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Don't Judge a Book by Its Cover: The Kinko's Story
Excerpts from Wear Clean Underwear

Imagine you're a career counselor. Your task is to evaluate a young man who's sitting before you. He's severely dyslexic. The learning disability makes it very difficult for him to read. In fact, he hates reading. As for mechanical ability, forget it. He's been in trouble constantly since the second grade. He's been kicked out of schools, gotten into fights. He graduated eighth from the bottom in his high school class of 1,200. An though neither he nor his parents openly discuss it, the guy can't sit still.

So what are you going to do with him? Suggest he become a janitor? A longshoreman? The guy who paints the stripe down the middle of the road? Clearly, this fellow's chances are limited. Before you decide, let me give you a warning: Don't just keep an open mind about customers. You'd be wise to also keep an open mind about employees. And bosses.

It turns out, you see, that this guy is not a fictional character at all. His name is Paul Orfalea. Paul's the head of a company with tens of thousands of employees, but he has trouble sitting through a meeting. With his background and aptitudes (or lack thereof), Paul figured he'd never get a good job and had better start his own business. In 1970 he did. Paul thought his nickname, given to him because of his curly red hair, would make a catchy name for his business; it did. He called it Kinko's. Don't judge a book by its cover.

Happy Fingers Run Happy Cash Registers

Like anyone really smart, Paul turned his limitations to advantages. He realized he couldn't run his own machines, couldn't read a lot of business documents, so he'd have to depend on his employees to run his business. This shaped a lot of Kinko's management philosophy.

"Do you think I've got the motto 'I can do it better than you can'?" asks Paul. "No, my motto is, 'Anybody else can do it better.' I've had to rely on others...that's been the spirit of our company. It's other people's precious hands that build my business. Happy fingers run happy cash registers. You take care of them, they're going to take care of you."

Paul even uses the term "advantage" to describe his disability. "Now, because of my advantage in life, where I couldn't read and had no mechanical ability, I always defined my job in the business as one where things had to run beautifully without me." This kept Paul from falling into a pattern that is very common with entrepreneurs -- having to micromanage everything, be involved in every decision. Kinko's started very small, as just a tiny shop with a copier, but from the beginning Paul delegated responsibility. "The very first day, I had a manager call me the CEO of the business.... From the very first day, if I didn't show up for a month at a time, things ran beautifully without me.

"You asked me how I evolved as a leader. At first I was subordinate. The best definition of management I've ever heard came from my wife: 'Management is to remove obstacles.' The only reason for a boss is to make your life easier, not harder. So I've always subordinated myself to the person at the counter, looked to see what I could do to make their job easier."

Paul has even managed to turn the fact that he can't sit still into a business advantage. Since he hates meetings, he's become very decisive and allows others to be also. He gets out to the branches and spends an enormous amount of his time there rather than at corporate headquarters.

"Decisions are like garbage: The longer it takes to deal with them, the worse they smell," Paul says emphatically. "My thing is, make a decision; just make the decision. There's not one decision here that you're betting the farm on. Make the decision."

I Need This by Tomorrow Morning, or I'm Dead

Let me tell you how I decided to include Kinko's in this book. For more than a decade, I've been a Kinko's customer. I've almost never had a bad experience, and I've sometimes received incredible service. And I'm a tough customer. The fact that Kinko's could please me so consistently is nothing short of amazing.

I have a theory, which is almost always borne out, that one of the best ways to tell whether a company is well managed is to see how customers are treated over time. Unhappy employees don't give great service very long. So I was interested in finding out what Kinko's had or did to create such a positive track record. And when I learned how well compensated some of the employees at my local Kinko's were, I knew something was going on.

Who Does She Think She's Dealing With?

You've probably been to Kinko's. But if you're not a regular customer, you may think the person behind the counter running the copy machine makes minimum wage. That person's last job, you imagine, was probably flipping burgers.

Don't judge a coworker by the Kinko's apron. Kinko's coworkers are highly trained. They have to go through a whole battery of classes. Most Kinko's coworkers are full time, on a career path, with good benefits, a stock option plan, and profit sharing. And they can earn good money. Really good money. Each branch participates in its own profit-sharing plan, with branch managers particularly well compensated according to profits. Very entrepreneurial.

This training and compensation -- along with Kinko's philosophy -- are what makes Kinko's so distinctive and separates it from other copy shops. But customers aren't usually aware of these details, so they can jump to conclusions.

The manager at the Kinko's branch in Grapevine, Texas, recounted an episode: One woman came in to the branch, overdue on a project, really frustrated and anxious. She quickly became abusive to the coworker, yelling at her. Finally she shouted, in a voice loud enough for others to hear, "I don't need to take anything from you. You just run a copy machine. I make fifty thousand dollars a year!" as if to show how important she was. What she didn't know, according to the manager, was that the coworker waiting on her was making about twice that.

At that same branch, the courier arrived while I was there. The courier is a young guy in his early twenties who picks up and delivers customers' jobs. Most people might never notice him as he picks up their orders. But he doesn't just drive a van. Like all Kinko's workers, he goes through a full training program. He has full benefits. He's on a career track. The day we talked, he had just finished one of his courses, "The Theory of Digital Imaging." He could actually talk to customers about their jobs, answer questions, suggest alternative solutions. Think.

Mom would have been delighted. She always liked to hear that people were doing well.

Rhonda Abrams lives in Los Altos Hills, Calif., and writes the nation's most widely read small-business column, distributed by Gannett News Service. She is also the author of the bestselling book, The Successful Business Plan: Secrets & Strategies. Abrams is also an entrepreneur. In 1986, she founded a management-consulting practice that has clients ranging from one-person start-ups to Fortune 500 companies. In 1995, she was an Internet pioneer, founding a Web-content company, which she later sold.

Reprinted from Wear Clean Underwear: Business Wisdom from Mom
by Rhonda Abrams.
Copyright 1999 by Rhonda Abrams.
Published by arrangement with Villard Books.
Available at the McGraw-Hill book store and from Random House by calling 800 793-2665.
All rights reserved.



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