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July 2009
One of a Kind In Charlotte
By Janet Kropinak

     The economic downturn has forced many local businesses to close or consolidate with other entities. At the same time, corporate giants and foreign manufacturers have increasingly taken over independent retailers. Despite the immediate effects of reducing product and service offerings, the more permanent effect on the fabric of a community has a very negative monetary impact.

     According to the U.S. Department of Labor, for every $100 spent in local independent businesses, $68 of it returns to the community through taxes, payroll, and other expenditures. By contrast, for every C-note spent in a national chain, only $43 stays in the community.

     The key to survival in these tough times, most experts agree, is growing a business strong and smart. And that’s just what Vision Office Systems has done. As one of Charlotte’s strongest independent, locally owned and operated office equipment dealers and suppliers, it has bucked the consolidation trend so apparent in the office equipment industry. With an award-winning product line and factory-certified technicians, they have built a strong track record and are doing their part to fuel the community’s continued growth.

 

Creating an Original

     Founder and president of Vision Office Systems Fred Habbal began as a salesman with White Business Machines back when they were selling copy machines, not the sophisticated “multifunction devices” we are accustomed to today.

     He recalls the experience as a positive one and credits it with giving him his “training wheels.”

     “I found the idea of having my own territory so exciting,” Habbal remembers. “It was not only financially rewarding, there was also a sense of accomplishment, for me, that came from driving through the area and pointing out the different accounts I had acquired.”

     After a successful run as a sales rep, Habbal was promoted to branch manager. Some years later, in 1987, another opportunity presented itself for Habbal to become one of the original founders of Charlotte Copy Data (which has since been purchased by Sharp). There he learned the ropes of running a business and in 1997 branched out again, this time on his own, creating Vision Office Systems.

     “I wanted to do things my way,” he says of the decision. “My plan was to get the best people and build a company around strong service, and I believe are succeeding in doing just that.”

     Habbal looked for quality and experience when assembling his team, which today has grown to 30.

     “Our name and our reputation are on the line every time we interface with a customer, and we take that very seriously,” he says. “I look for people who are honest, acquit themselves well, and are sincere and customer-focused.”

     “And a large part of being customer-focused is being a good listener,” he continues. “Our job boils down to listening to what the customer needs and matching those needs with the right machine and the right service plan—at the right price.”

     These solutions come from the findings of an assessment, which allows the Vision Office Systems team an opportunity to learn and understand how document handling systems directly affect everyday work with regard to time, maintenance and cost.

     “Our goal is to keep the customer well-informed and meet their personal document needs, while offering them cost savings and dedicated service,” comments Habbal.

Assessments are also used with existing customers as a way to offer continued savings.

     “The value for a company to have a document assessment is $3,000 to $7,000,” he touts. “We believe so highly in our methodology that we are able to offer the assessment at no cost to our clients to show them how to make their office more efficient given the everyday costs associated with printing. The guaranteed result will be a cost savings of 10 to 30 percent per month.”

 

The Savin Advantage

     Without hesitation, Habbal describes his decision to become a Savin dealer in a phrase, “quality and technology.” Today, Vision Office Systems is the exclusive Savin dealer in the greater Charlotte region.

     Savin offers a broad range of products, from compact systems that support printing, copying, scanning and faxing right from your desktop to digital color systems that boost communications quality and increase productivity.

     “The support we get from Savin has been terrific,” boasts Habbal. “They do a great job supporting us, which in turn allows us to do a great job of supporting our customers.”

Savin’s @Remote technology, which automatically monitors monthly meter reads, toner levels, and notifies Vision Office System of any service problems, is among the advantages listed by Habbal.

     He also posits Savin’s dedication to the environment as another draw, noting the numerous Environmental Sustainability Awards the company has earned.

     “As a manufacturer, they really stand behind their product,” he says. “We’ve never had a problem replacing faulty equipment or getting assistance with diagnosing a problem.”

As technology continues to evolve, Habbal trusts that Savin will remain at the top of the industry, crediting their commitment to research and development.

     “Savin’s technology is so user-friendly that it allows our clients to stay focused on their business—not on office technology,” he adds. “Each advancement they make allows us to solve another problem, or help make life a little simpler for our customers, and that is really exciting.”

     But the flip side to the constantly evolving technology is the need it brings to stay on top of training and certification. Habbal proudly boasts that each of his service technicians are factory certified in each system they carry.

     “The training never ends,” he asserts. “The training is essential because people are looking to us to be experts—so it is our responsibility to be experts and have the answers they are looking for.”

     In addition to carrying a five-year performance guarantee on all their products, Vision Office Systems has a liberal trade-in policy, whereby any office equipment purchased can be upgraded for 100 percent of the purchase price in the first year, 75 percent in the second year and 50 percent in the third year.

     In terms of the “next big thing” or the next wave in the industry, Habbal says he is seeing a shift away from black and white machines.

     “With the price of color machines on a steady decline, we are on our way to eliminating black and white machines altogether,” he explains.

     And he supports the shift. “It is a win-win for everyone. The customer is getting a better product at a better price, there are fewer models our technicians need training on, and the manufacturers are creating fewer models.”

     In addition to the systems themselves, Vision Office Systems carries over 80 brands of OEM printer supplies, creating a one-stop shop for their customers. They also offer full-service printing to their customers, an added service that has helped sustain business during slow periods. Printing services include forms, letterhead, invoices, business cards, and envelopes.

 

Not a Duplicate

     When asked what makes them different from their competitors, Habbal gets comfortable in his chair and starts with the obvious.

     “We are an independent dealer, which in this line of work, is becoming less and less common,” he explains.

     He notes a growing trend in the industry where many independent retailers are being bought up by manufacturers. One main difference between Vision Office Systems and these large manufacturers is their personalized approach.

     “Our position allows us more freedom to be accommodating to the needs of our customers,” Habbal notes. “Decisions impacting our business and our customers are being made right here in Charlotte—not over in Japan!”

     Habbal says that as he travels through their territory, which covers 13 counties in North and South Carolina, and shares their story and what they are about with other businesses, people respond to it.

     “People like knowing they are buying local—keeping money and people employed in their own community,” he asserts. “And in this global marketplace, supporting local business is more important than ever.”

     “Being a locally owned and operated business ourselves, we like that Vision Office Systems is also local,” comments Ashley Furniture HomeStores’ Forrest Stewart, who has been a customer for four years. “It is important for us to trust those with whom we have partnerships, and we certainly feel that way about Vision Office Systems.”

     And to those that trust in the Vision Office Systems team, they promise first-class support back, which Habbal says, starts with being accessible.

     “We don’t have voicemail,” he says frankly. “I don’t believe in it. We are in the service industry so I don’t want anything that comes between my team and our customers. If a customer has a complaint, I want to hear about it. And when a customer wants to thank us, I want to hear that too.”

     When a customer does call with a service problem, they are responded to within four hours or less by a technician, and if it turns out not an easy fix, loaner equipment can be provided at no cost to the client.

     Habbal says he is fortunate for the versatility offered by his industry given the state of the economy, noting their broad range of clients has allowed them to remain steady.

     Looking ahead, Habbal sees an exciting and promising future with tremendous opportunity. “I wouldn’t pick any other place to be doing business than Charlotte. We are so fortunate to live in this community,” he boasts. “There is truly no other place like it.”

     When asked of his proudest accomplishment over the years, Habbal points to the team he has assembled to help him realize his vision—many of whom have been with the company since the beginning.

     “We all know that your customers are your most important asset, right along with your employees,” he says sincerely. “I depend on these people and they work hard for me and the many families this business is supporting. Everyone is working together for the benefit of the company, making us all responsible for its success.”

     Adding to his pride is his newest sales rep, who happens to be his son recently graduated from Western Carolina University. “I was so excited when he asked to join the business. I look forward to his help in carrying forward our legacy.”

     “We are so proud to be a local business in the Charlotte community,” Habbal says. “And our commitment to our community and our customers remains our top priority.”

     Local businesses continue to play a vital role in our community and complete our community fabric in a way that large chains or foreign-bases entities simply can’t. Although he’s in the duplicating business, Habbal likes to think of his business as being one of a kind…and he’d like those in need of upgrading or replacing their multifunction machines to keep their business here in Charlotte!

 

Janet Kropinak is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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