Above: Alan and Lois Elkin
Recently, I learned from Jeff Elkin, president of Advance Business Systems in Cockeysville, Maryland, that his mother, Lois had passed away on December 7th. It was a sad moment as I reflected on our first meeting 49 years ago. You can say we were well acquainted.
I first met Lois when I was a DSM for Saxon Industries. That was in 1973. Lois and her husband Alan opened Advanced Business Systems & Supply Company in 1964. When I received the list of 40 dealers within my territory, I covered 3½ states, and Maryland was one of them. Working my way from New Jersey, Pennsylvania I reached Cockeysville, Maryland. Having made an appointment, I was greeted by a receptionist and escorted into the offices of Lois and Alan.
Her husband Alan passed away in September 2017 and Lois had a stroke in December of the same year.
Their son, Jeff, joined the business in October 1990. You can say with a high degree of comfort that Alan and Lois trained Jeff to manage very well with what they had established in July 1964. From all accounts, the transition went smoothly.
There were two desks side by side with a dog named Missy sitting between them. I was invited to sit down and felt I was about to be quizzed. It was worse. Alan told me that an automatic document feeder the prior DSM had sold them did not work and was tired of asking permission to return it to Saxon. In that era, manufacturers did not take the equipment back.
I knew I was in trouble and said I would speak with my regional manager, and I already knew the answer I would get. After things got better, we talked about the business and what they anticipated for the forthcoming quarter. I was taught always to ask where and how I could help them.
Lois spoke calmly about some of the deals they were working on. Their dynamic was simple, Alan was the bad guy, and Lois smoothed things over when Alan was through. However, she was no pushover. I had 40 dealers to call upon, and to her credit, no other women were involved in any of the businesses in my territory. Lois was unique in many ways.
The key to Lois and Alan’s relationship was that Lois was a listener, and when the talking was done, she gave her opinion and, I assume, much more after the visitors were out of the office.
Alan became active in CDA, and upon his passing in 2017, Jeff took over the business and continued to attend CDA meetings as he did this past October. To outsiders, it was a simple transition, but I do not believe that for one moment. Jeff had to deal with his parent’s wishes. He also has a sister who is a doctor. Having just gone through the loss of a sibling, nothing is easy.
I am reminded of an event that occurred many years ago. Alan reached out to me and wanted us to visit him and Lois in Baltimore. He had come across software that provided a solution for someone in a wheelchair to operate the device. The company holding the patent wanted to sell the entire company. Working in the Washington DC area, Alan spoke of the opportunity with the social security office. It made some sense. However, Alan and Lois would be buying a company with a single software solution. My advice was not to do it because the company had little else it had invented or was working on, and its solution could be addressed one way or another by other manufacturers. Alan was looking at an exceptionally large potential customer to provide a single solution. Lois agreed and was grateful for our advice, and I refused to be paid. As I explained, if it were something that they would buy, and I could help them with marketing, it would have been a no brainer. I did not want to be paid for saying no because I considered them friends.
Alan and Lois were always grateful for my advice, and Lois never forgot. A few years before the pandemic, I had the occasion to visit Baltimore. I reached out to Jeff to say that I would like to visit him and hopefully see Lois.
He welcomed me and said that Lois, who was dealing with an illness, wanted to see me. Jeff arranged for us to have lunch. It was so nice to see her. I teased her and said she should have retired earlier to smell the roses. She looked at me and laughed, “Look who is talking.”
It was people like the Elkins that built our business. I can write this from our experience with these incredibly special people. I reached out to Jeff and asked him share what he learned from his mom. This was his response:
“Alan & Lois Elkin were such a package deal that most of my comments apply to both. Growing up in a house where my parents were equal partners in a young business meant the lines between business and family were blurred at times, but that was not a bad thing. From my earliest memories, I learned a value system that I treasure to this day and aspire to perpetuate to my kids and beyond. They taught me how to treat people…all people. Employees and customers were the reason for our existence. In addition, going back to the blurred lines, they taught me how to treat and respect a spouse and/or business partner. Everything that they taught, they did so through role modeling.
I also learned more about business at the dinner table than at four years of business school!
When not working, they shared a love for travel. As we all know, our industry gave them the gift of seeing so much of the world.
Following my father’s death in 2017 and even after suffering a debilitating stroke three months later, my mother taught me about strength and resilience in the face of enormous adversity. Although her last five years were more difficult than most people could ever endure, she found meaning and value in life and did so on her terms.”
The Elkins did what all successful dealers figured out. They created companies focused on providing optimum customer service because the initial products they sold were problematic. Their customers learned they had nothing to worry about when buying new products from the Elkins as they could be counted on providing excellent service. Advanced Business Solutions remains a well-respected business, representing Ricoh and Canon. In our 37th Annual Dealer Survey, it was 20th in total revenue out of the 380 dealers that participated.
Successful entrepreneurs like Lois and Alan Elkin are one of the reasons I wanted to build a business around the dealer channel. Those that were successful never quit and managed all types of crisis situations, such as addressing interest rates of 23% in the 1980s. They always made it look easy, and the Elkins were no exception.