You wouldn’t think a monastery deep in the western woods of Wisconsin would be involved with re-manufactured laser printer cartridges, but there they are, a multimillion dollar business, up to their necks in profits.
In the United States alone, estimates suggest that as many as 300 million inkjet printer cartridges end up in landfills every year. This is obviously a huge environmental problem, but don't blame the manufacturers; they're eager to get your empty cartridges back, fill them up, and sell them again.
Because printer manufacturers make most of their money by imposing stratospheric markups on printing supplies, thousands of small companies were cropping up all over the Internet, selling reconditioned ink and toner cartridges. Despite legal challenges from the established printer manufacturers, the industry is now firmly established.
Enter LaserMonks.com, an Internet retailer that sells discounted printer cartridges and other office supplies. Customers include individuals and churches, along with giants such as Morgan Stanley (Research) and the U.S. Forest Service. It's a lucrative business. Sales have risen from $2,000 in 2002, the company's first full year of operation, to around $2.5 million in 2005.
LaserMonks.com is a for-profit subsidiary of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Bank, an eight-monk monastery in the hills of Monroe County, 90 miles northwest of Madison, WI. The Spring Bank brethren wear robes, sing Gregorian chants, and eat their meals in silence.
The idea for LaserMonks.com came to Father Bernard McCoy one day when his printer ran out of ink. He shopped around for a new cartridge but couldn't find one that was reasonably priced.
In the beginning LaserMonks.com consisted of a few monks sitting around with black powder and empty plastic cartridges, filling a few orders a day. Today the monks say they have served more than 50,000 customers, and process 200 to 300 daily orders for a broad range of school and office supplies.
In a fiercely competitive commodity industry, the monks have thrived on the sheer novelty of their story. The company spends relatively little money on advertising, benefiting instead from media coverage and McCoy's frequent speaking engagements around the country.
Like all Roman Catholic monasteries, the abbey is responsible for its own upkeep, receiving no financial support from the Vatican. Father McCoy estimates that it costs around $150,000 to maintain the abbey and its 500 acres of grounds. The rest of the company's profits help support charities that range from a camp for kids with HIV to a Buddhist orphanage in Tibet.
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