Bernard McCoy is the worst-paid CEO in the country. His business makes millions in profits per year selling ink and toner online, but his annual pay is ... zero.
That’s because Father Bernard is a monk — one of nine brothers who pray, work and live at Our Lady of Spring Bank Abbey, a Cistercian monastery in west central Wisconsin.
“One day I went online to order some toner for the monastery's printer,” Father Bernard recalls, “and found that the markup on ink supplies was sinfully high.” So the monks launched a Web site, LaserMonks.com, to sell discounted computer printer products.
Once the Abbey's operating costs of about $150,000 a year are covered, the rest of the profit — about $4.5 million — goes to charity. Call it venture capital for good works.
Customers get to suggest where profits are invested. Some of the money trains Vietnamese orphans how to use office computers. Other funds feed battered families. Part of the profits helped Joe Sanwald do something no one in his family has ever done: graduate from high school.
The monks hired the 17-year-old to build a guest cabin in the forest surrounding the Abbey. “Kids were giving me a pretty tough time since I was poor, but look at me now,” Joe says with a grin. “I’m doing better than they are!” He's even planning on going to college.
Father Bernard studied astrophysics at Georgia Tech University. During his sophomore year, he put together an import/export business in 30 countries from a pay phone in his dorm. One day, he got a collect call — from God. He became a priest.
Before Father Bernard came to the Abbey in 1991, the monks had been praying for a better way to pay the bills for nearly a quarter of a century (Cistercian monks do not rely on donations). They considered everything from cultivating mushrooms to constructing a world-class golf course, but monks are supposed to live lives separate from the stress of the outside world.
Father Bernard does pray half the day, but he runs a worldwide corporation during the rest of it. Some people might question whether that is appropriate in a contemplative life.
“There's a certain amount of religious thinking in the American Christian world that says money is kind of tainted — there's something evil about it," he acknowledges. But Father Bernard believes the success of LaserMonks proves them wrong: “What I've come to realize is that money is a tool that can be useful for doing a lot of good for others.”
The monks weren’t sure their printer supply business would have a prayer; there are dozens of similar online companies. But sales skyrocketed in 2003 and doubled each of the next two years, because the monastery's labor force has taken a vow of poverty.
“Even if we got a pay raise, we'd still be making nothing!” says Brother Tom, his eyes twinkling as he packs a box for shipment.
“What perks do you get?” I ask.
Brother Tom slaps a label on the box, then pauses. “Peace.”
Here’s where to contact the subjects in this American Story with Bob Dotson:
Father Bernard McCoy
17304 Havenwood Road
Sparta, Wisconsin 54656
Read how Father Bernard built his business:
“Lasermonks, the Business Story Nine Hundred Years in the Making” by Sara Caniglia and Cindy Griffith, McGraw Hill
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