Making the Lord's Copies
Monks serve God by selling toner.
(FORTUNE Magazine) - Like many entrepreneurs, Father Bernard McCoy loves to talk about his industry. But as a Cistercian monk, he has a time frame longer than most. "Nine hundred years ago my brothers were making ink, making their own paper, and copying manuscripts," says McCoy. "We were the original social entrepreneurs. We were the first multinationals."
McCoy is CEO of LaserMonks.com, an Internet retailer that sells discounted printer cartridges and other office supplies. Customers include individuals and churches, along with giants such as Morgan Stanley and the U.S. Forest Service. It's a lucrative business. Sales have risen from $2,000 in 2002, the company's first full year of operation, to around $2.5 million in 2005.
LaserMonks.com is a for-profit subsidiary of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Bank, an eight-monk monastery in the hills of Monroe County, 90 miles northwest of Madison. The Spring Bank brethren wear robes, sing Gregorian chants, and eat their meals in silence. "We're monks," McCoy says cheerfully. "We do monk things." Like all Roman Catholic monasteries, the abbey is responsible for its own upkeep, receiving no financial support from the Vatican. Hence LaserMonks.com. Father McCoy estimates that it costs around $150,000 to maintain the abbey and its 500 acres of grounds. The rest of the company's profits help support charities that range from a camp for kids with HIV to a Buddhist orphanage in Tibet.
The idea for LaserMonks.com came to Father McCoy one day when his printer ran out of ink. He shopped around for a new ink cartridge but couldn't find one that was reasonably priced. That's because printer manufacturers make most of their money by imposing stratospheric markups on printing supplies. As a result thousands of small companies were cropping up all over the Internet, selling reconditioned ink and toner cartridges. Despite legal challenges from the established printer manufacturers, the industry is now firmly established.
In the beginning LaserMonks.com consisted of a few monks sitting around with black powder and empty plastic cartridges, filling a few orders a day. Today the monks say they have served more than 50,000 customers, and process 200 to 300 daily orders for a broad range of school and office supplies. The website also accepts online prayer requests. And in a fiercely competitive commodity industry, McCoy and his brethren have thrived on the sheer novelty of their story. The company spends relatively little money on advertising, benefiting instead from media coverage and McCoy's frequent speaking engagements around the country.
Father McCoy recently started selling printers, cables, and surge protectors, and plans to offer a full line of office electronics later this year. He expects LaserMonks.com's 2006 sales to exceed $5 million. "We could develop a franchise system for other abbeys," he says. "I think we could become the Amazon.com of social entrepreneurs."