Father Bernard McCoy is a monk who heads up an extremely lucrative business selling printing supplies from his Wisconsin abbey. I kid you not. Lasermonks was founded in 2001 by a team of enterprising monks, and follows in the tradition of monastic business endeavors, uniquely blending philanthropy, spirituality, and enterprise to support a life of prayer and charitable service.
"Yes, we really are monks," says McCoy. "We really do pray and help others. Hundreds of years ago, monks survived by baking bread, making wine, or copying manuscripts. We survive by selling ink and toner supplies online, at huge discounts."
Fr. McCoy is the Abbey Steward of Temporal Affairs at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Bank in Sparta, Wisconsin. "We spend five hours a day in Gregorian chant and another couple in prayer. The motto of our order is 'ora et labora' [prayer and work]. We're serious about the 'ora', and we're serious about the 'labora,' plus the fun is in helping people."
McCoy enrolled at the Georgia Institute of Technology at age 16 to study physics and astrophysics but quickly became disenchanted and transferred to the Thomas Aquinas College in California. Four years later, he graduated and not only converted to Catholicism, but decided to spend his life as a monk in the wilds of Wisconsin.
And what's he been doing? He sells printer and imaging supplies. "I was looking for a toner cartridge for use here at the monastery, and it struck me how incredibly expensive black dust actually was," he says. "It's a product that everybody needs and which is sold with an extraordinary mark-up. So I thought, there's got to be a better way." He also notes that the monastery had to raise more money so it seemed as the perfect opportunity to do something that would give him the requisite funds. It's been reported that there was talk of developing a golf course on the premises or even growing mushrooms, but McCoy, recognizing that there were only five monks in the monastery, had to use whatever resources were at hand…the chief ones being a 900-year old history and a name.
McCoy proposed the idea of peddling printing supplies to a couple of manufacturers, who were most receptive to what he had to offer. One manufacturer told him that it was a win-win situation. After all, monks were considered trustworthy, had a wonderful tradition behind them, and weren't solely after money because they were involved in so many charitable endeavors.
Bottom line? LaserMonks, a for-profit company that is wholly owned by the non-profit monastery, and is assisted in customer service, manufacturer relations, and allied trades by a separate company, known as MonkHelper Marketing. It was started by the two women who sold the monks their first customer database at a cents-for-dollars price. Subsequently, they became so enamoured with the monks and their business ethic that they rented a property on the abbey grounds, and are still there.
By making deals directly with manufacturers and selling over the Internet, LaserMonks usually saves consumers 30-60 percent over the standard retail price of an item. In 2001, the year LaserMonks was founded, they sold a mere $2,000 of products. By 2003, that figure rose to $500,000, and in January of this year, sales already totaled $90,000.
"Our customer service is following on our Order's tradition of hospitality," says Mccoy. "We try to transfer monastic hospitality into commerce hospitality. We try to treat every single customer with kid gloves." Needless to say, repeat customer and personal recommendations should see the monks well on their way to achieving their goal of tripling revenue during the coming year.
Incidentally, for those of you still sprawled on the couch watching another episode of "Green Acres," be advised that LaserMonks has just been announced as one of Fast Company magazine's "Fast 50" innovators of the year.
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