanded his facilities. In June of this year, he transitioned his warehouse from a 6,000 square-foot space with no truck docks to a 15,000 square-foot warehouse with five truck docks. He said the company typically receives about 3,000 orders per week.

“Eventually we will go nationwide with our wholesale,” said Tingwall, “but we don’t want to grow too quickly because you have only one chance to make a good first impression. We want to do a good job the first time.”

Tingwall said that he is in the process of replacing his order fulfillment system, and making changes to other backend systems to accommodate the company’s rapid growth. He is also about to launch a new retail website. Currently, he said, website orders have accounted for about 10 percent of the firm’s business. He expects that the redesigned site may drive that to 40 percent.

Although Tingwall couldn’t predict what his business might be like in five years, due the dynamic nature of both the collectibles industry and technology, he did say that a common thread would be to bring in the “right people” that can contribute to the company’s continued growth.

“We’ve got people here that like what they do, and they work hard, and that’s the reason the business has done as well as it has,” he said. “There are a lot of good ideas in this building and I try to listen to as many of them as I can.”

Jodie Gilmore
Jodie Gilmore’s journalistic background includes more than 15 years of writing for the Vancouver Business Journal as well as other publications such as Northwest Women’s Journal, North Bank Magazine, American Builders Quarterly and The New American. A Master’s in Technical & Professional Writing and 20+ years in the trenches as a technical writer and online help developer round out her writing background. When not writing, she enjoys gardening and working on her small farm in the Cascade foothills.