CISTERCIAN MONKS RUN THRIVING INK BUSINESS
CISTERCIAN MONKS RUN THRIVING INK BUSINESS
2009-05-29 at 12:31:14 pm #22334
From ink cartridges to dog biscuits, monks run thriving business
An ancient order that broke off from the Benedictines, they were the builders of the Middle Ages, harnessing water power for milling and metalwork – industries that sustained the monks’ simple lives of prayer and contemplation.If they’d only known Father Bernard McCoy, those businesses might still be humming today.McCoy, 42, is the marketing genius behind LaserMonks Inc., the multimillion-dollar Internet business that supports a small community of Cistercian monks on 500 rolling acres in western Wisconsin.There, at the Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Bank, the six monks spend their days in ora et labora, or prayer and work.They pay the bills and support their charitable endeavors by selling (with the help of some equally enterprising women) printer inks and toners, and now a host of other specialty products from around the world.”We’re modern monks following an ancient tradition,” said McCoy, who holds a number of titles at the monastery, including prior, and chief executive officer of LaserMonks.McCoy started the company in 2001 to generate income for the monastery, which had moved from Oconomowoc in the 1980s and had recently completed construction of a new 17,000-square-foot abbey.
The monks had tried or rejected a variety of other ventures over the years, including growing shiitake mushrooms, real estate development – one project got them sued – and developing a luxury golf course, before striking what has amounted to black gold.McCoy was in the midst of the golf course deal, he says, when, his printer ran out of toner. He started poking around for a replacement and divine inspiration struck.”I thought, gosh, if I can save this kind of money for the monastery, what could I do for other nonprofits?”Help with marketing Sales were slow initially, until Sarah Caniglia and Cindy Griffith stumbled onto the monks’ Web site. The women, who lived in Colorado at the time, had experience in the ink and toner business and approached the monks about collaborating.
Their firm, now called Monk Helper Marketing, has been running the business ever since, from the ground floor of a three-story building on the monastery grounds where they live with their five dogs and two cats.Today, they manage a database of about 70,000 customers and sell a lot more than ink and toner. Products touted on their various Web sites include fair trade coffee, gourmet dog biscuits, decadent chocolates and an array of boutique products made by monasteries around the world.”We knew once we were out here that we’d never go back,” said Caniglia, who is drawn by the spiritual atmosphere of the monastery and the company’s emphasis on charitable giving.
LaserMonks is projecting sales of up to $3.5 million this year. Of that, 10% goes to run the abbey, which gives $100,000 to $125,000 a year to charities around the world, according to McCoy.The monks receive no personal income, says McCoy, who touts himself as the lowest-paid CEO in America.”I ask for a raise every year, and every year they double it. But two times zero is still zero.”Very little of the work is actually done by the Sparta monks. The ink and toner cartridges are filled elsewhere and drop-shipped to customers from warehouses across the country. They bake the Benevolent Biscuits dog treats the company sells; they’re taste-tested by the monastery’s resident Doberman pinscher, Ludwig.McCoy travels the country talking up the LaserMonks story to business groups; his simple white and black robes have gotten him through more than one door that might otherwise have been closed.But the bulk of the work of LaserMonks is done by Caniglia, Griffith and their employee, Victoria Bench.”We run the operations,” says Caniglia, “so they can be monks, pray and be contemplative.”
The monks’ day begins at 4:15 a.m., when they gather in the chapel to pray in the spare and haunting Gregorian chant passed down through the monasteries of Europe for centuries. They’ll return again and again, spending in all about five hours a day in formal prayers. In the intervening hours, they take their meals and carry on the work of the monastery – cooking, cleaning, maintaining the grounds, spiritual counseling – all in an atmosphere of silence.
In what remains of the day, the monks pursue their own interests, some of which are decidedly modern. Father Robert Keffer paints in a studio on the grounds; Brother David Klecker enjoys photography and video production; his day in the life of the monastery can be seen on YouTube. And Brother Stephen Treat writes a blog. They ride the abbey’s Peruvian Paso horses. McCoy used to fly the abbey’s plane, but he no longer has time, so they’re selling it. And in the kloisterkeller – a divine rec room – they watch movies and play pool.”It’s all ordered to allow for a life of otium sanctum, holy leisure,” said McCoy, who joined the monastery at the age of 22. “Time to reflect on the good, the true, the beautiful.”
The success of LaserMonks has afforded a level of comfort, even luxury, some might see as inconsistent with monastic ideals.It’s not, said McCoy, who notes that Cistercian monks take a vow of stability, a lifetime commitment to their monastic community, but not a vow of poverty.”Because we have a vow of stability, we have property, tools, equipment, a library. Does it mean we live ostentatiously? No. Are we comfortable? Yes,” he said.”We’re not drinking out of Baccarat crystal every day – unless somebody donates it.”We have what we need and not more.”