Alan I. Elkin, co-founder with his wife of Advance Business Systems, who spoke the memorable line “We live and breathe this stuff” in TV ads that made him a local celebrity, died Sept. 9 of complications from an infection at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
The longtime Pikesville resident was 85.
“Alan always wore a button that said, ‘I’m No.2,’ and when you asked him who was No. 1, he’d say, ‘My customers,’ ” said Stephen A. Geppi, a Baltimore businessman who is head of Diamond Comic Distributors Inc. and publisher of Baltimore Magazine.
“Whenever I saw Alan, I always said, ‘Here comes the man who invented customer service,’ ” Mr. Geppi said.
“Alan was always interested in the needs of his customers, and that’s my definition of a professional salesman,” said Mike Riordan, founder and president of Riordan & Associates, a Kansas City, Mo., business management consulting firm that specializes in the perpetuation of family-owned businesses.
“I’ve never know someone like Alan, who was so concerned about his employees and customers. He was a man of integrity who always did the right thing,” Mr. Riordan said.
“He was the consummate professional salesman. He was a very proud man, very competent, and very successful. He embodied that,” he said.
The son of Samuel Elkin, owner of a dry-cleaning establishment, and Kate Elkin, Alan Ira Elkin was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and spent his early years there before moving with his family to a farm in Ellenville, N.Y.
After graduating from Ellenville High School, he attended college for two years before enlisting the Army, serving in the early 1950s.
After being discharged from the Army, Mr. Elkin earned a bachelor’s degree in business in 1956 from the University of Colorado at Boulder.
After college, Mr. Elkin moved to New York City, where he worked as a salesman for Victor Comptometer Corp. selling calculators and adding machines. He came to Baltimore as the company’s branch manager.
He met Lois Shanman, who was manager of an IBM test center, on a blind date, family members said. They were married in 1962.
“He liked to tell the story that he was fired, because he was so successful. People above him gave him an option of taking a demotion or moving on, but he liked to say he was fired,” said his son, Jeffrey R. Elkin of Pikesville, who joined the company in 1990 and has been president of Advance Business Systems since 2011. Earlier, he was the company’s chief operating officer.
“We both more or less worked in the office field” at the time, Mrs. Elkin said. “We both were not working, and we had a baby on the way. We both wanted to work together, so we started the business in the living room of our apartment in the Marylander, which we had to move out of because they didn’t allow babies.”
The couple, who were the only employees of the new business, opened it in 1964 in a storefront on E. 21st St.
“Our first sale was two sets of correction tape at $4 each,” recalled Mrs. Elkin.
Three months after opening the business, Mr. Elkin called on a company he was familiar with from his previous job.
“Their president, Mr. Bob Schmidt, [said] they were a very busy office from 9 to 5, but were even busier from 5 to 10 in the evening, and busier still on weekends and holidays. Mr. Schmidt further stated that if I really wanted to be of service to his company, he was looking to us for evenings, weekends and holidays,” Mr. Elkin told The Baltimore Sun in a 2013 interview.
“He then pointed to a Thermo-fax copier … and he said, ‘Alan, that is not a copying machine, it’s a contract maker, and it needs service when it needs service! So what are you going to do?’ ”
Mr. Elkin said he took out his business card, wrote his home phone number on the back and told the potential client, “Mr. Schmidt, you have my pledge, you have my word, and you may call us at our office, or you may call us at our home.”
It was the beginning of the company’s reputation for service day or night that was the emphasis of radio ads the couple wrote themselves in the 1970s. By 1983, Eisner Communications, a Baltimore advertising agency, persuaded them to move on to TV.
The first ad featured Mr. Elkin opening a window in the middle of the night, shouting, “They need me!” and then boarding a repair truck that raced off into the night to fix a malfunctioning copier.
“It was filmed in June, and it must have been 110 degrees, and they had to do take after take. We were in bed under heavy blankets, and the makeup kept running off,” Mrs. Elkin recalled with a laugh.
For several years, ads featuring Mr. Elkin rushing to the aid of distressed customers — by dinghy, helicopter or some other vehicle — continued to use the “They need me!” line.
Another ad featured Mr. Elkin, portraying a pitcher, with then-Orioles manager Frank Robinson, who intones, “Great service, lousy curveball.”
Perhaps the most memorable commercials featured the “We live and breathe this stuff” line created by Richard Smith of Smith & Associates.
“I don’t think Alan at first was comfortable doing them,” Mrs. Elkin said of the commercials. “I don’t think he was thrilled being on the screen.”
“I thought he was having a lot of fun,” Mr. Geppi said.
“He was an extremely humble guy and was the antithesis of what you see on TV. He had no ego,” his son said.
“Alan was one of my most favorite people on earth,” Mr. Geppi said. “When I opened up my first comic shop in 1974 at 612½ Edmondson Ave. in Catonsville in the basement of a TV repair shop, Alan sold me my first copier. I’ll never forget how he treated me that day, and it’s been that way for the last 40 years.”
He said Mr. Elkin was “intelligent and just a good human being. He was the kind of guy who made you feel that you were just a good and best friend.”
Mr. Geppi also said Mr. Elkin taught him how to treat customers.
“It’s the Golden Rule: You treat others they way you want to be treated,” he said.
The Elkins’ company has grown to 170 employees, with $40 million in sales last year. It moved in 1969 to Greenspring Drive in Timonium and in 1986 to its present home on York Road in Cockeysville.
Toward the end of his life, Mr. Elkin was still coming to the business several times a week.
“My parents, who worked side by side for 53 years, loved everything about the business.’ their son said. “They did everything together. They loved their customers, and they loved the people who worked for them. They loved visiting Ocean City, but the business was their family and passion.”
Mr. Elkin was a member of Har Sinai Congregation.
Funeral services were held Monday at Sol Levinsons & Bros. in Pikesville.
In addition to his wife and son, he is survived by a daughter, Karen Mazer of Pikesville, who was Advance Business System’s human resources manager before opening Synchronicity, a Pikesville boutique; two sisters, Elaine Epstein of Frederick and Berenice Kleiman of Cleveland; and six grandchildren.