Jennifer Smith was an empathetic, creative business owner who shared credit for success, colleagues said.
"Relationships mattered to her," said her husband, Brooks, chief financial officer of the company Smith started, Burnsville-based Innovative Office Solutions. "It was never a win at all costs for her. It had to be a win-win, for a customer, a vendor or an employee."
Smith, 56, died Dec. 3 of complications from leukemia.
Smith started her career as a shoe buyer at Dayton's after college. Launching Innovative in 2001, she went on to expand the company from an office supplies business to include furnishings and services, and from 20 employees to 350.
Julie Owen, Innovative's chief operating officer, recalled an informational interview with Smith in 2013 when Owen was leaving Best Buy after 20 years.
"I was attracted to her infectious spirit," Owen said. "She was a leader I felt I could get behind. She wanted [success] with integrity. Since her death, it's been amazing to hear from employees, honoring her legacy, and taking the core values she instilled … and saying we'll continue on. That's what she would want."
Smith was born to small-business owners of Town & Country Office Products in Northfield. After her mother became ill, she joined her father's side in 1994. The business grew.
In 1997, Smith sold Town & Country to industry consolidator U.S. Office Products in a stock deal. However, U.S. Office's debt-fueled consolidation strategy failed, and Smith lost much of her sale proceeds. In 2001, Smith and a partner started Burnsville-based Innovative.
Smith focused on product diversification and customer services.
"I've managed to grow every year," she said in a 2016 interview. "We had to branch into other categories, including office furniture and furnishings. Not just paper, but toner. And other products and services."
Smith used to joke about good luck. Associates credited her with being a great employer who attracted and retained good people who advanced as Innovative prospered.
Her husband, a tax lawyer early in his career, worked the details behind acquisitions. Smith was the integrator who made things work with an inviting style.
"We were doing an acquisition in Sioux Falls, and Jennifer learned an employee was leaving," Brooks Smith said. "Jennifer talked to him for an hour. That man is still with us."
Marketing director Bridget Smith was recruited by Jennifer Smith at a college career day in 2014. She eventually married her boss' son, Max, who also works at Innovative.
"Jennifer loved imagination and new ideas," Smith's daughter-in-law said. "She wanted us to help reinvent Innovative. And she instilled a guiding principle of relationships matter.''
Smith, treated for acute myeloid leukemia at City of Hope cancer center in Los Angeles, raised more than $1 million for leukemia research in the weeks before her death.
Besides her husband, two children and grandchildren, Smith is survived by her father and a brother. A visitation followed by a celebration of life is scheduled at 2 p.m. Jan. 5 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.