by Greer Deneen

When you look at Atlantic Business Products today, you won’t see many vestiges of the company’s copier dealer roots. With more than 15,000 customers, 250-plus employees and four locations in the New York City metropolitan area, the organization has — in just a handful of years — evolved into a full-spectrum managed services firm and one of the top five independent dealers in the country.

To understand what Atlantic Business Products is all about today, a good place to start is the firm’s slogan: “Tomorrow’s Office Technology Today.” If it has anything to do with office automation, Atlantic tackles it — from IT consulting to backup and disaster recovery, network and security solutions, and hardware and software procurement. Print and document management are on the services list but melded seamlessly with Atlantic’s other offerings.

“What was unique about Atlantic that allowed the company to make the transition from copier dealer to managed services provider was owner Larry Weiss’ focus on selling solutions,” explains Bill McLaughlin, chief technology officer at Atlantic Business Products. “Even though he was selling imaging devices in boxes, the emphasis always was — and still is — creating efficiencies that make customers more productive.”

That improved productivity comes in a variety of shapes and sizes for Atlantic customers — who also come in all shapes and sizes. “Any firm that needs help with office technology and automation can find the support they need here,” McLaughlin notes. “We don’t exclude or focus on any particular verticals, although we’re strong in health care, accounting and law firms. We also do a lot with the New Jersey school systems and with a high percentage of the state’s municipalities.”

A deal with the “devil”

One of Atlantic’s most high-profile clients is Devils Arena Entertainment, which includes the Prudential Center and three-time Stanley Cup champions, the New Jersey Devils. As “official solutions partner and copier supplier” for the Devils’ organization, Atlantic provides IT help desk and staff augmentation as well as document imaging solutions and green initiatives.

As MPS matures, prospective customers are demanding even more flexibility and accountability.

“Like many of our larger customers, the New Jersey Devils want to focus on important niche-oriented software and products, like hosting servers and managing mission-critical business applications,” McLaughlin says. “They support their custom applications or the applications that run their business, while we provide what they feel is the rudimentary desktop support that they don’t want to deal with. When any of their users have an issue with a desktop — like (a) Microsoft problem, for example — they pick up the phone for the help desk, and they’re connected to us.”

Atlantic provides a similar solution to Christian Health Care, a New Jersey-based, multicampus health care network with 800 employees. “Quite honestly, their IT team has more important things to do than field help desk calls,” McLaughlin says. “It’s far more productive for them to focus on electronic medical records and other health-care-specific issues and to let us take care of the day-to-day problems.”

Smaller companies — even those with fewer than 10 employees — benefit from outsourcing as well, McLaughlin adds. “A modest-sized company can’t and shouldn’t try to justify spending $50 to $75K on an IT professional or a help desk,” he says. “By outsourcing to us, they get all the expertise of (a) firm devoted to office automation for far less than they’d pay if they attempted to handle it themselves.”

Band-Aids, bubble gum and paper clips

Whether big or small, a surprising number of Atlantic’s prospects have one thing in common: “Once we get inside to take a look at operations, we very often see that office technology is disjointed and inefficient — held together by Band-Aids, bubble gum and paper clips,” McLaughlin says. “In situations like these, there’s no need to do any selling. We’re consulting with them to design the architecture that’ll solve their problems.”

One of the defining differences Atlantic offers to its customers is a managed print services capability that does what every other MPS offering does — and for less. “Almost everybody’s out there making all the same promises. They say they’ll reduce printing costs, cut carbon emissions and consolidate equipment. All good things, but consolidate all you want. If you’re still printing the same number of pages, you’re still spending too much,” McLaughlin asserts.

“As I look around the industry, I’m seeing all sorts of MPS competitors beating the daylights out of each other,” he cautions. “They’re driving down cost per page and cutting their margins in the process. They might win short-term business, but everybody ultimately loses — including the customer who doesn’t see the printing savings that were promised.”

The only way to genuinely reduce customers’ costs — and preserve the profitability of providing managed print services — is to show customers how to print less, McLaughlin says. “That’s a huge mindset shift for anybody who grew up selling printers and copiers. But it’s the only way to ultimately win at this business.

“If you’re a potential new Atlantic customer, we’re going to show you how counterproductive it is to continue printing at your current volume,” he adds. “We’ll show you how to reduce your clicks, how to reduce the number of devices in your environment, and how to reduce the number of pages that come out of those devices. In the process, you’ll spend less, you’ll cut down fewer trees, and your employees will be more productive. That’s a much more compelling message — with a lot more opportunity to be profitable — than competing on cost per page.”

Managed print services are a sliver of the capabilities Atlantic provides. The company has a robust offering that incorporates remote monitoring, automated supply fulfillment, help desk capabilities, a network operations center and sizable service department. For maximum flexibility, the program is built on several platforms.

“We’re a cradle-to-grave, fully automated offering — to the point of being able to ship toner with the specific delivery location labeled right on the actual cartridge,” McLaughlin notes. “We also have state-of-the-art monitoring technology. Close to 40 percent of printer issues can be resolved over the phone or remotely through our operations center.” The problems that can’t be solved from afar are handled by Atlantic’s dispatch center, which directs the activities of more than 100 repair technicians.

One foot in the pool

As MPS matures, prospective customers are demanding even more flexibility and accountability, McLaughlin says. “Whether it’s establishing rules-based printing, automated job routing and tracking, or being able to charge back to specific departments, customers are getting much more sophisticated, and their expectations are far higher. If you don’t have a team that’s dedicated to managed print — from initial assessment to ongoing analysis — you’re not going to be successful,” he advises.

There’s a lot of buzz in the industry about hybrid dealers who are trying to layer network services, document management and managed IT on top of managed printing — and it sounds good in theory, McLaughlin observes. However, he notes, few companies have achieved a high level of expertise in MPS. Most are struggling — either unable to provide the level of service promised, or providing effective service but failing to generate a profit. He cautions that jumping into managed services isn’t a quick fix; it requires expertise, commitment and substantial financial resources.

“It’s not the sort of situation where you can put one foot in the pool,” McLaughlin says. “Any firm that wants to take on that risk has to invest heavily in the talent, the hardware and the right software platform. For most, it’s a better policy to stick with MPS until you do it completely and really well before you attempt to layer on something new.”