South Dakota dealer builds two businesses around office technology, managed IT, and Terra Energy Services’ EV chargers from ACDI.
Above: Office Advantage headquarters in a Sioux Falls office park.
Can Office Advantage, a small South Dakota dealer with two locations, nine employees, and two separate lines of business handle both lines effectively? Apparently so. Office Advantage in Sioux Falls and Mitchell, South Dakota, is learning by doing—and doing it well.
The dealership was among the first to market ACDI’s Terra Energy Services’ electric-vehicle (EV) chargers, which it sells via a dba, Energy Options. According to Mark VanDenHoek, president of both organizations, the business models for EV chargers and office technology aren’t all that different. On the office technology side of the business, Office Advantage sells and maintains technology, including IT. On the EV charger side of the business, it does the same thing. “I have a good bench of IT technicians and analysts,” observed VanDenHoek. “They have said it isn’t a big deal supporting EV chargers, so it wasn’t a reach for us once you think about it. We sell hardware and maintain it, and we’re in the business of handholding anyway.”
Energy Options is one of the first group of dealers in the U.S. selling Terra Energy Services EV charging stations.
In VanDenHoek’s view, the technology used in EV chargers isn’t all that different from the IT technology his techs are familiar with. “EV chargers are electrical devices, and the higher tier ones basically have a computer to accept payment and provide data for reports and pricing.”
Mark VanDenHoek heads both organizations and is their lead salesperson.
VanDenHoek’s enthusiasm for EV chargers is encouraged by forecasts that project that by 2025, 30% of cars will be electric. “Frankly, I think that’s a stretch, but it’s growing,” he opined. Despite the wide-open spaces his dealership covers across South Dakota, VanDenHoek sees opportunity.
The competition in the market encompasses some of the largest players in the EV charging station space, including Blink Charging, SemaConnect, EVgo, and Francis Energy. That doesn’t scare VanDenHoek because he doesn’t think those organizations have a strong enough service base to handle all the stations they are installing. That’s where being a legacy office technology dealership with a history of building computers and servicing computers and copiers comes into play. “Sixty percent of our business revenues come from servicing competitive products,” said VanDenHoek. Ultimately, he sees Energy Options providing third-party service for some of the larger players in the EV charging industry, as well as servicing ACDI’s Terra Energy Services products that Energy Options sells.
An Energy Options service vehicle helps brand the business.
Since last fall, VanDenHoek has focused on marketing this new line of business, including hiring a full-time marketing person and leveraging HubSpot and social media to build a pipeline. Energy Options focuses on commercial opportunities versus residential, although the company is amenable to placing EV chargers in multifamily dwellings. Hotels and restaurants are also attractive target markets. Energy Options has been leveraging Federal Tax Credits to sell these devices. One customer who owns several hotels plans to use the Federal Tax Credit, which will offset up to 30% of his deal. “That could be $80,000 to $90,000,” revealed VanDenHoek.
Office Advantage = An IT Company
The dual logos of VanDenHoek’s two companies.
Long before he even thought about EV charging stations, VanDenHoek’s office technology career started more than 30 years ago thanks to a serendipitous meeting while working as a flight medic. He was in a print shop ordering business cards when he met a Xerox agent. After learning about VanDenHoek’s job and his schedule of 24 hours on and 48 hours off, the agent asked what he did on his off days. VanDenHoek’s reply was, “This and that.”
“Maybe you should be a part-time sales rep,” the Xerox rep suggested. VanDenHoek took the bait and found himself learning on the job. “This was before the internet and cell phones,” he recalled. “I was in the middle of South Dakota with 12 brochures and a price list.” Eight months later, the agent was fired by Xerox, and VanDenHoek became a Xerox agent.
Office Advantage was the name given to VanDenHoek by Xerox Corporation in 1993. He now owns the company and still sells Xerox—everything from desktop copiers to production equipment. Four years ago he added Epson. “I love their products and people,” said VanDenHoek. “It’s a great differentiator. My defined territory is 6,000 square miles. We have a lot of clients that are 150 miles away. And it’s great because of the cost of operation. There are zero moving parts, and they don’t break much. For us, it’s all about rolling a truck. Epson just came out with their new product line, and it pretty much checked the boxes on what was wrong with it before. I think it’s going to take off.”
Another segment of the business that has made a difference for Office Advantage is IT services. VanDenHoek added IT services to his offerings a couple of years after becoming an agent when one of his Xerox clients, an ex-Gateway employee, approached him about getting into the internet/computer hardware business. “I’m like, I don’t even know what that means,” recalled VanDenHoek. “Speed ahead a year or two, and I was an ISP. We built computers, generic white boxes—thousands and thousands of them. And then, Xerox started to connect our stuff, so the two worlds came together. It was like a bad movie; we went from zero to eight employees in a few weeks.”
The new hires were brought in to handle the technical aspects of the job. VanDenHoek also hired someone to help sell the internet services, which were dial-up at the time.
Energy Options and Office Advantage excel at setting expectations and placing the right products. VanDenHoek shared how he sets expectations. “I’m very rural, and 40 miles from me is a large co-op telco that wanted to buy a digital printing press to print their monthly newsletters. I said, You’re going to have to buy two. They’re like, Why? Because, I said, if you think we can roll a truck on Friday at four o’clock at the end of the month when you break down… We’re all about hot swaps, backup plans, and redundancy. We should get T-shirts that say, You live where you live by choice. If you live 150 miles from the nearest service center, I can’t be there in two hours, so we set expectations and have backup plans.”
Customers like doing business with the dealership because of its technical expertise. “Everyone says they do a good job of service, but who really knows?” said VanDenHoek. “It keeps me awake at night worrying about making sure my customers are happy. We’ll do whatever it takes. We took over some significant Xerox production printers. That contract started on Monday, and we have to add a service person. Of all the folks that work with us, there’s only one inside salesperson, me, and everyone else is technical or service.”
Competition on the office technology side of the business ranges from some of the biggest dealers, such as Marco and Gordon Flesch, to several local dealers. However, there are fewer of the latter as the smaller competitors are being acquired. “I’m probably one of the smallest guys for 300 miles,” acknowledged VanDenHoek.
Despite the size of Office Advantage and Energy Options and the huge territory the two divisions cover, business is good. VanDenHoek expects that to continue. “I think we will have an excellent year on both sides of the house,” he predicted. “We took over several print shops from our OEM, and some of our technical folks are going to have a lot of fun with the EV side. We’re excited.”