One might successfully argue that the six degrees of separation game has much in common with COVID-19 and 2020. As we canvassed a year’s worth of news, events, trends, changes, challenges and opportunities, all of them shared the same criteria: because of COVID. It would be nearly, if not completely impossible to point at a development of consequence and not admit that it wasn’t somehow tied to the pandemic.
Outside of world wars, few events have touched the lives of so many on a global basis during the past 100 years. Over 55 million have contracted the virus, with more than 1.3 million succumbing to it as of mid-November. It touched off an unprecedented avalanche of unemployment and sent the economy into a tailspin. Eight months in, COVID-19 appears to be getting its second breath, and business resumption has been spotty at best as state governments grapple with how to best resume normal life or whether to implement a second shutdown. Pandemic fatigue is being met by calls to continue mitigation efforts, and the national presidential election cycle incorporated it into political football leading up to Election Day on Nov. 3.
One thing is clear: the trauma, tragedy and acrimony that marked 2020 will not be packed away with all the holiday decorations in early January. If anything, COVID-19 ushered in a new age of business tools, processes and platforms that will continue to grow for years to come, long after the pandemic has become an unpleasant memory. What follow, in no particular order, are our consensus picks for the top 10 stories of 2020.
COVID-19 RATTLES THE WORLD. OK, we lied—this story is indisputably No. 1. It was right around last Christmas when the rumblings regarding a novel coronavirus began to trickle into the mainstream. There were rumors surrounding a food market in Wuhan, China, and the possibility that this virus would eventually find its way to the United States.
There was only one problem—we weren’t really paying it that much attention. A week before Christmas, President Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives on the charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, stemming from claims he had sought foreign interference to the benefit of his re-election bid. Articles of impeachment were delivered to the Senate on Jan. 16, and following a short trial, he was acquitted on Feb. 5.
None of this had anything to do with the pandemic per se, but the entire saga effectively drew U.S. attention away from how it might impact our daily lives and what should be done to mitigate its spread. A little more than a month following the acquittal, states began the process of shutting down daily life as we knew it, with millions of workers and students sent home. This “new normal,” as we would soon discover, was anything but normal.
NATION OF WORKERS HEAD HOME. One of the initial fallouts of the pandemic was triggered in mid-March, when state stay-at-home mandates forced millions of Americans to set up workstations at their kitchen table or wherever space would permit. For a strong base of workers, it was not an issue as they already had spaces set aside to work from home due to bad weather, personal commitments or other occasions to skip heading into the office. But for many others, the edict to vacate their on premise offices was a fire drill of sorts, and they found a home office to be lacking from a resources standpoint.
Enter the office technology sector. Dealers across the country mobilized and reached out to their end-user clients, offering packages that included desktops/laptops, printers, phone systems and document management tools that would enable users to tap into their office database systems. This fueled an almost-unprecedented growth in A4 sales, and the phone systems connected office lines with their intended, at-home recipients.
PRODUCT PROLIFERATION, NEW CATEGORY. In yet another nod to the pandemic, dealers quickly understood that their customer bases would require items to enable business, despite being a far cry from the traditional menu of products and services to which they had long been accustomed. They soon would become essential elements of any dealer’s pandemic-related offerings.
At the onset of the pandemic, calls for personal protective equipment, a.k.a. PPE, prompted manufacturers, suppliers, dealers and all manner of vendors to source facemasks and hand sanitizer for their end-user partners. But as the months passed, both essential and non-essential designated businesses sought a solution to monitor and measure the temperature of employees, customers and vendors. OEMs and dealers quickly sourced third-party and home-spun systems that not only measured temperatures, but provided complete notification and human resource management systems. These allowed employees to pre-screen from home using a mobile app, and gave businesses a tool to track their health status and manage health-related incidents.
Dealers and OEMs also leveraged production print machines and custom-crafted templates to produce wall and floor signage regarding social distancing and the use of PPE. This would ensure that businesses have health safeguards in place for when their employees returned on-site.
COME TOGETHER…NOT NOW. During the first week of March, Epson hosted its inaugural business inkjet conference, Ink Boldly, for about 225 attendees at Loews Santa Monica in California. Epson’s guests basked in the daytime sunshine and beauty of the Pacific Ocean while learning more about the manufacturer’s bold initiatives. However, the topic of many evening conversations was the future of in-person events, given the spread of COVID-19 in the northwest and the Golden State.
Little did they know, Ink Boldly would be the last OEM event, and really the last industry event, to take place on-site in 2020. One by one, organizations—Toshiba, Kyocera, ITEX and Business Technology Association (BTA), among others—cancelled their gatherings. As the year wore on, various companies took to hosting events remotely, including last month’s follow-up Ink Boldly conference by Epson. How long the hosted event stays cloistered remains to be seen, but BTA (for one) is making preparations for in-person events during the course of 2021. Which leads us to the next 2020 development…
REMOTE CONFERENCING FINALLY LEVERAGED. It’s interesting to note that a number of technologies that became universally utilized during the pandemic had been collecting dust in the technology tool belt for quite some time. Remote conferencing platforms have been around for years, yet they were predominantly considered a last resort to bring together individuals from the far reaches of the country and the globe. That all changed during COVID-19, as they helped provide face-to-face interaction for parties that would have met in-person under normal circumstances. Instead of just connecting parties separated by states, video conferencing sometimes brought together folks within the same city.
Microsoft Teams was the corporate platform of choice, but many businesses leveraged free and pay-per solutions such as Cisco Webex, Intermedia’s AnyMeeting, BlueJeans, Zoom and Loom. Dealers took advantage of these platforms to maintain their regular meeting schedules and to also periodically touch base with the entire staff for progress reports and state-of-the-company addresses. They also became an indispensable tool for sales reps everywhere and necessitated training for salespeople to learn the nuances of effective remote selling.
TRAINING, TRAINING, TRAINING. When the pandemic first struck, the immediate role for dealers was twofold. First, to ensure their employees were healthy, safe and set up to work from home. The second objective was a customer outreach initiative to see how they were making out and ask how the dealership could help them set up work-from-home accommodations. Most of this took place during the initial phase-in of the shutdowns, from mid-March into April.
It didn’t take long for dealers to reconcile the fact that with business hitting a standstill for varying periods, there would be stretches of inactivity, particularly for sales representatives. Not wanting to waste this precious free time, virtually every dealer sent its employee ranks back to school, so to speak, courtesy of third-party training courses. As most manufacturers offer educational curriculums based on products and technology, it wasn’t hard for dealers to source online training materials outside of their own internally developed programs.
Consultants across the country were kept busy giving virtual presentations tailored on a number of subjects, and many dealers have reported doubling their annual training hours logged by mid-year. Marco, for example, required each of its 200-odd representatives to log 100 hours of cross-training for copier and IT selling—a staggering 20,000 hours of education. Thus, whether we emerge from the pandemic experience any wiser remains to be seen, but we’ll certainly be a lot smarter.
ATTACKS HIT HOME FOR OEMS. The last 10 years has witnessed a burgeoning of awareness when it comes to the threats posed by cyberattacks. But as that awareness grew, the bad actors perpetrating the dastardly deeds adapted their tactics in an effort to remain a step ahead of the white-hat IT defenders. Occasionally, the result was a high-profile incident involving a major corporation, and unfortunately, that proved to be a case for several major industry OEMs in 2020.
One of the most prolific attacks occurred in August, when Canon U.S.A. was struck by Maze ransomware, impacting more than 20 Canon-branded websites, internal applications, email servers and users of the company’s free storage service. Canon was most likely exploited via a phishing attack that provided access to the company’s network. Its main website, and others, were down for six days before getting restored.
Maze is one of the more sophisticated attack groups in the world of cybercrime, having perpetrated attacks on Xerox, Pitney Bowes, LG, Chubb and Conduent. The group also gave rise to the double-extortion technique of stealing and encrypting files, then releasing the data of organizations who refuse to pay ransom. Unlike other cybercrime groups, Maze reached out to media to announce the names of companies it had victimized, complete with a website detailing its efforts. Maze is reportedly disbanding, but many others remain.
XEROX ENDS QUEST TO ACQUIRE HP. In the blink of an eye, all the turmoil, posturing, prodding, case-building and back-and-forth banter between Xerox and HP in the former’s attempt to acquire the latter came to a screeching halt March 31, the day before April Fool’s Day. But it wasn’t a joke; Xerox was no longer continuing efforts to obtain its much-bigger manufacturing colleague.
In an open letter, Xerox cited the “current global health crisis and resulting macroeconomic and market turmoil caused by COVID-19” as its reason for withdrawing its tender offer to acquire HP for $34 billion. Xerox also would no longer pursue nominating its slate of candidates for election to HP’s board of directors. And just like that, a colorful and often acrimonious melodrama that was played out for all the industry to see would not come to fruition.
M&A ACTIVITY EASES SLIGHTLY. It should come as no surprise that the degree of acquisition activity among office technology dealers, OEMs, suppliers and other industry vendors was significantly stifled by the pandemic when compared to the last three or four years. But we’ve rounded up a strong sampling of the biggest transactions among notable players.
Gordon Flesch Company piled on a trio of acquisitions: Indiana Business Equipment, Information Technology Professionals and Jim Gordon Inc. UBEO Business Services reeled in A&A Office Systems and Complete Business Systems. Repeat Business Systems also added a pair—Ed and Ed Business Technology and Databranch. The newly rebranded Kelley Connect scooped up Tongass Business Center and J&H. Flex Technology Group obtained Ultrex, while EO Johnson acquired Standard Dynamics. Fraser Advanced Information Systems picked up DocuSense, and Doing Better Business added Pro Business Systems.
Marco added Advanced Office Systems, while Automated Business Solutions added Expert Laser Services. Loffler Companies acquired MinnDak Computer Services, and LDI Color ToolBox completed a deal for CTVI. Applied Imaging obtained Upstream Office Solutions, while Datamax secured Advantage Copy Systems. Lakeland Office Systems netted Scheffer’s Office Furniture & Business Machines, and A.D. Solutions acquired Velox Systems. Advanced Office added Pacific ConnecTeq, and Connections for Business acquired the assets of Farnes Computer Systems. The Lioce Group obtained the assets of Digital Print Solutions, and WiZiX Technology Group acquired Intelligent Copier Solutions.
On the OEM side, Kyocera added Quality Digital Office Technology and AVX. Sharp acquired ACE Office Solutions and NEC Display Solutions, a joint venture with NEC Corp. Konica Minolta added cybersecurity specialist Depth Security, while software firm Hyland picked up Streamline Health’s ECM business and Alfresco.
DEALERS EMBARK ON EXPANSIONS. While 2020 represented a belt-tightening approach for many dealerships, there were a number of organizations that either opened or broke ground on new facilities, or augmented existing ones—a sign of anticipated growth. Here’s a small sample of this year’s expansion initiatives:
Pulse Technology ushered in the year by settling into its new, retrofitted 35,500-square-foot facility in Schaumburg, Illinois. Datamax cut the ribbon on a new facility in El Dorado, Arkansas, which reflects the organization’s ongoing Plus Growth (+) Strategy throughout the state. Novatech Inc. debuted a new call center in Atlanta to provide support for managed print and IT customers, adding redundancy for its primary call center in Nashville, Tennessee. Centric Business Systems took the wrapping off a new 35,000-square-foot distribution center in Owings Mills, Maryland, while Woodhull LLC is nearly done with construction of its new 12,000-square-foot warehouse, situated on its headquarters campus in Springboro, Ohio. Applied Imaging added a 60,000-square-foot facility in Southfield, Michigan.
Other dealers, including Kelley Connect, PERRY proTECH and Alpha Laser & Imaging, embarked on groundbreakings for new facilities or additions that are slated to be completed in 2021 or 2022.