Century Business Products Looks and Thinks Big in a Small Market

Serving a small rural market suits Century Business Products just fine. The Sioux Falls, South Dakota-based copier dealership, overseen by a trio of owners, Aaron Gerdes, Brett Gildemaster, and Kevin Jergenson, is racking up $10+ million a year in revenues selling Kyocera and Konica Minolta hardware along with solutions and services, including MPS and document management.

Kyle Ruhland, marketing director, reports that business so far this year has been good thanks in large part to greater diversification among their product and solutions offerings.

left to right: Aaron Gerdes, Brett Gildemaster, Kevin Jergenson

left to right: Aaron Gerdes, Brett Gildemaster, Kevin Jergenson

Because they’re located in the heart of a smaller market, Century Business Products doesn’t have a wealth of major corporations to call on compared to dealers selling in major markets do. The focus is primarily on small and mid-size businesses as well as state and government.

The Sioux Falls market is a competitive one; then again, what market isn’t? Century’s competitors are  other independent dealers. To date, manufacturer direct branches have yet to penetrate the market in any meaningful way.

Even though a conservative business approach is the foundation of Century’s business culture, that didn’t prevent management from realizing a year or so ago that a complete rebranding was necessary to keep pace with changes in the industry and the way customers prefer to do business today. The mission was to better position Century Business Products as a key technology, services, and solutions provider throughout Sioux Falls and the surrounding area by ramping up its online and social media presence.

“We wanted to reenergize our Website and do more electronic marketing,” recalls Ruhland. “As we were going through the process, including approval processes on the Website, it came up that maybe in a year or so we’d refresh our logo, giving the company a technologically enhanced look, especially if that was our directive in the near future.”

That look hadn’t been updated since the 1980’s when the company was first formed.

“Once we accomplished the look and feel of the new design then steps were taken to transition our business look and marketing campaign,” says Ruhland. “We knew the process would take some time.

Today, a visit to Century’s Website reveals not only a copier company, but a company focused on providing customers with document solutions. Fortunately, there was complete buy-in by management, staff, and customers for the rebranding efforts.

“It was a win-win,” adds Aaron Gerdes, one of the three owners.

Kyle Ruhland

Kyle Ruhland

Century has made a concentrated effort this year to reach out to potential customers in their region who use the Internet to search for office technology and services. “Once pinpointed we can follow those individuals utilizing searches for our products, and then we serve up ads to grab their attention,” explains Ruhland. “In conjunction with that we have paid for placement positions on the Web and are continually optimizing our Website so we are near the top of pages during searches.”

Century also sends out a monthly electronic newsletter to more than 5,000 contacts with local news and national articles containing information of interest to customers along with information about advancements in office technology. In addition, the dealership’s collateral materials were revamped during the rebranding process, all with a consistent message that Century Business Products is now a document solutions company.

Leveraging social media has been critical to the newly rebranded dealership’s marketing efforts and you’ll now find them on Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin. “A lot of that happened because some of the staff we hired were in that generation who had an understanding of that media,” says Ruhland.

The rebranding hasn’t led yet to any measurable jump in sales, at least as far as Ruhland can tell. “You hear the comments, but because we cover such a large area we don’t know if what we’re getting is because of advertising or marketing, but we have heard a lot of good comments and I think word of mouth has helped too,” notes Ruhland.

What is measurable is that Century Business Products is growing 30 percent year over year in MPS, a service they began offering five years ago. The Kyocera printer line has certainly helped those efforts.

“Our competitors are coming in and managing the existing printer fleet for a flat rate,” says Gerdes. “We can offer that as well but with our analysis and  because of our product line we have the capability to refresh the fleet, and depending on where they are, provide the services and solutions that the customer wants at a cost that’s either comparable or a little bit more [than our competitors]. We provide more of a value than most of our competitors.”

There’s still a lot of education that needs to be done with customers about MPS, particularly in Century’s market, but they’re catching on.

“There’s some apprehension when dealing with IT & business owners when replacing an MFP, but when discussing complete printer management at one consistent cost at the same price or lower than they’re currently paying,  it’s the old, what are we missing here, what’s going on and what are you trying to do?” says Ruhland. “There’s times when they just don’t grasp it.”

As decisions move up the corporate ladder, it’s become more common for Century’s sales reps to spend more time with IT folks compared to a few years ago.

“I’m dealing with the CEO, CFO, IT, business managers, owners, it really depends on the application and business goal,” responds Ruhland. “If you’re dealing with printers, you’re dealing with IT first. You may get the blessing from the ownership to proceed, but it’s IT who is saying I’m going to let you on my network or I’m going to let you do this.”

If he’s selling document management or imaging, Ruhland’s dealing with business owners and CFOs. There the questions focus on the business processes and efficiencies, investment, cost justifications, and the complete analysis.

“For MFPs and printers, we deal with everyone—IT, CEO’s, and CFO’s,” adds Ruhland.

Asked what Century’s management knows now about selling MPS that they wish they had known five years ago, Ruhland replies, “I wish we would have gone down the path with the Kyocera printer line and done the analysis that way. I think life would have been a lot easier.”

One challenge many dealers have faced for years now is transitioning their sales reps from copier reps to solutions salespeople. And that’s something Century has had to deal with as well. Ruhland has been with Century for 10 years and is still trying to figure out how to adopt the new way of thinking and get the company’s sales reps to accept that when selling services such as managed print, sales cycles are longer.

“I’ve been working on one MPS deal for almost six months now,” states Ruhland, who is well aware of the frustrations that reps feel. “It just takes time if you’re going to do it right, and sometimes the mentality is not there to wait for that process to happen.”

To help their reps get over that hump, Century offers training sessions at their main office. While some dealers employ specialists to assist their sales reps in the field, Century’s specialists tend to work behind the scenes. “Our sales reps go out and ask the questions and try to find out what the needs are before we bring in our developers, etc.,” notes Ruhland. “It’s a little different than just having a complete specialist.”

On the sales side, Ruhland is one of the few sales people in the dealership who can also function as a specialist. He possesses some certifications, which helps him and the other reps in the company. “It’s worked out well because there are some things that we are providing now that’s harder to grasp for some of our seasoned sales reps,” adds Ruhland.

Century sells both Kyocera and Konica Minolta devices, but Kyocera is considered their primary line. “There’s a nice complement between the two product lines, and depending on our analysis [of customer needs], that’s how we decide which way to go,” notes Ruhland. “I think we have more flexibility and more continuity with the Kyocera line—how everything ties into networks, systems, and what companies understand, it’s a better integration.”

Although Century hasn’t branched out into Managed Network Services yet, they’re considering it.

“I see it with our younger employees, they print less, copy less, obtain more of their information via electronic devices whether it’s their tablet or phone; I can see the future and the trends, and that’s  probably the step we’ll have to take to grow our business,” says Gerdes.

As the industry changes around them, Century continues to move forward even though their core business philosophy remains the same—serving the customer amidst changing technology. “But you also have to help the customer understand that you provide more services than you did five years ago,” emphasizes Ruhland.

That’s something that Century is currently doing and will continue to do as new services and solutions opportunities emerge to ensure that customers and prospects alike understand that they’re the best option for technology, solutions, and services in their market.

Scott Cullen
About the Author
Scott Cullen has been writing about the office technology industry since 1986. He can be reached at scott_cullen@verizon.net.