UTEC Scales to Greater Heights Behind Quality Customer Experience

Few things can bore Kevin Van Kannel more quickly than talking about transactional relationships, which are likely to elicit a yawn or an eye roll from the president of UTEC, the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based dealership he acquired in 2008. Van Kannel certainly comes off as an energetic and fun-loving guy, so the aforementioned, impersonal topic is a waste of time.

Transactional deals sometimes come with the territory, but they do little to spur the passion of the UTEC exec. Want to see his eyes light up? Ask him about those deals that start off as MFP installs, then evolve into deeper and more meaningful relationships. He’ll mention the Michigan credit union that came for the MFPs, then stayed for the digital displays and interactive signage, the staff augmentation, and service for its 40-odd locations across the state. UTEC, like many dealers, can do MFPs all day long. But like a quality physician, Van Kannel and Co. do a complete checkup and get to the heart of what’s truly troubling a customer.

UTEC executives (from left) Les Harris, Kevn Van Kannel and Tom Harrison

That is what makes the UTEC experience and their work all the more worthwhile. Leave the transactional business to a hardware store—Van Kannel wants to make a meaningful impact on the lives of his customers.

“It’s fantastic to sit down with a client and see what problems we can solve for them,” Van Kannel said. “We’re smart enough to know that you can’t be all things to all people, but if we can help someone solve a problem and they’re not afraid to try it, that’s the kind of thing that excites me. It’s all about building partnerships that are meaningful and appreciative.”

A dealer of Sharp, Epson and Kyocera products, UTEC has consistently punched above its weight with innovative and engaging ideas that embolden the $10 million dealership to strive for greater heights. Born University Office Equipment in 1975, Van Kannel acquired what was a $650,000 mom-and-pop operation in 2008—a business that was so mature, it still had typewriters and calculators on its showroom floor. It was rechristened University Office Technologies (quickly shortened to UTEC for practical reasons) and has enjoyed more than 10X growth behind a crew of 50 employees.

Southeastern Michigan is the dealer’s primary stomping grounds, with key markets including Detroit, Lansing and Macomb County—roughly 10 counties in all. UTEC has gained traction with managed print (MPS) and managed network services (MNS), the latter of which provided 48% growth year over year. In addition to the aforementioned digital signage and interactive displays, the firm offers document management, VoIP cloud phone systems and mailroom services. Along with university clients, UTEC counts K-12, finance and manufacturing among its customer verticals.

Solid Momentum

UTEC is coming off a 2022 that saw it post a 25% increase in sales over 2021, and the company has already surpassed its pre-pandemic performance in terms of revenue, profitability and machines in field, according to Tom Harrison, the company’s COO. He credits UTEC’s sales team and its strong partnership with Sharp, an OEM that managed to skirt many of the supply chain issues that plagued other manufacturers.

“It was a team effort. The sales team found creative solutions for our customers and our service team provided outstanding service to our customers, as they always have,” Harrison said. “Our success is truly the result of a team effort, and our management team works very well together.”

UTEC employees, customers and guests take in the hardwood action from the 2022 NCAA men’s basketball tournament

The client rebound was complemented with UTEC garnering a greater share of available business. “Our clients have largely recovered from the pandemic and are trending in the right direction,” Harrison added. “While it’s hard to define normal, I think our customers are all back on track. Our success last year was due in part to the fact that we were able to increase our market share significantly in 2022.”

In Les Harris, the company’s vice president of sales and marketing, Van Kannel has a kindred spirit in delivering complete solutions and cultivating quality customer experiences. Harris was a former customer from Van Kannel’s time in the equipment leasing business, then a competitor when Van Kannel embarked on a career in the dealer space. Van Kannel finally cajoled Harris into joining UTEC, half-joking, “I got tired of losing deals to him.”

Difference Maker

The union has benefitted UTEC in numerous ways and has cast the execs as somewhat of a dynamic duo (more on this shortly). “Having someone such as Les has helped change the culture, making it better and stronger,” Van Kannel noted. “He has a sales and leadership skill that’s really resonated to help us retain people and bring on new team members.”

Harris also credits MNS with enabling UTEC to scale, while the supplies and service components have returned. He’s proud of the inroads UTEC has made with flat-panel displays, and MFPs have also witnessed an uptick, with A4 gear garnering a more prominent role.

MNS has flourished under what Harris terms a “land-and-grow strategy,” garnering deeper penetration into the traditional MFP accounts. The cybersecurity piece, which has experienced a bit of oversaturation as an industry talking point, is gradually being accepted as an investment rather than an expense. The pain and costs of inactivity no longer elicit a sigh, as clients have seen countless examples of the consequences to doing nothing.

“We lead conversations with the entire managed services topic, and part of it is cybersecurity,” Harris noted. “The issue isn’t going away, it’s only compounding. If you’re managing and it’s not part of your equation, your offering is incomplete, and you don’t have the best interests of your clients at heart.”

It’s important, in Van Kannel’s estimation, not to develop preconceived notions as to what a solution should be when sitting down with a new client. “We want to have business conversations with our customers,” he said. “We want to evaluate where they’re at and what’s happening in their office, then look for the appropriate solution for any pain points that may exist.”

Model OEMs

As an executive who values forging deep and meaningful relationships with clients, Van Kannel has the utmost appreciation for Mike Marusic, the president and CEO of Sharp. It goes beyond UTEC being able to source equipment; he believes Marusic’s guidance underscores the notion that only a true relationship between an OEM and a dealer can enable both to grow and flourish. Van Kannel takes great pride in his company’s ability to consistently attain the Sharp Platinum Level Service Provider award and being among a small percentage of dealers to reach that level.

It takes steady hands to navigate the putting “greens” at UTEC

“We’ve truly enjoyed our partnership with Sharp,” Van Kannel said. “When people look back on the pandemic 10 years from now, I think they’re going to write books about Marusic’s leadership during this period. He found the right tone when COVID hit and even coming out of it. That’s filtered down through his leadership team.”

The Platinum Level Service Provider kudos speak to the heart of UTEC’s value proposition. Being among a small cadre of winners reflects on the considerable investments UTEC made in service and training. The company boasts a skilled, tenured tech service crew led by Tom Wykowski, who’s driven to find methods and tools that can improve their performance.

Les Harris (left) and Kevin Van Kannel interview Maya Adrine (right) with Golden Limousine International for a podcast

At the heart of sales and technical service is that quest for delivering on an unparalleled customer experience. “Anyone can sell an MFP or talk about managed network services. But it’s the customer experience when a client signs on the dotted line that really matters,” Van Kannel said. “Once the customer comes aboard, that’s when the job really begins. It all comes back to not only delivering on the promises that you make, but exceeding them as well.”

On the Air

One of the most significant moves UTEC made in recent years was the opening of a podcast studio at its headquarters. The initiative dovetailed with Van Kannel’s investment in a marketing company, enabling its SMB clients to enjoy the same level of marketing firepower as their larger counterparts. He saw the podcast as an ideal vehicle to help clients tell their story and gain greater exposure within their own markets.

The “Les Kevin More Tech” podcast debuted in October of 2021 with Van Kannel and Harris as hosts. It’s welcomed clients ranging from a local high school principal to a golf simulator company and local law enforcement officials, in addition to industry manufacturer execs and luminaries such as Mike Stramaglio. Members of the UTEC team also join the fray to discuss various aspects of technology and the industry.

UTEC’s Les Harris conducts an employee training session

“Les and I wanted to have a platform for conversations with relevant or interesting people and highlight something a customer or employee has done,” Van Kannel said. “We work with many nonprofits and try to give back, and we thought the podcast would be an interesting way to highlight what they’re doing.”

Instead of focusing on what UTEC can offer its clients, the spotlight is cast on the client. “It allows us to have a discussion about what’s important to them and their organizations,” Harris added. “It’s quite powerful because people really open up in these podcasts, and as a result, we find ourselves in a better way to align with their interests.”

Buying the equipment and setting up the studio, like the inking of a new client, represented just the beginning of the experience for Van Kannel and Harris. If they line up a local physician to talk about health care, for example, they’ll help the subject strategize on a topic or platform. After the interview concludes, the editing process begins to help shape a conversation into a compelling, sometimes humorous and often engaging, insight-filled exchange.

UTEC president’s club winners enjoy the white sands of Fort Lauderdale’s beaches in 2022

Not having any experience in podcasts prior to launching, Harris admits to a few clunkers in the early stages. But as they’ve developed and fostered both cadence and strategy, they’ve produced a body of work that garnered attention throughout their network and local communities. The podcast, as Harris see it, is truly the last medium for providing long-form conversations on a given topic. The feedback, too, has been overwhelmingly positive.

The podcast is but one tool in a marketing offering, including everything from social media management to web design, that UTEC seeks to grow in the future. “The small-business person wants to have the marketing tools that large companies enjoy, and that’s not often feasible,” Harris noted. “Kevin has created a program so that they can have access to this type of technology for an affordable, monthly fee.”

Thinking Big

UTEC has a fairly aggressive 2023 strategy outlined, calling for growth exceeding 20% of total revenues. That will entail embarking on production print equipment to help augment its revenue per transaction. Building upon past managed IT success, which will require adding talented salespeople to the fold, is essential to meeting those goals. MPS is another growth key, and Van Kannel is investigating the possibility of adding print and IT firepower through acquisitions, which would be new territory for the dealer.

Taking cues from its manufacturing partners, UTEC welcomes product diversification. Van Kannel is excited about Epson and its PrecisionCore Heat-Free Technology, and believes inkjet represents a solid business prospect moving forward. All that UTEC strives for as it grows comes back to cultivating the customer experience that wins customer’s hearts and business.

“We’d love to continue to expand and open up a couple branches in some of the outposts we’re in,” Van Kannel noted. “The podcast is just another part of that customer experience, and we want to showcase that we’ve got incredible employees. I think the core to our success is we work very hard. We sit on the boards of various organizations, often alongside our customers. When you work side by side on a common project and they get to know you, they appreciate us and decide they want to do business with us. It certainly makes a difference.”

Sharing Sports Passion Adds to the Madness UTEC Cultivates

When UTEC purchased its new facility in 2016, President Kevin Van Kannel wanted to throw an out-of-the-ordinary welcoming party for clients and prospects. A ribbon-cutting ceremony punctuated by a spread of wine and cheese is fine, but a little too predictable for his tastes. He wanted to try something more memorable.

Since many of the company’s execs and team members are ardent golfers, Van Kannel decided to cut nine holes into the floor of the new facility and insert golf pins. Now, whenever a new customer is ushered in for a visit, the tour commences with a putting session in between visits to the sales, service and admin departments.

One of the other amenities in the new digs is a video wall room that contains a monster 165-inch set of displays. And what better way to make use of the space than to host a March Madness party to usher in the NCAA tournament? Van Kannel was hoping to have about 50 guests trickle through during the bash. The total was closer to 400 visitors.

“We all love college basketball, so we thought it was a good way to kick off the tournament and invite our friends, customers and prospects,” Van Kannel said. “There were more than 400 people who came for the second party the following year. It was just a fantastic event.”

COVID-19 poured cold water on all hosted events—in fact, the Michigan state shutdown came a mere two days before the 2020 party was slated. The event returned in 2022 with a smaller party, and last month the dealer held its second post-pandemic fete, which had 300-plus RSVPs just a few weeks out.

“After COVID, a lot of people mentioned how they missed our March Madness party.” Van Kannel said. “Last year wasn’t as big because people were still reluctant to attend big gatherings. But the situation is getting back to normal. It’s just getting bigger and better.”

From left, Les Harris, Kevin Van Kannel and Tom Harrison, UTECg

Erik Cagle
About the Author
Erik Cagle is the editorial director of ENX Magazine. He is an author, writer and editor who spent 18 years covering the commercial printing industry.