“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” One must say, Kal Kardous’ Charlotte Copy Data makes the old adage appear rather convincing.
What started in 1965 as a one-man operation selling copy machines from the streets of Chicago has spawned a $40 million business machine sales company covering five markets with over 260 employees.
But despite the fact that technology keeps businesses like Kardous’ moving at a fast clip, it is still his lovable ‘old school’ approach to sales and relationships that keeps the business successful. Kardous places high priority on finding and keeping committed people, training, service, loyalty, and being true to his word.
Known widely in the community as a networking advocate and generous sponsor, Kardous is a good-humored businessman with a firm handshake and a glimmer in his dark eyes. He laughs a lot, and doesn’t shy from buttering up his sales people. He explains how each employee is ‘the best,’ but each time Kardous says it with his distinctive Syrian accent, he means it with his whole heart.
Restoring the Human Touch
It takes character to work for Kal Kardous. He is a self-proclaimed ‘people person’ with instinctive talents for seeking a good fit for his team. Sales candidates must be socially outgoing, connected and confident. Technicians must be analytically astute yet passionate about attending to the customer. Office staff must meld into a culture of high stakes sales (there is fierce competition) as well as honest-to-goodness loyalty and care for customers.
“I joke that a relationship with a customer is like marriage—neither one of us can just walk away from it. We offer the very best service and the very best support, and I can’t even tell you how many of our customers have been with us the entire 18 years since we opened. We try to spoil them and they reward us with their loyalty,” remarks Kardous.
Kardous’ insistence on good people and great service is not a theoretical concept he read about in management books. It is a hard and fast discipline he honed as he sold copiers on the streets of Skokie, Ill., that grew as he worked for business machine manufacturer ICP after he graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, and that has become almost a religious conviction now that he owns his own companies.
In fact, after Kardous sold his first venture, White Business Machines, he felt that his standards for service weren’t being met. “We sold that company in 1986 and watched for two years as large companies bought out independent dealers, cut back service and technicians, and returned money to their investors. By 1988, there was a huge void in customer service, repair, and sales—and we knew we could fill it. In many ways our business was founded on restoring the human touch,” recounts Kardous.
Which is ironic, since Charlotte Copy Data primarily offers solutions to reduce the number of human touches needed in an office. He readily admits that the offices that purchase his business machines today are quite a bit different from the ones of decades past.
“A lot of people don’t realize what a revolutionary business this is. When I first started selling copiers, there were still secretary pools typing away at their desks. People were using carbon paper hoping that the last of the four sheets would be legible. When these people saw that they could make unlimited copies with the push of a button, and that the whiteout they had used to cover their mistakes wasn’t visible on the output, it was a revolution in terms of quality, money, time and human resources,” explains Kardous.
He is no less passionate about the products he sells today: “The first time I showed an executive a fax machine, his jaw was agape. This brilliant businessman just couldn’t believe that the piece of paper he fed into the machine would be visible to someone in Shanghai. Now we have communications going through machines and around the world in minutes.”
Kardous adds, “Today, people are of a different mindset. Most of us have accepted that we don’t have to understand the inner workings of something to believe that it works.”
But again, despite the fact that his business is rife with technological advances, Kardous still sticks to what he has used effectively all these years. For one, he insists that face-to-face communications supersede the use of phone and e-mail “Why is someone in the same office going to send a message when they can just walk up and have a personal conversation? Face-to-face communication is vital to sustaining relationships.”
Kardous practices what he preaches, and in fact credits his success to a passion for talking with people. “I was never hesitant to ask the customer, ‘Do you know anybody who might need my product? Referrals are still the best way to build a business.”
Kardous’ touch has made customers loyal to Charlotte Copy Data and its regional offshoots. Some might say he is also fanatical with his loyalty to his customers, too. “I don’t care whether it is insurance or real estate, I always ask sales people who approach me if they are our customer. If they say ‘No,’ I gently explain that we support the people who support us, first.”
Passionate About Customer Care
“It’s the people,” repeats Kardous.
Whether he is talking to a customer or an employee, Kardous is 100 percent invested in the relationship before anything else.
For example, he has a rather unorthodox approach to opening new locations. “We scout an area for good people first, and then we decide where we will open a location. You can always rent a building, but you can’t guarantee you will get top-notch people to fill it.”
He continues, “I have the best employees in the world, real human beings with passion, commitment and drive. We don’t accept flat-line personalities here. This makes our working relationships rich, plus we know if we hire a passionate person, that they can be passionate about the needs of our customer.”
Charlotte Copy Data was founded on the premise that customer attention and care would be its primary concern, and from day one made a bold promise to service any machine within 4.5 hours of a service call. Technicians are paid based upon an average time lapsed between call and arrival, and Kardous says they currently are averaging about 2.5 hours. Occasionally an employee is penalized if a repeat visit is required to solve the same problem.
Kardous admits a service paradigm can be tough to maintain in the days of a competing Internet marketplace, but it doesn’t really concern him. “On the Internet, most people commit to a purchase based upon price. What they find out the hard way is that there are costs on the back end for not having a high quality product and the service to accompany it.”
He continues, “That is why salespeople are so important. They aren’t there to push a product, they are there to explain the product, find what works best for you and what will bring you the most value. They help to get you excited about this purchase that will, in the long run, be extremely beneficial for your business. Two years after a major purchase most people remember how much they loved or hated the product, not what the price tag was when they bought it.”
He adds emphatically, “I will never, ever get rid of salespeople.”
Just as valuable to Kal are the people who take new technology and bring it into customers’ offices to make it usable. “People want new technology and all it offers, but to get that we have to be able to provide direction for the customer to not only use it properly and maintain it, but to understand all the features that will help leverage the investment as far as it can go for the business.”
Nuts and Bolts
Charlotte Copy Data has 57,000 square feet of space in Charlotte where the machinery—human and mechanical—operates. There are areas dedicated to sales, training, demonstration, aftermarket sales and service, and accounting, in addition to a warehouse. The atmosphere is more like a Sunday morning than a Tuesday afternoon. The smiles on many of the staff make it feel more like a family-owned restaurant or grocery store than where Charlotte firms get their fancy business machines—it truly combines the best of both worlds.
The machines ready for delivery in Kardous’ warehouse are cutting edge equipment. He works with two to three manufacturers at a time, because he says, “Every manufacturer goes through cycles in quality.” He says that the lifecycle for office equipment in the past ran about five to six years, but with technology moving as quickly as it is, three to four years is now a more reasonable period to expect to use a piece of equipment.
Names like Canon, Minolta, Muratec, HP, Sharp and Samsung are visible on machines around the office, heralding equipment like copiers, faxes, digital printers, and mammoth large format color printers. Charlotte Copy Data also specializes in computer networking and electronic filing. “We don’t want to cast too large a net on what we want to provide. We specialize in helping move the flow of paper—physical or virtual—around your offices,” explains Kardous.
Since it began, Charlotte Copy Data has added offices in Asheville, Gastonia, Fayetteville, Greensboro, Hickory, High Point, Raleigh, Winston-Salem and Greenville, S.C., and now is focusing on growth, says Kardous, “not geographically, but on the bottom line.”
He explains, “I never really intended to add locations. I wanted to keep it simple and relaxed, close to home. But the challenge called, there were the right people on deck, and I couldn’t say no. But companies go through growth just like nations, and now we have to be responsible, to create a firm foundation to make it great and sustain it.”
Kal Kardous has become a bit of a celebrity around Charlotte and the Carolinas. His ubiquitous “At Charlotte Copy Data, our accent is on quality” commercials in radio and TV strike a chord with listeners, and he is very connected to the Carolinas. He is active with the sports teams, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, is the presenting sponsor of Cupid’s Cup 5K for Carolina’s Medical Center, is included on the circuit speaker roster for Interact!, and otherwise eats, drinks, dreams (and golfs) his work.
He comments, “Work and play are the same thing to me. If that ever changes, then it will be time for me to retire.”
But don’t count on that happening anytime soon. A 1997 article had Charlotte Copy Data targeting the $20 million mark by 2000. Now, seven years later, the company has doubled that, and shows no signs of slowing down.
In fact, Kardous has a brigade of little white courier trucks with modest “Charlotte Copy Data” stickers on the window—no expensive trucks, flashy logos or fancy paint jobs. But stop to notice them and suddenly they are everywhere.
Knowing that Kal Kardous and his human touch are the force driving this army of little white trucks through Charlotte traffic, they become a delightful