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 user 2003-12-26 at 12:19:00 pm Views: 92
  • #4358

    Toner manufacturer leaves its mark
    Pompano Beach toner maker AQC Group’s business is always in the black, thanks to worldwide demand for printers, copiers and fax machines.

    All it took for AQC Group to export the toner it manufactures at its Pompano Beach plant was a fax machine and a list of potential customers abroad.

    Back in 1986, AQC President Mitchell J. Howard says he would lug a fax machine home from work each night and send recyclers of toner cartridges in Europe notes telling them AQC made toner.

    For recyclers who had been buying pricey toner from distributors and refilling cartridges for printers, fax machines and copiers, purchasing from an independent toner maker was a far less costly alternative. Howard’s at-home marketing blitz paid off.

    ”Before I knew it, we were doing about $2.5 million in the export business,” Howard recalls.

    Today, AQC’s annual revenue stands at about $20 million. About half is generated in the U.S., with the other half coming from sales in about 60 countries.

    But Howard says AQC hasn’t been able to keep pace with the demand for printers, copiers and fax machines around the world. So AQC is making a $2 million investment to double its manufacturing capabilities. It’s arranged to have two new mills built in Minnesota and delivered early next year to its 62,000-square-foot plant in Pompano’s Park Central business park.

    With four mills operating around-the-clock six days a week, Howard expects to produce 7.2 million pounds of toner a year. That’s enough to fill 14.4 million printer cartridges with a half of a pound of toner each.

    A tour of AQC’s plant seems like a step back to the industrial age. Black toner dust covers the plant’s walls and concrete floors. Various resins, magnetic pigments and waxes are among the key ingredients used to make toner. The materials are mixed, cooked and then cooled before the particles are separated. Air compressors, sounding like pistons, cause the particles to collide and break up into even smaller fragments.

    Afterward, lubricants are added to the toner so it doesn’t later scratch up the interior components of the printers and other machines.

    AQC tests the toner every 30 minutes to make sure it has the right particle size. It has about 100 printers that it also uses to test the various types of toner.

    Even with the expansion, AQC won’t be able to keep up with demand for long. Howard predicts by the end of next year, its more than 500 customers will be buying all the toner that the plant can produce. That already has him thinking about doubling the number of mills to eight.

    ”Let’s get through this one first,” says Thea Howard, Howard’s mother and AQC’s owner and chief financial officer. She became the sole owner after her husband and AQC founder, Allen J. Howard, died last year. He was the first Toshiba copy dealer in the U.S., Mitchell Howard says.

    AQC sells about a quarter of its toner in Europe. Russia accounts for about 10 percent, followed by Latin America at about 5 percent to 10 percent, Howard says. He credits Alan Kronstat, AQC’s sales director, for developing the business in Russia.

    ”South America, we haven’t really touched because we can’t support it,” Howard says.

    Howard likes doing business overseas. ”With the export business, I know exactly when I’m going to be paid, so I know that I have no risk,” he says. That’s because in many countries the toner isn’t removed from the ship until it’s paid for, he explains.

    AQC opened a distribution facility in the Isle of Wight in 1995 to handle sales in Europe. Rather than shipping toner in bottles or 10-kilo bags, a costly endeavor, the toner is shipped in 100-kilo barrels to the distribution facility where the bottles and bags are filled.

    Trade publications and imaging-industry conventions have replaced Howard’s fax machine for attracting customers.

    AQC landed its first licensing agreement this year. Through a newly formed subsidiary called AJH LLC, AQC is selling toner around the globe using Polaroid Corp.’s name.

    Barry Edmond, AJH’s sales director, says the Polaroid toner will fill a niche for customers not comfortable buying a generic brand but also unwilling to pay for higher-priced product made by an original-equipment manufacturer.

    The Polaroid products alone are expected to generate $25 million in sales next year, Edmond says. AQC uses 57 independent sales reps to sell to dealers.

    ”Polaroid Corp. is a privately held company and treats the process of licensee selection as proprietary,” writes spokesman William Miller in an e-mail.