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WisBusiness: Monks Turn to Tech to Support Their Abbey

By Brian E. Clark

SPARTA – When monks from the Cistercian abbey near here were mulling over a proposal to build a golf course about five years ago, Father Bernard McCoy’s printer ran out of ink.

“I was stunned by what it cost to replace a printer cartridge,” said McCoy, whose official title at the monastery is director of temporal affairs. “I was also a bit perturbed that they wanted $40 for a cartridge.

“I thought, ‘how can a little bit of black dust cost that much?’” he recalled in a recent interview.

“And in doing a little research, I found out that it indeed did not cost that much, that the mark-up for some printer cartridges ranges from 500 to an incredible 3,000 percent.”

That minor annoyance lead to the creation of a growing enterprise – LaserMonks.com - that bargain-hunting consumers with a social conscience have made popular.

Moreover, it has given the eight monks who live at the rural monastery financial independence and the wherewithal to do good works from their corner of Wisconsin to farflung corners of the globe.

It also contributed to the demise of plans to build a Peter Dye-designed golf course on half of the 600 acres of rolling forestland and meadows that the abbey owns. The project would have cost $20 million.

Dye, a devout Catholic who designed the Kohler golf course at Whistling Straits, had even volunteered his services – which normally run about $1 million – for free to the monks.

But McCoy said he was never convinced the 18-hole course, which would have included a retreat and restaurant, would be a financial success.

Moreover, McCoy – who had run a fledging import-export business out of his dorm room as a college student – began to think that selling remanufactured and third-party printer cartridges might be a way to support the abbey.

Before the friars moved to near Sparta 16 years ago, they ran a guest house in Oconomowoc and sold cheese packs to support themselves.

“Most people don’t know that we are required to be financially independent,” said McCoy, whose order is more than 900 years old. “No one supports us, it is our mission to support others who are in need.

“Traditionally, monks practiced agriculture, though some abbeys in Europe are known for making beer or wine,” he said. And, in the days before printing presses, they also copied and illustrated bibles and hymnals.

Using his persuasive powers, McCoy got office supply vendors to give the abbey a significant break on the price of the printer cartridges he needed.

“They asked me if we really were monks,” he said. “I sensed that they were intrigued by us.

“And that made me wonder if we might be able to get these for other non-profits,” he said. “We were, so not long after that, we decided to sell to the public.

“It’s a multi-billion market, I figured there might be room for us along with the giants like OfficeMax, Staples, and Office Depot,” said McCoy, whose on-line enterprise was able to offer discounts of up 75 percent.

“With such huge mark-ups, we have a lot of leverage in the prices we can offer buyers,” he said.

Stephanie Jameson, who directs the Chef’s Gallery cooking school in Stillwater, Minn., said she has been ordering from LaserMonks for three years.

“I started right after I saw an article about them I the local paper,” said Jameson, a native of Hammond, Wis.

“It’s easy to order from them, their prices are good and they do good works,” she said. “For me, what could be better than buying from monks from Wisconsin?”

And from a business point of view, she said she hardly could pass up the opportunity to buy printer cartridges at a price $20 less than the nearby OfficeMax store.

“I was a little leery at first if they were for real,” she said. “But it’s been a good deal for us and I like contributing to good causes.”

In 2002, the LaserMonks first year in business, they sold $2,000 worth of remanufactured and third-party printer cartridges. In 2003, sales jumped to $150,000. The next year, after expanding to a wide array of office supplies, the figure was $2.4 million.

McCoy said sales should rise to between $4 and $5 million this year and climb to $10 million in 2006.

“We are just a drop in the bucket compared to the big boxes, but we are pleased to be doing so well,” explained McCoy, who said the abbey plans to add two wings and a church in the coming years.

“Clearly, our business model strikes a chord with some people who patronize us,” noted McCoy, who said the friars have no personal possessions and receive no pay for their labor.

“And it doesn’t hurt that we offer to pray for our customers,” he said.

“We actually have a button on our Web site for prayers, something that I think is therapeutic.

“Staples and Office Depot can’t offer that,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.

“But seriously, it is our tradition to receive every guest, every customer, as Christ himself. That, too, is part of our business model.”

McCoy, who also has the title of LaserMonks’ CEO, is quick to acknowledge that the abbey’s business has gotten an inordinate amount of good publicity.

“We do almost no advertising,” he said. “But we have had stories done on us by ABC, CNN, Reuters, the Associated Press, BBC and many other news organizations.

“We are unique, I believe, because our profits don’t go to executives who make millions,” he said. “They go to charitable works and that is different – and newsworthy.”

When LaserMonks was just getting off the ground, McCoy crossed paths with two women who were in the process of selling their own Colorado-based printer supply consulting company – Inky Dinky.

The pair, Sarah Caniglia and Cindy Griffith, agreed to come to Wisconsin to help the friars for a few months. They two clicked with the monks and have stayed to help run the abbey business.

“We had never worked with a charitable organization before, but we immediately fell I love with what they were doing,” said Caniglia, whose title is business development manager.

“A lot of companies talk about doing good works with their profits, but here it’s real,” she said. “And on top of that, our prices are better than the competitions.

“But the most important thing, and I mean this sincerely, that buying from LaserMonks makes people feel good because it’s going for good causes,” she said.

“This is not a sterile corporation, but our office supply list now covers 35,000 items, which is as big as the Office Max and staples,” she said.

“It would be my hope that as little as we are, perhaps our business model can influence other companies to do more good works, instead of just talking about it,” she said.

But just how does an abbey with nine monks – who rise at 4:30 a.m. every day - plus two consultants and three people who answer the phones run a business like LaserMonks?

The secret to their success, McCoy said, is that they outsource nearly everything. Which leaves them time to pray and chant nearly five hours a day from tall leather-bound books written in Latin and dating back hundreds of years.

“Initially, we shipped from here,” he said. “But outsourcing made sense. Why keep inventory when we don’t have to?

“We outsourced the fulfillment side of the business to wholesalers who have warehouses all over the country,” he said.

Though McCoy attends meetings and helps with the business planning, he said that even the daily operations of LaserMonks is outsourced to Griffith and Caniglia, whose company is called “Monkhelper Marketing.”

“I do strategies,” he said. “But Sarah and Cindy, who live in one of the house here on the abbey grounds, do everything else.”

And while the abbey is a non-profit, he is quick to point out that LaserMonks pays taxes on its profits.

“Some folks have argued that we don’t (pay taxes) and that is why we can beat their prices, but that’s not true,” McCoy said.

“We don’t have overhead and we have zero capital investment,” he said. “That, besides their huge mark-ups on a lot of things, is why we can beat them on price.”

The friar said LaserMonks first sold to religious-based institutions and parochial schools.

“It just grew from there,” he said. “We have used so- called ‘viral marketing.’ It spread by worth of mouth from people who dealt with us. That is the best kind of advertising there is.

“People said ‘what a wonderful idea,’ everyone should buy from you. We obviously, think that’s a great idea.”

McCoy said some of the profits from LaserMonks will be used to build a church on the monastery grounds and to add to wings to the abbey so more monks can live there.

“But it is our charitable works that we are most proud of,” he said. “They are three-fold, to take care of the body, mind and spirit.”

Donations have helped pay for medical supplies for western Wisconsin organizations. The monks also give money for scholarships and help support Camp Heartland in Minnesota, a program that gets children born with AIDS into the outdoors.

Abroad, they give money to a school for orphans and street kids in Hue, Vietnam that teaches, appropriately, computer skills.


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