Alan and Lois Elkin's business has a big anniversary coming up next year: 50.
Cockeysville-based Advance Business Systems specializes in document-related work — selling equipment such as printers and copiers, servicing it and providing networking support. The IT focus is just one of the differences between now and 1964, when copying could mean mimeograph. The company's grown, too, and now employs more than 170 people.
What hasn't changed: The husband-and-wife team still hands out their home number to customers. (Cell number, too, though that obviously came after 1964.)
The company's service team is on call around the clock, holidays included, but Alan Elkin said customers like knowing they can get the co-CEOs after hours. Like 2 a.m.
"What we are selling is 'when you need us,'" he said. "It's not just a product but a service."
The Elkins, who were inducted into the Maryland Chamber of Commerce's business hall of fame this year, chatted with The Baltimore Sun recently about Advance, including why they started giving out their home number.
What changes have you seen in the industry over nearly 50 years? What did customers need then versus now?
Alan: We have seen the evolution of the photocopier — analog machines were soon replaced by digital copiers, and soon digital copiers had the ability to connect to a network to scan, print and copy in color.
Lois: The work has changed so dramatically. Fifty years ago, computers were brand new on the scene. Many were the size of very large rooms. Today, computers continuously are becoming smaller and smaller and faster and faster, with far more capacity, and have now become an integral part of much of the equipment we sell.
When did you start giving your cell and home phone numbers to customers, and how often do you get awakened at night as a result?
Alan: Three and a half months after we started the business, I called upon a former customer of mine from my previous company. … 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.
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?"
I took out my business card (possibly still wet from the printer) and wrote my home number on the back and said, "Mr. Schmidt, you have my pledge, you have my word, and you have my home phone number so that any hour of the day or night that you need us, you may call us at our office, or you may call us at our home."
As for how many times we have been called at home, in the early years, it was certainly hundreds of times. Today, even though we have a staff of technicians available at all times of the day or night to answer emergency calls, every customer that we meet still gets our home and cell numbers, and we still get calls from time to time.
Every company has high-flying and laid-low moments. Tell us about a challenge and how you handled it.
Alan: In 1994, the year of the ice storms, Advance suffered a major flood at our headquarters here on York Road. … We had our own private lake — six inches of water throughout the entire 24,000-square-foot building. There was tremendous damage throughout the building.
Despite all the odds, we had wonderful people who continued to work, and we never missed a single day. … Faced with the question as to how we should rebuild, six of our own senior service technicians came to us with a suggestion — trust them to help design and install a showroom that would be equipped for the impending digital revolution in our industry. At that time, not only was our entire product line analog, but networks did not exist except for in larger companies.
The result was positive — not only did we become our own first customer in the world of networked office solutions, but the decision put us well ahead of the curve when digital finally exploded.
Give us a taste of how business has been going: What's your growth trajectory been like the last few years? Any new areas of focus?
Lois: In spite of the unusual economic conditions over the past several years, we have been able to continue to grow. … Ever since we started connecting our devices to our customers' networks, they have increasingly turned to us to help them with their IT challenges. As a result, we have launched a new area of focus called Managed IT.
Whether complementing their existing IT staff or, in some cases, taking the lead, remote technologies allow us to proactively support their networks, secure their data and keep their IT infrastructure ahead of the curve so they never miss a beat.
Seems like being co-CEOs who are married to each other and take calls at all hours could make it hard to separate work and home life. Do you carve out some time that's strictly off-limits for work? If so, for what?
Lois: Because we are both so involved in the day-to-day, it is a challenge not to discuss the business, but we absolutely carve out personal time — especially for family and vacations.
We really do "live and breathe this stuff," but we are fortunate to have employees who exhibit much of the same commitment and passion that we do, so we can take time for ourselves.