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Monks turn office products into $4.5M business

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[May 29, 2008]  SPARTA, Wis. (AP) -- That'll be $117.95 for laser printer toner, $9.95 for free trade organic hot cocoa and $16.95 for fruit tarts.

The prayer for peace in your home? No charge.

InsuranceLaserMonks Inc. sells everything from office and school supplies to gifts such as gourmet mustards and CDs of Gregorian chants. And the six monks of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Bank always make sure to pray for you, too.

Don't let the size of the order fool you. Last year they sold $4.5 million worth of products and they're on target to hit that again this year. You wouldn't guess a multimillion-dollar business is housed on a quiet 600 acres in west-central Wisconsin. But that's the monk way. The sales are needed, they say, so they can survive and continue their religious works.

Plenty of religious orders are embracing new technologies and trends -- like monks in Oregon who store and ship wines for wineries, and others who make goat's milk hand creams and soaps to pay for their ministries.


Many still cling to the usual -- such as making fruitcakes and caramels -- but their wares are getting more exposure thanks to inclusion on LaserMonks' Web sites, which sell items made by religious orders.

Father Bernard McCoy, 41, superior of the abbey about 180 miles northwest of Milwaukee -- or "poster monk" as he likes to joke -- is chief executive of LaserMonks. The business started small in autumn 2002, when his printer ran out of toner as he and the order were trying to think of new ways to make money. It dawned on him that if he bought in bulk, he could save and pass that along to others -- and make some money for the order, too.

That first year they did $2,000 in sales, and the next year $150,000. Now, they offer 43,000 products to people and groups like schools and churches.

The abbey is nonprofit and LaserMonks is for-profit, with all net proceeds going to charitable works like a school in Vietnam that teaches computer skills to children otherwise living on the streets, to domestic abuse shelters in California and Camp Heartland, a camp for children living with or affected by HIV or AIDS in Minnesota. Since 2004, they've given away half a million dollars. The monks use about $150,000 a year for operating expenses, though between 15 percent and 20 percent of that is given away to charities as well.


McCoy said LaserMonks can't always match the prices of its big box competitors, but customers don't mind.

"They want to know what they're doing -- the money they're spending -- is doing good in the world and not simply the bottom line or the profit margin base for stockholders of some mega-company," he said.

McCoy gives talks to other businesses and religious orders, teaching them how to grow. The monks also help other orders by selling products they make on a companion Web site, monkegifts.com, which went live this past holiday season. They're about to launch a site soon that will sell gift baskets featuring products made by religious orders.

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Nuns at the St. Benedict Monastery in Canyon, Texas, sell their "Praylines" -- a combination of pecans, cream, butter and, as the sisters note, prayer -- on monkegifts.com and through their own efforts locally.

Sister Hildegard Varga said sales of the treats pay for about one-fourth of the order's expenses. They sold about 1,100 boxes of Praylines for about $14 each this past winter, their third in the business.

"Like so many jobs you do in the monastery, you do what needs to be done and you may not have a lot of training for it. So we're still feeling our way," Varga said. "That's one of the characteristics of monastic enterprises. You go on faith a lot."

The Cistercian orders have always been self-sustaining and self-governing, said Rozanne Elder, director of the Institute of Cistercian Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich.

They follow the teachings of St. Benedict, who said monks live by works, and they generally have some focus for an industry, such as foods or crafts. They don't depend on donations, for the most part. But they also don't go out of their way to make products beyond what they need to survive.

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Many of the orders used to farm for a living, but as that became less profitable they turned to mail-order sales, Elder said. That allowed them to continue living away from communities so they can immerse themselves in religious life, but still be able to make money.

"They do things that can be sold by mail-order mostly, so they don't have a bunch of people tracking in and out," Elder said. "They want separation from the world."

Life couldn't be more apart from the world in Sparta -- a quiet, wooded region known for its bicycle trails. The monks live just a few miles from Fort McCoy, a military base that trains more than 100,000 troops a year.

At the abbey, McCoy -- no relation to the McCoy the military base is named after -- and the other monks live together, cook their own food, and take care of the grounds. They pray eight times a day, sometimes for as long as 40 minutes, and chant in Latin. They pursue hobbies, such as painting, playing with their two dogs -- Luxor, a pharaoh hound and Ludwig, a doberman. They even have a workout room, where McCoy watches James Bond movies while exercising.

They aren't bogged down too much by work on LaserMonks, which McCoy said is part of its success.

Orders for office supplies are filled by a couple of vendors and manufacturers at warehouses throughout the country. They're then sent directly to customers using LaserMonks packaging. Overhead costs are minimal and they have only a handful of employees who handle day-to-day business, such as taking the 200 orders a day. The employees also handle marketing and orders for the other ventures, such as monkegifts.com and a new site that sells coffee called benevolentblends.com.

"Our investment in inventory is zero," McCoy said. "You're able to run an enormous business."

The business is imbued with Cistercian hospitality, including a focus on customer service. The phone lines are answered by McCoy's soothing recorded voice that says, "Greetings and peace." Hold music is, of course, Gregorian chants. If customers fall behind on payments, the monks work with them.

The LaserMonks never lose sight of their Catholic religion. Their Web site also accepts prayer requests, with several dozen or more coming in a day. The requests are printed and stacked several inches thick on a wooden table outside the monastery's sanctuary. The monks look through them, pick a few and keep the requests with them during the day.

"People who are sick, people who need a job. A 12-year-old who wants a pony and in our own way, we offer those up to God," McCoy said. "It's kind of having a virtual way of having someone care about you."


On the Net:

Laser Monks: http://www.lasermonks.com/

[Associated Press; By EMILY FREDRIX]

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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