Cartridge firms toning up Self-employed: More entrepreneurs are starting businesses that replenish the toner in printer cartridges and deliver them to clients, who can save 50%.


John and Marianne Wells have engineering degrees from Virginia Tech University but, between them, they've lost five jobs. Ten years ago they decided that was enough, made themselves the bosses and haven't looked back since.

Their business is not glamorous -- it literally leaves participants in a cloud of black dust -- but remanufacturing toner cartridges for laser printers is prospering in Maryland and the nation.

Most remanufacturers are people with an entrepreneurial spirit who want to make extra income, counter a pink slip or simply break the chains of having a boss.

The Wellses like the job security. Tom Ryan, a former technical writer who owns a remanufacturing business, likes spending his days at home with his family. And John Pinkas, who was laid off as head of facilities for a local defense contractor, is just happy to be working.

In 1988, Pinkas -- now the owner of J&S; Laser in Baltimore -- was working for Martin Marietta Corp. While changing the cartridge in his laser printer, he grew curious about what made it tick and sawed the empty one in half.

He did some research, and soon was spending his spare time in his basement taking apart empty toner cartridges, cleaning or changing some of the parts, adding new toner and selling them to businesses for a profit. When the job cuts that were sweeping the industry caught up with Pinkas seven months later, he and his wife, Sharon, plunged full time into the toner business.

"I haven't missed any mortgage payments," he said.

The idea is simple: Instead of buying new toner cartridges, many individuals and businesses rely on local remanufacturers who pick up used ones and drop off remanufactured cartridges at almost a 50 percent savings.

"We don't have to play big-business politics, and we have job security," John Wells said.

The industry, born in the early 1980s with the spread of laser printers, is growing.

Just 10 years after starting in their basement, the Wellses -- who own and operate Laserscript in Columbia -- employ nine people and remanufacture 1,000 cartridges a month out of a 4,000-square-foot warehouse. Sales are up 27 percent in the first three months of this year, according to the couple.

"People are happy to see you show up," said Tom Ryan of Laser Processing Inc. in Catonsville. "[Toner cartridges are] something they need, and [remanufactured cartridges] save them money."

When Ryan was working as a technical writer for a division of Westinghouse Electric Corp., he had a laser printer on his desk. "To throw the empty cartridges out seemed wasteful," he said. "I looked into it and learned about remanufacturing."

He was recharging cartridges in his basement and eventually quit his writing job. Ten years later, Ryan and his wife, Michelle, still operate their business out of their home in Catonsville -- although now it's a large house in a subdivision instead of the family's former townhouse.

"I'm at work now," he said, while sitting on a recliner in front of a big-screen television, pointing to his wife and 15-month-old daughter, Christina. "I get to see them a lot more than if I was doing something else."

Environmental savings

Aside from their lower cost, remanufactured cartridges have an environmental savings: the 2 1/2 pounds of trash an average cartridge creates.

"I'm not an environmentalist, but I am concerned," said Deborah Hamilton, owner of Cartridge Masters in Essex.

Hamilton started Cartridge Masters with her husband, Ronald -- a White Marsh Protestant pastor -- 10 years ago after trying to find an alternative to throwing out the empty cartridges they were using at their jobs with a nonprofit Christian group.

"We would stand over a trash can with a cartridge in our hand and [could] hardly let it go," she said. "There's gotta be a better way, we thought. There's gotta be."

The couple did the remanufacturing work themselves until four years ago, when the pressures and commitment of having their own business overwhelmed them. "We needed some personal time," Deborah Hamilton said.

They still pick up their clients' empty cartridges -- 150 to 200 per month -- and drop off remanufactured ones, but now they send the empty cartridges to another company that does the remanufacturing.

Most remanufacturing businesses are mom-and-pop operations that turn out no more than a few thousand cartridges per month, according to market researcher John Shane of CAP Ventures in Norwell, Mass.

Handling the pressures

Area remanufacturers say being a small operation leads to the various pressures the Hamiltons faced, but the good outweighs the bad.

"The good is you're the boss. The bad is you're responsible for everything," Tom Ryan said. "There's no one to leave a problem to, but I enjoy handling that."

In the overall toner cartridge sector, these local operations coupled with the several dozen national remanufacturers account for only 20 percent of the annual $4.4 billion toner-cartridge market, with the rest of the market being in sales of new cartridges, Shane said.

With 80 percent of the market to conquer, the future looks bright for this group. Shane predicts good growth prospects for the established businesses, but said the high cost and sophistication that have developed due to new cartridge and printer types might make it difficult for new ventures.

But the industry's potential could be appealing for people like John and Marianne Wells or John and Sharon Pinkas, who have that entrepreneurial desire.

"I've always wanted to have my own business," John Wells said. "I'm glad we did it."

Pub Date: 5/18/98

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