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Issue Date:  October 8, 2004

‘LaserMonks’ offer low prices, prayer


Like anyone who uses a computer regularly, Cistercian monk Bernard McCoy needed some new ink for his printer. Like many people who shop online, he scoured the Web for the best deal on an ink cartridge. But the similarities end there. For McCoy, what started as a simple office supply purchase led to the creation of an online business that will gross nearly $2.5 million in 2004. It has led to the invention of a model for socially conscious entrepreneurship not likely to be found at your local office supply chain.

Welcome to “LaserMonks,” where your online purchase of a laser or ink-jet toner cartridge will not only be discounted by up to 80 or 90 percent, but will also fund a monastery’s operating costs and assist charities from coast to coast. Housed at Our Lady of Spring Bank Abbey in Sparta, Wis., LaserMonks’ hefty client list includes Princeton University, Panera Bread, Morgan Stanley and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, in addition to scores of schools, parishes and military bases.

LaserMonks was founded when Cistercian Fr. Bernard McCoy, abbey steward of temporal affairs, was looking for new ways to fund monastery operating costs. Our Lady of Spring Bank, like all monasteries in the United States, is self-supporting. McCoy, 37, considered every entrepreneurial option from raising shiitake mushrooms to developing golf courses. But one day, while balking at the high price of a new ink cartridge for his printer, McCoy decided to do a little research.

“I was amazed how expensive a bunch of black dust and squirts of black ink were,” he said. McCoy’s research found that most ink toner cartridges are marked up by 1,000-2,000 percent of their wholesale costs, and suddenly, an entrepreneurial idea was born. McCoy found that he could save the abbey money by ordering cartridges directly from manufacturers, thus avoiding the pricey mark up. After discovering this option, McCoy decided he wanted to offer the same benefit to other nonprofit organizations by selling printer cartridges online through the abbey’s Web site. He later expanded the idea to include for-profit corporations as well. “I thought, if I can save a significant amount of money for us, what if I can provide this for other people? It’s almost sinful to spend more money than you have to with so many financial needs.” In discussing this business venture with the manufacturers themselves, McCoy received a lot of encouragement. “They said, ‘Why would people choose anyone else once they knew about you?’ ”

Evidently, this sentiment was right on the money. In 2002, LaserMonks’ first year of operation, Internet sales brought in $2,000. Business improved exponentially in 2003, grossing $500,000. But the projected $2.5 million gross revenue for 2004 surprised even the optimistic McCoy. “Not bad for a group of old monks chanting in the country,” said McCoy, who lives at the abbey with five other Cistercian monks.

It may seem quaint and conveniently marketable, the notion of monks involving themselves in e-commerce. But McCoy is quick to point out that LaserMonks is much more than a feel-good story of entrepreneurial success. It is a model of socially conscious business practice that McCoy hopes will be emulated, a model that includes charitable donations, environmental responsibility and a few personal touches.

Once abbey operating costs are accounted for, all LaserMonks profits are donated to charities in three categories: those that care for the mind, those that care for the body, and those that care for the soul. Past recipients of donations from LaserMonks include a Wisconsin volunteer ski patrol, a Vietnamese school for orphans, and a Minnesota summer camp for children with AIDS. In addition, LaserMonks gives money to its own Torchlight Foundation, which provides resources and program funding for schools to teach students socially responsible business practices. “It’s how to form venture capital for good works,” McCoy said. In an effort to practice environmental responsibility, LaserMonks sells some recycled toner cartridges and will send customers’ used cartridges to recycling centers.

McCoy also hopes that LaserMonks gives e-commerce a human face. “I’m sorry, but buying ink toner is not the most exciting part of your day,” McCoy said. “We try to make it a rewarding experience to be online.” Those who buy printing and imaging supplies by phone first hear a cheerful “Greetings and peace,” before placing their order. Web customers can make prayer requests online, all of which are printed out, stacked on a table outside the abbey chapel, and read by the monks daily.

Selling ink cartridges, according to McCoy, is a natural extension of a monastery’s historical connection with printing. “My own Cistercian brothers were making their own paper, making their own ink, and handwriting their own manuscripts and books,” he said. “When the printing press came along monks were among the first to get involved with that. We have been at every stage of the process. We’ve been in business for 900 years.”

Because of the increased workload due to LaserMonks recent success, customer service responsibilities are now handled by the aptly named “MonkHelpers,” Sarah Caniglia and Cindy Griffith, who relocated to Sparta to work for LaserMonks after running their own online ink cartridge business in Colorado. Caniglia and Griffith, who live in a house on monastery property, handle order processing and manufacturer relations under the company name of MonkHelper Marketing, freeing McCoy and the other monks to focus on media relations, advertising, speaking, and researching opportunities for charitable contribution.

LaserMonks has recently expanded to offer other imaging supplies such as copier toner, and McCoy has plans to offer a line of discounted office supplies and high-end religious art as well. “More and more we see ourselves becoming an of the nonprofit kind. You can buy all kinds of things at Amazon -- books, tools, you name it. We’re going to expand that model in a way that is appropriate for us.”

Renée LaReau is the author of Getting a Life: How to Find Your True Vocation. She writes from Columbus, Ohio.

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National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 2004

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