Given this week’s Fourth of July celebration, it seems only appropriate to pay homage to a Difference Maker who, in the face of long odds and potentially damning consequences, took a defiant stance that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court…and won.
One of the unofficial staples of the holiday, aside from grilling hot dogs and hamburgers before taking in a fireworks display, is watching summer blockbuster movies. A personal favorite, “The Patriot,” follows Benjamin Martin’s journey during the Revolutionary War from conservative bystander to full-on warrior following the death of his son at the hands of a British colonel. While mourning his son’s loss, Martin’s sister-in-law attempts to provide solace, arguing, “You have done nothing for which you should be ashamed.”
Martin, pondering the sins of inaction, replies, “I have done nothing. And for that I am ashamed.”
In a similar vein, Impression Products owner Eric Smith weighed the possible outcome of inactivity when his toner cartridge remanufacturing firm was issued a cease-and-desist letter from Lexmark, and later taken to court on the claim that Smith’s firm was infringing its patent rights by refilling and reselling Lexmark toner cartridges. He could have settled out of court, but mindful of the possible impact on his employees and the industry, Smith stood his ground. The suit snaked its way through to the Supreme Court, where Smith triumphed. (Read more about it here.)
A settlement could have landed Smith in a tropical paradise, sipping Mai Tais while watching the sunset. But truth be known, Impression Products is Smith’s world. It is his life, it is his air, and he spends every moment away from the office longing to be back there.
A Life’s Work
“My whole life is a dedicated 24/7 commitment to my employees and clients,” he said. “I commit this time for to my employees for sticking by my side, 15, 20 and 25 years. I commit this time to my clients for giving me the privilege of serving them and spending their money with my company.
“I get depressed when the weekend arrives because the hustle and bustle go away and what I can do is limited. With that said, I still like going to the office to play catch up and try getting things ready for the following week. In other words, I believe I’m addicted to the hustle and bustle as I truly cannot wait for Monday to arrive so I can get my motor running on high again for another week!”
Walter Smith launched his typewriter ribbon business in 1978, and son Eric joined the fold just as fax paper exploded on the scene. At the time, OEMs were charging upwards of $400 for a six-roll box of the paper—which was famous for curling and falling off the machine following transmissions—and businesses were snapping them up, often 20 boxes at a time.
The younger Smith cut his sales teeth on fax paper, so to speak, toting sample rolls door to door, asking businesses if he could provide a demonstration of their less expensive, curl-free paper. “Those were good times and valuable lessons learned at a young age from the door-to-door experiment,” Smith remarked.
When the laser printer debuted, it wasn’t long before Impression Products turned its attention to supplying toner cartridges, providing OEM products from HP, Canon, Brother and Lexmark. As was the case with the fax paper, Smith wanted to build a better mousetrap and began offering quality remanufactured toner cartridges at prices up to 50 percent off manufacturer levels.
By 2010, the C&D letters started pouring in from Lexmark, opening the door to a seven-year headache that was finally put to rest in the spring of 2017 by a resounding Supreme Court verdict that found Lexmark’s patent rights had exhausted after the first sale. It was a monumental triumph for remans everywhere, not just in the world of imaging.
Smith has emulated his father, who juggled every aspect of the company. “He was the CEO, secretary and delivery runner, all rolled in one, and never afraid to get his hands dirty,” he observed.
A huge fan of accessibility for clients, Smith also ranks U-Haul CEO Joe Shoen among his business idols. “(Shoen) lists his cell phone number to the public to keep his finger on the pulse,” Smith noted.
Leaving an Impression
Whether Smith and Impression Products will ever grow to become household names outside of the office products circuit remains to be seen. He is hoping to parlay that national exposure into increased growth for the Charleston, WV-based company. But regardless of whatever business fortunes may be reaped, Smith has forever solidified his place in free commerce history books by taking a principled stand for small business owners everywhere.
“I must admit, it’s a pretty cool thing to let the world know that goods of all kind—smartphones, computers, automobiles and even medicine can only now be legally purchased in their entirety thanks to Impression Products,” he said.
And unlike Mel Gibson’s character, he is free of remorse or shame.
“I never give up,” Smith related, “and I fight for what is right.”