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LaserMonks' Prayers No Match for Market's Invisible Hand

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MONKY BUSINESS
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The printer ink and toner industry has lost its most prayerful player: LaserMonks is no more.

The Web-based vendor of printing supplies and other office goods, has shuttered, the Associated Press reported yesterday, and its Cisterian Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Bank in rural Wisconsin is on the market for $2.6 million. Membership at the abbey, built for 20 monks, had fallen off to just three before they disbanded.

Run by Benedictine monks, the business was a bit of a media sensation in the mid-2000s and had annual sales in the millions of dollars as recently as 2009. Customers could request prayers along with their office supplies. Today its customer list is sold, the near century-old brotherly community it supported is gone, and its website redirects to a company called Usa4ink.com.

Strange as it may seem, it's not unusual for the monastic calling to include selling goods, and doing it successfully: The Trappist order in Belgium and the Netherlands has a centuries-long history of making some of the world's best beers, to take one example.

And as this Forbes feature from 2009 points out, it's actually common for monasteries to support themselves producing and selling low-margin, commodity products like cheese and eggs. Though they're in tough businesses, "[t]he demand for their prosaic products far outstrips supply, giving monastic businesses the kind of pricing flexibility usually associated with dominant brands or patent protection," entrepreneur August Turak wrote for Forbes. He went on to suggest secular business leaders could take lessons from the "service and selflessness" exhibited by the monks he observed, whose commitment to quality came from packing every egg with a "prayerful attitude."

LaserMonks' undoing seems to have come from typical earthly business woes -- namely, the slow economy, competition from bigger printer-ink players like Hewlett-Packard and Canon, and overleveraging their assets. According to the AP, the monks were severely in debt, having mortgaged and refinanced their 15,000 square foot abbey to the tune of $3.1 million since 2006.

The temptations that come with worldly success may have played a role in the abbey's dissolution, too, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. LaserMonks CEO Brother Bernard McCoy, named one of Fast Company magazine's Fast 50 Champions of Innovation in 2004, flew around the country in a donated small plane and extolled a life of "holy leisure" that included tending to a collection of Peruvian horses. The Journal Sentinel tracked down an aspiring brother who'd left the abbey because of what he called a "life out of balance." He explained: "The Benedictine way is all about balance. But this had become too many outside trips, late night outings and dinners with benefactors."

Still, printer owners will surely miss the option of buying their toner from LaserMonks. To paraphrase the great Saturday Night Live skit, there are two things everyone loves: monks, and lasers.

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