Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Monastic Capitalists in Sparta


Catholic monks in southwestern Wisconsin became an unlikely e-commerce success several years ago when they hit on the idea of reselling computer-printer cartridges and plowing all the profits into charitable works - a gimmick that resonated with their Web site's hyperloyal clientele.

Now get ready for LaserMonks: The Sequels.

Our Lady of Spring Bank Cistercian Abbey is charging into the holiday season with brand-new online storefronts, one peddling premium coffee, and the other hawking gift-style merchandise from Catholic monasteries and convents throughout the country and world.

The idea is pretty much the same: Make a bunch of cash, then give it away (minus business expenses and what is needed to sustain the monks).

The abbey's grand philanthropic ambitions hardly end there. There's talk of an e-store for olive-oil connoisseurs, a gift-basket emporium, and - in a return to the LaserMonks' computer roots - a scheme to proffer technical-support service plans for printer owners.

These are the creations of Sarah Caniglia and Cindy Griffith, lay managers who oversee day-to-day e-commerce operations on the abbey grounds in Sparta, Wis. (so the monks can pray and do other monk stuff). With just two other staffers, customers have a 25 percent chance of getting either woman when calling in orders - no India-based call center for this outfit.

As if the duo wasn't busy enough, they've even written a book about their arrival in 2003 as consultants, and how they ended up staying. (They now live and work in a converted house a discreet distance from the monks' quarters.)

"LaserMonks" (subtitle: "The business story nine hundred years in the making") riffs on the business' unorthodox roots in the Rule of St. Benedict, an ancient primer instructing Benedictine monasteries to treat all visitors with care and hospitality - "Let everyone that comes be received as Christ."

Caniglia and Griffith embraced that famed maxim, applying it to e-visitors instead of physical ones.

These even included unpleasant customers making preposterous demands, Caniglia recalled. Twice, nasty callers claimed LaserMonks cartridges had irreparably damaged their printers, which was unlikely, she said. But both times, LaserMonks bought replacement printers on the spot.

"We think that's how St. Benedict would have wanted us to treat a customer," Caniglia said.

This, the women now claim, was essential to the LaserMonks' sales surge. Revenue has rocketed from $180,000 in 2003 to about $5 million to $6 million this year, with a projected $8 million to $10 million in 2008.

The other key ingredient, they believe, has been the store's not-for-profit, solely philanthropic thrust - or "social entrepreneurship" - with all its profits earmarked for the needy in places like St. Paul's Midway neighborhood. In a partnership with a local church, the abbey has filled up kid backpacks with school supplies, and fixed up families with groceries, blankets, socks and mittens.

So while LaserMonks can't always provide the lowest prices nor the most-complete selection, the women said, the site's customers keep coming back because they know their purchases will do good.

"They are tired of walking into a big-box store to line a CEO's pockets," Griffith said.

The "LaserMonks" book is largely intended as a business blueprint. Even for-profit companies can learn a thing or two here, the authors insist. Do good for your customers, your partners, and especially for the needy to the best of your ability; it's just good business, and you'll feel pretty good, too.

The abbey's new e-stores, Benevolent Blends and MonkEgifts, try to implement this philosophy in different ways.

The coffee store, with blends such as Abbot's Select and Monk's Reserve, aims to pay fair prices for coffee beans in Panama and Colombia, and even to assist families of struggling coffee farmers much as the abbey helps U.S. families.

The gift storefront is a Catholic cooperative of sorts for pushing monastic merchandise such as Trappist Preserves cooked at St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Mass., Trappistine Creamy Caramels from Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey in Dubuque, Iowa, and Kentucky Bourbon Fruitcake from the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Ky., and even ostrich-oil soaps and creams made by Cistercian nuns on the island of Tautra in Norway.

MonkEgifts has competition in Monastery Greetings, another monk-gift site peddling many of the same products. Caniglia and Griffith said they're up to the challenge after going up against thousands of computer-product vendors, and prevailing.

The Rev. Bernard McCoy, LaserMonks founder recently elevated to abbey prior, once said he wanted his outfit to become the of charity-driven e-retailers. That dream, his lieutenants now believe, is becoming a reality. Pioneer Press


Vincenzo said...

"...and Kentucky Bourbon Fruitcake from the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Ky..."

That sounds good.

"The Wall Street Journal rated Gethsemani Farms fruitcake as the "best overall" in quality and value. These dense, moist and spicy cakes have a truly delicious and distinctive flavor because they're handmade with only the finest, freshest ingredients... and seasoned with fine Kentucky bourbon."

Unknown said...

I might have to try some of that fruitcake.

Maybe I should just buy myself a couple of cases of Jack Daniels and experiment a bit with my cooking skills and Betty Crocker recipes?. I wonder if there are enough nutrients in fruitcake to allow me to live off of nothing but that for some time.

Unknown said...

Hey, Vincenzo, how come you didn't tell me about the bourbon fudge?

That would be a lot easier to make. Lots of chocolate and a couple of cups of Jack per batch and I bet I'd have a best seller.

I wonder who's in charge of the bourbon at the Gethsemane Abbey?

Vincenzo said...

"Maybe I should just buy myself a couple of cases of Jack Daniels and experiment a bit with my cooking skills and Betty Crocker recipes?"

LOL! I've done that.

"Hey, Vincenzo, how come you didn't tell me about the bourbon fudge"

Missed it, sorry - I love chocolate (dark) but I'm not really into fudge.