Advance Business Systems
Alan and Lois Elkin, the founders of Advance Business Systems, built their business on customer service – customer service before all else, 24/7, 365 days year – “366 if it’s a leap year.”
Today, the business has evolved from its roots as an office equipment and supplies company to include electronic content management, managed print services and a managed IT offering, but their commitment to customer service has not wavered.
The Elkins understood that they were needed by an accountant working at 2 a.m. in tax season, by real estate agents putting together contracts on the weekend, by film companies shooting at night.
“We have people on duty 24 hours a day, and it used to be me,” Alan says. “If I were not married to Lois I never could have done this. Whether at dinner, sleeping or with company, I’d get a call.”
In July 2014, the company celebrated its 50th anniversary. Advance now employs 170 people, and their son Jeff Elkin is President. Every customer Alan meets still gets his home and cell phone number.
“How companies use paper is changing,” Jeff notes. “While offices certainly are using less paper, the irony is that content is exploding, and we help them with how they will archive it, access it and distribute it.”
Today’s multifunctional printers are the on ramps and off ramps to content that is stored on a company’s network “and our job is to help them do what they do,” Jeff says, noting that might mean setting up an electronic workflow that allows multiple people to access documents at once.
The backdrop for today’s document management is a tremendous regulatory environment, with rules, such as HIPAA and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, that dictate how documents can be accessed and secured and what must be archived.
“We take this exploding content and make it easy, so people can do their jobs,” Jeff says. One of the ways Advance does that is by providing managed IT services, essentially becoming a company’s IT partner, providing security for their networks while maintaining and updating them. But the constant is the same customer service.
Although Lois and Alan are co-CEOs, Alan became the public face of the steadily growing business in the 1980s with a series of humorous ads that included tag lines like “They need me,” “I’d rather lose sleep than lose a customer,” and “We live and breathe this stuff.”
The pair started the company in 1964, using proceeds from the sale of Polaroid stock. Lois was a systems engineer for IBM – a rarity for women at the time – and Alan was a branch manager for the business machine company Victor Comptometer Corp. Lois laughs quietly and points out that given the ultimate fate of Polaroid, it was a good idea to sell the stock.
They rented 1,200 square feet of space just above North Avenue for $125 a month and furnished it with “early American furniture” from an auction for $135, including a green executive chair some 30 years old, with a broken spring. For $36, they found someone to fix the spring. The battered chair is still used daily by Alan, who invites a visitor to sit in it and feel the wayward spring.
“We don’t want to ever forget where we came from and get too comfortable,” Alan says. “This business was not built sitting in an ergonomically correct chair and directing traffic. We are in a problem-solving business and we are 365 days a year.”
They had their first child just as they started Advance, and they lived spartanly on their savings for two years, plowing all of the proceeds back into the business.
“We didn’t have enough money to go into equipment, so we went into supplies,” Alan recalls. Those were the days of photocopying, mimeograph and ditto machines. Xerox was coming out with copying machines “and the big ticket items were photocopying supplies.”
In 1968, they moved to 2,000 square feet of space in Timonium, and after a year, took over a 4,000-square-foot space and eventually bought the building. The company continued to grow, and in 1986, they bought a roller skating rink on York Road in Cockeysville, which Lois redesigned.
In 1994, they suffered what they thought was a major setback; during an ice storm, pipes broke behind a wall in the building and flooded all 24,000 square feet with six inches of water. Luckily, the equipment was up on pallets. They had to redo the whole building. Several Advance service technicians approached Alan and Lois and asked if they could rewire the showroom. They would work with a master electrician, but wanted to get network experience to prepare for digital systems “which we knew were coming” to replace analog that was currently being used. The Elkins, with faith in their employees, agreed.
“Out of adversity comes opportunity,” Alan says. “When digital came, manufacturers wanted to know if dealers could learn to network the equipment. Symbolically, we were iced into the world of network. By trusting our own people and being our own first customer, we had a jumpstart on the market.” The building today boasts 52,000 square feet, including state-of-the-art production rooms and showrooms, and a covered garage. Advance also has offices in Frederick and showrooms in Annapolis and at M&T Bank Stadium.
From the days of photocopying machines to today’s networked offices and even paperless offices, Advance has grown to have annual revenues of nearly $40 million.
“Our growth has come from our customers,” Alan says. He recalls one client, a residential realtor, who showed him a Thermo-Fax copying machine – the first “dry” copier that didn’t use liquid chemicals and said, “Alan, that is not a copying machine, it is a contract maker!” “That’s where it came from. I had to learn to service these machines.”
“Our customers have brought us into so many arenas,” Lois says. One example is wide format equipment, another is production print. This equipment was critical to their business and they needed someone they could count on to service it wherever and whenever, day or night, weekday or weekend.
The company also developed its own specific software – because none existed at that time – to fix network related problems remotely.
Giving back to the community is another company priority. When Hurricane Isabel hit, the Red Cross called Advance at 4 p.m. in the afternoon, and by 11 p.m., Advance had delivered, set up and trained their staff on every piece of equipment needed, free of charge.
During their 50 years at the helm – and they have no plans to retire – the Elkins saw technology explode, evolving from typewriter ribbons to multifunctional network printers in a generation and that was the start. But no matter how technology evolved, Advance’s hands-on customer service was available whenever and wherever needed.
“What were we doing that was different? We were there, whether it was 2 in the morning or a holiday,” Alan says.
He believes the same model will continue to dictate Advance’s success, saying, “Our future is our customers knowing they can rely on us.”
Adds Jeff, “We look at ourselves as being in our adolescence. We have a lot of growing to do.” I95