Monasteries all over the world have been self-supporting for centuries, and the practice of monks running a small business is nothing new. Most of them, however, don’t end up experiencing 700% annual sales growth, selling 30,000 products, and competing with Fortune 500 companies.
Instead of baking fruitcakes for the occasional visitor, the monks from Our Lady of Spring Bank Cistercian Abbey sell laser toner and business supplies throughout the United States. They’ve creatively branded themselves as LaserMonks, but they offer more than just a great story. They also help businesses save an average of 40% off printer ink and toner, and in turn, the monks donate all of their profits to charity.
There is nothing conventional about the LaserMonks web site. Next to “fax supplies” and “inkjet cartridges” is a link to send in prayer requests. The content is devoted equally to product details and information about the monastery. In addition to business supplies, they also offer fun monastery items like “Benevelent Blends Coffee” and “Holy Hot Chocolate.”
The LaserMonks operation offers a genuine third model between profit and non-profit businesses, and I have been intrigued with their operation ever since first learning about it in a business magazine a year ago.
I recently caught up with Fr. Bernard McCoy, the CEO of LaserMonks who also uses the title “Steward of Temporal Affairs.” In the interview below, Fr. Bernard answered my questions about the toner business and the monastery.
When you started out meeting a need to provide recycled toner at reasonable prices, did you ever think that business would increase so quickly?
We did see the potential for growth, but never expected it to occur so quickly. Nearly every building, and certainly every business and institution had printers that could use our products – and save money by doing so – and help the environment. It was simply a matter of getting our story out there, and helping people to make a good decision.
What causes do you support through profits from LaserMonks?
We have consistently tried to find ways of providing charitable support in three categories: care of the body, care of the mind, and care of the spirit. At least once a month we find appropriate programs, non-profits, individuals, or even start our own projects that fit into these categories.
Examples include: domestic abuse shelters in the U.S., a school in Vietnam for orphans and street kids that teaches computer skills so they can get jobs and avoid prostitution and drug trafficking, equine therapy programs for kids as well as leadership development retreats for adults using horses, prison ministry support, scholarships for young people and adults, funding for micro business in the Dominican Republic, character building work and activities for disadvantaged kids in Wisconsin, medical and education support for the families that pick our coffee beans in Panama and Costa Rica, among many others.
On your site you mention that the business grew too fast for a while and the monks were spending all their time packing up toner instead of attending to monastic duties. Can you give an example of the struggle between business and monastic life, and how have you been able to reconcile the two?
We never neglected our monastic duties – our times of prayer and study were always observed, because that is essentially who we are and what we do. But it was stressful trying to manage normal domestic duties, and I often didn’t get enough sleep. We had to step back and determine what we could do, what we couldn’t do, what we were good at, and what we needed to outsource. It was the outsourcing model that really was a “God-send” for us. And then when Sarah and Cindy appeared, Our Monk Helper Angels, it all fell into place.
The monks do well at telling the monk story, financial management, and behind the scenes work – photography, marketing ideas, media relations, etc. We outsourced the day-to-day work – answering phones, processing orders, vendor relations, etc. to Monk Helper Marketing, Inc. (Sarah and Cindy), used major wholesalers and fulfillment centers for product fulfillment, and focused on what we do best – being monks, marketing products under our Commerce with Compassion and Purchasing with a Purpose umbrella.
It’s also important to understand that monks are required by our monastic Rule (The Rule of St. Benedict) to be self supporting. Work is not separated from our life as a whole. Much like Adam and Eve, we tend and cultivate our garden to produce fruits for our table and many others that we support. It’s a labor of love and creativity that is part of the balance needed in any human life – meaningful work that is self-supporting, helps others, and develops our own gifts and talents.
Was there any resistance from anyone to the idea of building the business to the level it has reached? Did any other church leaders (or anyone else) ever feel that it was inappropriate for monks to be selling printer toner online?
The monks discussed the question of how big would be too big. This question was easily resolved by the fact that the growth of the company really didn’t affect the monastery as such. More money would be more to use for charitable works. Our lifestyle has changed little since the business started. Our European brothers always look across the big pond with curious expressions. “What are those Americans up to now?”
The interest was more in the Internet based business, which at the time was a really new thing for our more low-tech brothers over there. The marketing of toner (or office supplies in general) has never been a question for the monks. Keep in mind that my brothers 900 years ago were making their own paper and ink and copying manuscripts for pay. We’re just doing it a little more high-tech or efficiently today.
The lay and business public in the United States, however, often do a double-take. For most, monk products are limited to fruitcakes, candy, and retreat houses. Having a monastery that is a major competitor in a major product market is a little new in the New World. But keep in mind that Cistercians have always been on the edge of enterprise, commerce, and product marketing.
For example, we controlled probably 80% of the sheep/wool market in the British Isles for several hundred years. We were largely responsible for introducing milling (water wheels, etc.) into Europe. Today we have monasteries that have international ski schools, some of the world’s best beers, wines and liqueurs. (our Belgian beers are consistently the best in the world), health spas in Germany, etc.
Cistercians have always been enterprising. Most economic historians would agree that it was the Cistercians that really began to move Europe from feudalism into a market economy on a large scale. We were also among the first to implement modern accounting/bookkeeping techniques into our endeavors, along with being the first “multi-nationals” by using capital between abbeys/countries to maximize our enterprising efforts.
Americans are used to Franciscans and Dominicans, who are technically called “mendicants” — beggars. These “new” orders (13th/14th centuries) lived off donations and traveled about the country preaching and helping the poor. They did not have businesses. Monks have a vow of stability, stay put in monasteries, operate income producing industries, and do charitable work with the proceeds. We have a serious dedication to the pursuit of excellence in all aspects of human life – body, mind, spirit, art, study, and enterprise.
We rise around 4am. Begin our prayers at 4:15. Have a break for an hour, another prayer at 6am, then another at 7:45. Work/study time 8-11, prayer/Mass at 11:15, lunch, siesta, afternoon prayer, work 2-5, prayer at 6 followed by supper, then final prayer at 7:30, in bed around 8-9. Recreation is fit into the schedule, desert days where a monk can have a day or two of solitude and no work are allowed once a month for each brother. We allow vacation time of 1- 2 weeks a year for appropriate time off (family, etc). So we spend about 5 hours a day in prayer/Gregorian Chant, and 5-6 hours in work.
What sacrifices have you made in building this project, either for the business or for abbey life?
Sleep is certainly one for me. At the beginning I had to work late nights trying to put it all together and make it work. Travel and talks that pulled me away from the Abbey more frequently than I would have liked – though I have been able to pull back from some of this over the past year. Having numbers/cash flow/bills/etc. on my mind when times were tough – can be very distracting.
What are the long-term plans for LaserMonks? Would you ever sell the business?
We will continue to grow our toner/inkjet market position nationally, and have even considered going international. We will continue to add ancillary product lines – products by other religious communities, other international products that help us continue our Commerce with Compassion / Purchasing with a Purpose endeavors. Other product lines that have an existing outsourcing industrial structure are being considered. We look to be kind of the social entrepreneurial version of Amazon.com.
Our charitable work will continue to develop in the body/mind/spirit categories, and we especially hope to assist other religious communities to become more self sufficient, along with encouraging other groups to find for-profit work to support their non-profit endeavors. I give talks nationally to business and organization leaders about our monastic enterprise example of social entrepreneurism.
Several offers have been made to buy the business, as well as encouragement to go public with an IPO. We really can’t sell the business because it is so tied with who we are as monks – and more importantly is a direct relation to the world in relationship to us – we couldn’t let an outsider “represent” us without our overseeing how they do business and relate to the world in general. The possibilities for bad pr are too great and quite frankly the business would lose its real essence if it wasn’t ours.
I really appreciated hearing the LaserMonks story direct from the source, and I don’t have anything to add to Fr. Bernard’s great story. The next time I need printer toner, I’ll definitely skip the Dell store and head over to LaserMonks.
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All images courtesy of LaserMonks.com