Undaunted: A Conversation with Repeat Business Systems President Dawn Abbuhl

Dawn Abbuhl

Dawn Abbuhl

If you’re going to work an 80-hour work week like Dawn Abbuhl, president of Repeat Business Systems, the end result had better be a successful business. Based on its 28-year history and how it’s doing this year, it’s safe to say, Repeat Business Systems is indeed a successful business.

The locally owned and operated dealership, founded by Dawn and her husband John, has been servicing the Albany, New York region since 1987. A Ricoh authorized dealer, Repeat Business Systems offers sales, service, and supplies for a wide variety of office technology as well as IT services, workflow analysis, and consultation. With a broad mix of products and an emphasis on services and software, Repeat is following the game plan for a successful 21st century office technology dealership.

Dawn’s introduction to the office technology industry dates back to the 1980’s when she was dating John, who at the time was just out of college and working for a copier dealership. Dawn was a teacher working with children with special needs then and when she’d finish work she’d go to John’s office and help him out. That’s how she discovered one could make good money in this business just by working hard and doing the right thing.

Even though John was doing well at the copier dealership his dream was to start his own business. After he and Dawn married, that’s exactly what happened…with Dawn’s help. Soon after she began her summer break from teaching, she told John she’d find a manufacturer and they’d start a business together. She ended up calling just about everyone before finally convincing Sharp to take a chance through her sheer enthusiasm.

There was just one little complication that had to be overcome before they could open their doors. Dawn and John were living in Connecticut at the time, but had been authorized to sell Sharp fax machines in Albany. That meant the fledgling company had no office and no address, along with no bank account, no business plan, and no training. It was the perfect recipe on how not to start a business. Undaunted, Dawn’s enthusiasm helped her and John secure their first loan, quite an accomplishment since their only collateral was Dawn’s aging Toyota Tercel.

Nearly 28 years later Dawn is the president and face of Repeat, completely and solely responsible for the dealership’s day-to-day operations while John focuses on strategic and long-term planning.

Dawn also maintains a high profile in the document imaging industry where she’s an active member of the dealer community and the incoming President of CDA (Copier Dealers Association). She sits on 15 boards and committees, including Ricoh’s National Dealer Council and the Chamber of Commerce where she is the President of the Foundation Board. Through Repeat she has made donations to over 100 organizations last year alone. In addition, Repeat was awarded “Best Places to Work” four times in the last two years by two different regional publications, another example of how Dawn remains committed to doing the right thing. One thing she is most proud of is mentoring men and women in the community who have new businesses or business challenges.

What do you like best about this business other than being rewarded for working hard?

Abbuhl: I see people get married, have kids, buy houses; I’ve gone through the life cycle of so many of my staff. We have low turnover and I get to see people changing in their lives, and it’s just been amazing. As I thought more about this question, I realized that business is all about relationships and I feel so lucky to have developed such close relationships with so many in the community.  We have had many of the same customers for over 20 years!

Dawn Abbuhl

The other thing is we can always do the right thing. When John worked for this other company, he didn’t have a lot of recourse. Here, if we make a mistake we can fix it on a dime. Here’s a great example, this gentleman from a church called and needed help with some scanning/IT issues, we gave him a quote that it would be X amount per hour and he said, “We don’t have any money and we need to get our bulletin out.” We just went over there and did it.

My whole team knows they’re authorized to do any nice thing even though sometimes we take it a little too far. I was on vacation a few years back and one of our competitors called up and wanted a copy machine because they couldn’t get one because of credit issues or whatever and the customer was going to cancel the deal. My VP said, “What would Dawn want me to do; I’m sure she’d want me to get him a copy machine.” Truthfully, maybe I would have, maybe I wouldn’t have.

But I always feel good every day about doing the right thing and nobody can tell me you can’t do that because it costs too much money.

What task associated with your job do you least like to do?

Abbuhl: I hate letting people go. Nobody likes it for sure. It’s usually for an incredibly good reason, but no matter what it’s tough. Other than that, I’ll clean the toilets, go on calls, I’ll do anything.

How’s business been this year?

Abbuhl: We’ve had a fantastic year and are hitting our goals every single month. Usually you have a lot of great months and a couple that aren’t so good. Our fiscal ends Sept. 30, so we’re just about there and if we have two more great months we’ll have hit our goals for [12 straight months].

What product segments are doing well for you?

Abbuhl: We’re selling a lot more production and a lot more solutions for document imaging and back-file conversion.

What are you doing right with the solutions?

Abbuhl: We started early selling solutions, which is great and challenging at the same time. It was torture to not see the financials pay off in the solutions arena [at first], but like anything, you hang on and your expertise and credibility rises. It took a few years for us to get the solutions moving, but this year it finally clicked.

I also have a great team. If you ever come to Albany, every single person you meet is someone I would hire again in a heartbeat. Every time somebody moves away we always try to find somebody that’s one notch better, but I don’t think I could do any better right now.

How does your dealership narrow down the solutions it’s going to focus on, considering there are so many to choose from?

Abbuhl: We rely on our own CTO (Chief Technology Officer). I also rely on this individual at Ricoh. I’ll ask him, “What do you think of it? What do other people think of it?” Ricoh doesn’t have a ton of turnover on that level and we’ve had the same people supporting us and our solutions for 10 years. He knows my company, knows me, and I trust him. If my CTO likes it, he likes it, and I have customers that I’ve had for 20+ years and I’ll ask them to give me their opinion, and if it makes sense to me, then I jump in.

Over the years you’ve represented a number of different lines (Konica Minolta, Sharp, Ricoh, Samsung, Kyocera, Toshiba), sometimes as a result of acquisitions, now you just represent Ricoh. Why is that a good fit for Repeat?

Abbuhl: Ricoh has a full line, there’s nothing that anybody else has that Ricoh doesn’t. And they invest a lot of money into R&D so they’re always one step ahead of everybody else.

We just had a gentleman come from Ricoh Japan who was beta testing one of their new display panels with our customers. It’s like a smart phone display. Everybody who saw it loved it. Nobody is doing anything like that I know of.

I’m on the National Ricoh Dealer Council and I’ve seen things that they’re looking at for five or six years out and it’s just stunning. That’s what I like about Ricoh. And I love the top level team; Jim Coriddi is phenomenal and that makes a huge difference.

You’re doing well with IT Services and are deeply involved with Ricoh’s CHAMPS program, how’s that portion of your business doing?

Abbuhl: We’ve had an IT department for nine years now and IT revenue is 24 percent of our company’s budget. We’re definitely expanding on that in 2016.

I have to ask this, what’s it like being one of the few women in a male-dominated industry running a dealership? Is that something you even think about?

Abbuhl: I used to notice it more. Ricoh will sometimes send things to John’s attention, but he doesn’t touch mail, open mail, anything. Whatever it is that they’re sending should go to me. If they give me a pass code it’s usually with his name. I just laugh about it.

In general everybody’s different; I know I manage a little differently and there’s advantages and disadvantages to it. I try to be cognizant of my style and use it to get the best out of my team. For instance, I think women often read people better so I am in touch with people’s moods.  This allows me to address an issue brewing sometimes before a person realizes it has been bothering them. I don’t really think about being female in business often except occasionally when I’m at a meeting like the CDA group where 95 percent of the group is made up of men. Here’s a great example, that organization has been around for 30 years and I’m the first female president; it’s kind of crazy but I guess with that percentage it also makes sense too.

DAWN21(1)Any technology meeting I’m usually one of two or three females, or it’s just me alone. It’s hard not to notice but I’m also completely comfortable. A long time ago someone told me, “You don’t know it’s a problem because you don’t know if people are doing things differently or acting differently [around you].” As far as I can tell everybody treats me like everybody else. I guess ignorance is bliss.

What’s the secret to successfully working with a spouse; I can’t imagine it’s easy being around someone 24/7?

Abbuhl: John’s a long-range planner, the financial planner, he sees the big picture; he works in the office half the time and remotely half the time. He isn’t involved in the day to day operations. The only time we’ve had glitches is when our roles get too close, so we have to make sure those roles are really defined. Now that they’re defined, we don’t get in each other’s way.

He’s a total genius business wise. He watches the benchmarks and can tell you how many light bulbs we should have in the office. He’s great at that while I would kill myself if I had to look at it all day long. I’m more comfortable with actionable work so our system works really well.

When you’re on vacation together do you have to make a conscious effort not to talk about business?

Abbuhl: If something is important we’re going to talk about it.

What do you do for fun when not working?

Abbuhl: I love to body surf, and I take salsa and hip hop dance lessons, and I do all kinds of yoga. I work out a lot, but try to mix it up. I also have two boys, 21 and 24 and love to climb mountains and fly fish with them.

I’m also a child psychologist. I work about 80 hours a week and about 10 of those hours are working as a child psychologist. I love that too.

A few fun questions, what’s the last book you read that you really enjoyed?

Abbuhl: I read every night before going to sleep. My husband reads business books. I don’t except when he gets really excited about one and encourages me to. Sometimes he reads a book that’s relevant. The last book I read was Searching for Paradise by Thurston Clarke about this man who went to 100 different islands all around the world and lived on each of them.

What’s the one saying or expression that drives you crazy?

Abbuhl: We get contacted a lot by companies interested in acquisitions. In this industry if you’re over $10 million and you make 10 percent or more operating income, you’re a target for acquisitions. One of the things I hear a lot is, “Open up your kimono,” meaning they want you to be transparent to them.

If you had to give everything up and start over again, what career might you choose instead?

Abbuhl: Child psychology. I’d put in more hours than I do now.

What can we expect from Repeat Business Systems in 2016?

Abbuhl: Growth. We have a bunch of new hires on the docket—a new person just started in September and another shortly after that. Now that our systems are coordinated and as high tech as we could possibly imagine, it’s a great opportunity to bring people in and scale for where we are expecting a lot of sales growth next year.

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.