‘Real savings, real monks, supporting real people’, as the company motto goes. We speak to Father Bernard McCoy, the CEO of God’s favourite office products supplier, LaserMonks
On the face of it, it would seem to be a rather unlikely story. But it is true, one of the fastest growing companies in the US is being run by a group of Cistercian monks.
From revenues of $2,000 when it was founded in 2002, to projected sales this year of $3 million, and rising, LaserMonks is a runaway success.
But forget any preconceptions you might have of monks, for the Cistercian monks behind LaserMonks are unlikely to fit them. Especially the driving force behind the company – airplane flying, scuba diving Father Bernard McCoy, the 37-year old steward of temporal affairs at the Cistercian Abbey in Springbank, near Sparta, Wisconsin, who doubles up as the company’s CEO.
Fr Bernard concedes that monks selling office supplies might not fit in with many people’s ideas of a monk, but he points to a 900-year tradition of innovation in the Cistercian order. "This is a typical misunderstanding," he says, "but monasteries have always been at the forefront of innovation. We have always been the ones developing the technology. It has only been the modern era, from the late 1800s on when science and business took on their own fortes within society.
"Before then it was always the monasteries that were the heads of the agricultural, the technical, the blacksmithing or whatever, because we had the resources and the dedicated time, the holy leisure, to come up with new ideas. So we are only really continuing with our tradition."
Fr Bernard does admit, however, that there were some raised eyebrows when his business idea was first presented. "Not so much from within our monastery," he recalls, "because we are only small and all of us are young and we knew we couldn’t in any way do a traditional support mechanism that was largely agricultural based.
"No one else was particularly tech savvy, but after the initial explanation we sat down and looked at the possibilities and everyone was very enthusiastic. But within the monastic world as a whole, I think it was a raised eyebrow attitude at first. ‘It’s Springbank, doing something unusual again!’, they would say. We have that reputation. We looked at developing a golf course, and that is really avant garde! So they’re coming to expect it of us now!
"Because of this, I have a number of monasteries I am consulting with right now, looking for ways of supporting themselves, not necessarily attaching themselves to LaserMonks, but using other ways of looking at things. Most monasteries have an ageing population and inherited income projects that aren’t working. It’s hard for them to change gears."
Eyebrows are also beginning to be raised among competitors. Mild amusement is being replaced by the knowledge that LaserMonks is a serious concern. "In the beginning," recalls Fr Bernard, "it was ‘isn’t that cute, the little monks are selling themselves some inkjet cartridges’. Then as things progressed, folks started paying real attention. As we grow and expand into other products lines, they are going to see us as someone to contend with."
It is clearly time to take the monks seriously. And who knows how big the company can get? To meet customer demand, it recently added a full line of office products to its range of imaging supplies, as well as a private label line. "We’re now beginning to see ourselves as more of an Amazon.com," says Fr Bernard, "as in we will expand into different product lines at an appropriate pace."
And expansion isn’t restricted to product lines. Incredibly, there are even plans afoot for expanding the LaserMonks brand into Europe, and then a region where many a US venture has tried – and failed – central and South America.
"In many ways, especially because of the catholic population, it probably makes it a little bit easier," says Fr Bernard of South America, "although those regions are not as well organised from a business standpoint and it will take a different mindset for things to work down there.
"We have also had a request from a monastery in the Czech Republic and following that, one or two other contacts have said they might be interested. So our general idea at this point is to partner with one monastery in each country."
Fr Bernard is clearly a very business-savvy monk, although his formal business studies training is restricted to a couple of correspondence courses during his undergraduate days. "I’ve not had formal university training in business studies as such, but from a young age I was always starting something, so I think it is something in my personality and I have always had a knack for business."
The extent to which LaserMonks has taken off, however, has clearly surprised even Fr Bernard, who says it is "probably 5-10 years" ahead of schedule. "I knew when we started there was a lot of potential," he says, "but I didn’t expect it to grow at this rate at all, or for us to have the exposure on the national or international level that we have."
Indeed, the media attention has undoubtedly fuelled the company’s growth and is something that other resellers just cannot compete with. "We have a commanding presence in the media because of who we are, and that is an enormous advantage that no one else can really touch," he adds.
Ally that with discount prices, genuine care for the customer and the knowledge that after covering monastic living costs, all money goes to various charities, the LaserMonks proposition is a difficult one to argue with.
"It sets us apart from everybody else," says Fr Bernard. "There’re so many people providing office products that there’s nothing that really distinguishes them. Ours is a whole different picture because of who we are and what we do with the money. It really changes your perspective on buying things that you really need, rather than extravagant, luxury items that people try to force you to think you need.
"These are things you’ve got to have. So if you’ve got to have them and we can save you some money and then we can use that money for good works, it’s just a win-win situation. Spend less with us and do more."
Monks are clearly good for (and at) business. Indeed, Fr Bernard says he wouldn’t be surprised if it encourages other companies to become more benevolent themselves. And he even goes as far to say that perhaps every company should have one.
"I’m not fishing," he says, "but it wouldn’t surprise me if I was asked to sit on some boards. Influencing corporations in positive ways could be good. It wouldn’t be a bad thing to have a monk as their conscience on the board. It could give them some perspective that they wouldn’t have otherwise come up with."