Monday, March 24, 2008
n 2002, Bernard McCoy founded an online ink and toner business that today has grown into a multi-million-dollar operation, but contrary to the way most businesses work, his own salary hasn't increased in proportion to the company's profits.
"I'm probably the worst-paid CEO in the country," he says joyfully.
His annual pay? Zero dollars — the same as when he started the business.
McCoy is a monk, one of six Cistercian brothers who pray, work and live at Our Lady of Spring Bank Abbey in central/west Wisconsin. The monks "have no personal income or personal possessions," McCoy explains, but "monasteries, by the Rule of St. Benedict that we follow, are required to be self-supporting."
And so, when the abbey's income from the sale of its former property started to dwindle, McCoy (who is Our Lady of Spring Bank's steward of temporal affairs) began to look into several business ventures. A Shiitake mushroom farm and a "major golf course and retreat center" were both in the works when, one day, McCoy went online to order some toner for the monastery's printer. As he writes on the LaserMonks Web site, he found that "mark-up on ink supplies" was "sinfully high."
McCoy started researching the industry, and talked to suppliers who where excited about the marketing potential of a monk-run business. So McCoy and the monks launched a basic Web site, LaserMonks.com, to retail discounted (including off-brand and remanufactured) inkjet products.
One senses that the joy in McCoy's voice (which rings through clearly, even over the phone) comes from a kind of general, monkish equanimity. But his excitement about his status as America's most poorly compensated chief executive officer also stems from the fact that, once the abbey's operating costs are covered, the rest of the profit from the business goes to charity.
Defining its bottom line as philanthropy, LaserMonks' business model has attracted the interest of a growing number of customers and other businesses. As the self-described "poster monk" for the operation, McCoy says he "gives a significant amount of talks nationally to CEOs and leaders on our model as a case study for social entrepreneurship."
That model, which LaserMonks characterizes as "commerce with compassion," is also the subject of a recent book, "LaserMonks: The Business Story Nine Hundred Years in the Making," by Sarah Caniglia and Cindy Griffith, who now live at Our Lady of Spring Bank and manage operations for both LaserMonks.com and its two offshoots, BenevolentBlends.com, a coffee retail site, and Monkegifts.com, which sells products (such as Trappistine Creamy Caramels and Holy Hot Chocolate) produced by other monasteries.
The story of how Caniglia and Griffith ended up moving to a rural Catholic monastery to run an Internet-based ink and toner business began with an e-mail.
The two women were living near Fort Collins, Colo., and running their own marketing company, whose clients included other ink and toner Web sites. "We were always on the Internet looking at different ink sites and we came across LaserMonks," recalls Caniglia. "We contacted Father Bernard to say, 'Hey, you have a really unique idea. We got to talking, and he said, 'Why don't you guys come out here?' So we came out for a visit to check out the monastery."
"The truth of the story," she adds, "is that we actually never left."
In their first year of business, LaserMonks' sales had totaled approximately $2,000. With the help of a California public relations company (run by a college friend of McCoy's), sales had increased substantially the following year. Business continued to grow — and became increasingly unmanageable for the monks — and that's when Caniglia and Griffith arrived.
"They were just like angels out of the sky," says McCoy in retrospect, although he admits to some initial skepticism. When the two women visited and started volunteering to help the business, McCoy says, he and the other monks wondered, "Who are they? Why are they here? Is this for real?'"
But the Cistercian tradition of hospitality overrode any skepticism the monks may have harbored: They welcomed Caniglia and Griffith immediately and put them up in a nearby guesthouse owned by the monastery. The women started helping out with small tasks like data entry and, as trust built, eventually moved to bigger projects, such as upgrading the Web site and organizing LaserMonks' drop-shipping system (wherein manufacturers ship products, under LaserMonks' name, directly to customers).
Along the way, the women moved into rooms on the abbey property. Caniglia says they worked for free during the first year and, for another six to eight months after that, were paid a "pittance." MonkHelper Marketing, the corporation they formed to run the monks' business, is now paid a competitive salary, Caniglia says: "Father Bernard is very fair" with compensation.
While Caniglia describes herself as a Catholic, she says her move to Wisconsin and involvement with LaserMonks did not coincide with some grand spiritual epiphany, although many people looking from the outside assume she "had a breakdown, or a major religious experience. Maybe for some people it happens that way, but I'm more of a one-step-at-time person."
"A big part of this for both Cindy and I," she explains, "is that we get to give away money every day."
Along with two other paid employees, Caniglia and Griffith now run all of the operations for LaserMonks.com and its two affiliated sites. They handle the day-to-day operations, answer the phones and e-mail, process orders, negotiate with vendors, oversee accounts, coordinate marketing and help to manage LaserMonks' charitable donations.
In their book, Caniglia and Griffith explain that, in its second year, LaserMonks started giving away all money "left over after expenses." Beneficiaries have included "formal charities like Faith in Action, as well as not-so-formal efforts, like sending a nurse from Wisconsin to Louisiana to treat victims of Hurricane Katrina, and schools and churches in Wisconsin, and beyond."
Caniglia estimates that LaserMonks' sales in 2007 totaled $4.5 million. (Father Bernard puts the abbey's operating costs at about $200,000 annually).
Caniglia, 39, says her lifestyle — and her attitudes about money — have changed since moving to Our Lady of Spring Bank almost six years ago. "I live on 600 pretty quiet acres out here. I really enjoy the peace of it, the ability to soul-search."
"Before this, I was kind of yuppified. In my prior life, I had a nice car, a nice big house, and took expensive vacations." She maintains that her involvement with LaserMonks has taught her that "there has to be a good balance between the things you want for yourself and the things you want to give to other people."
"When you're in the corporate world," she adds, "you're using your mind to think of ways you can help your company so the stock price can go up, etcetera. But with this business, our bottom line really is charity, so you're using your mind to think about creative ways you can help other groups and nonprofits instead of thinking, 'We just need to make money to make money.'"
McCoy says the success of LaserMonks also has changed his thinking about money: "It's made me more aware of the uses of money. I mean that in an objective sense of the word — we're still in situation were we don't have lots of money. Nonetheless, having funds available, having resources — I really see the potential of what could be done."
Soaring profits have also led McCoy to another realization: "There's a certain amount of religious thinking in the American Christian world that says money is kind of tainted — that there's something kind of evil about it — and I think that's wrong. That's part of the reason why (people) say, 'Monks making money? Monks running a big business?' They think there's something wrong with that ... What I've come to realize is that (money) is a tool, however I make it, whether it's selling ink and toner, or beer, or investing in stocks. It's a commodity that can be useful for doing a lot of good for others."
There are certain limits, McCoy says, to the kinds of business that would be appropriate for monks, but there is also a general misperception that monasticism and money are somehow mutually exclusive. In fact, the opposite is true. "Cistercians back in the 12th century were catalysts for development of a market economy within the world," he explains.
And there is nothing new about a monastery being involved in a high-tech industry. "People, particularly in North America, tend to forget that up until the Industrial Revolution it was the monasteries where most of the technological advances were made," McCoy points out.
"Enterprise and entrepreneurial spirit have always been a part of who we are," he adds.
In separate conversations with the two, I get a sense that McCoy's and Caniglia's respective thinking about spirituality and money have grown as mirror images: Her faith has flourished through working within earshot of Gregorian chants; his business savvy and awareness of money's potential has widened as the two women have helped LaserMonks grow.
Both parties say they have arrived at a place of balance between temporal affairs and otherworldly attentions. And the monks and the marketing duo have moved past any initial uncertainties. "It's a slow process getting to know one another, and building trust," Caniglia says. "But something just sort of clicked," and it made perfect sense to both her and Griffith that they would become full-time "stewards of the monks' business."
When I ask if she's there for the long term, Caniglia responds without hesitation: "Absolutely, without a doubt."
McCoy explains the unique business partnership this way: "This will sound strange, I guess, but as a monk, you get more and more used to the serendipity of good things in life. And you become comfortable with that joyful serendipity of things happening — like people that show up at the right time. And you just accept it. It shouldn't be strange ... Finally, we went with that and said, this is good ... God's been good to us. Sarah and Cindy have been good to us. And hey, it all works."
Do you have a person or topic you'd like to see covered in Money Tales? Let us know. E-mail Rob at email@example.com
Rob Baedeker is a writer living in Berkeley. He is the co-author, with the Kasper Hauser comedy group, of "SkyMaul," the catalog parody.