Output Pundit

Tim Williams' world gets faster and more colorful by the day at Vermont Document Co. in Williston

by Pip Vaughan-Hughes

Tim Williams strides through a phalanx of impressive-looking photocopiers in the display area of his company, Vermont Document Co. LLC. It's a hot summer day, and Williams is casual in a Xerox T-shirt, tennis shorts and sneakers -- a relaxed contrast to the modern, contemporary lines of Vermont Document's new premises. Williams' company is an agency for Xerox office equipment, and as the designer offices and sleek equipment hint, it's a cutting-edge business to be in as digital technology takes hold of the industry.

Tim Williams of Vermont Document Co. in Williston is the third Williams to appear on the cover of Business People. His father, Larry Williams, owned Copytek Office Products; brother Larry Jr. is co-owner of Redstone Commercial Group.

"The new machines that have come out in the last two years are phenomenal," enthuses Williams, adding that copy speeds reach up to 180 pages per minute. "Docucolor 12, the new color copier -- I've never seen anything take over the market like that machine has. It's changed the way people think in color. Digital copying means shorter paper paths and fewer turns, and that means fewer jams. It's an exciting business to be in right now," he continues.

"Basically," says Williams, "Vermont Document is paid a commission to sell Xerox machines. It's a good situation to be in. If you look at our competitors who sell brands like Canon or Lexmark, they have to buy inventory, which they have to move and store. An agency doesn't have those overheads. We do have a little warehouse" -- a space the size of a large garage -- "but we only keep about 50 machines in stock," meaning Vermont Document rarely gets stuck with out-of-date merchandise in its rapidly developing field.

Williams is careful to make the distinction between an agency and a dealership. "Xerox has four channels of distribution," he explains, "agents; value-added resellers, or VARs, who primarily sell printers; mass-merchandisers like Staples; and dealers. In the beginning, Xerox used agencies to sell their machines in remote territories, places where conventional dealerships weren't feasible. It evolved from there: Now they even have agencies in big cities like Boston.

"We sell everything from $2,000 machines up to ones that cost $500,000 -- those are big machines for clients like the state of Vermont -- they make over a million impressions a month. Most people lease copiers," he continues, "and with an agency, the customer has the huge benefit of dealing with the manufacturer directly. If you have problems with a machine, we can offer a total satisfaction guarantee. A dealer just couldn't afford to do that."

Unlike a dealership, Vermont Document has no storefront. "We're very sales-driven," says Williams. "Xerox gives us a good database of potential clients. We make a lot of phone calls."

The company is more than just a Xerox agency. "We're a value-added reseller, a dealership and an agent, rolled into one," says Williams. "It's getting a little tricky. There's more crossover -- the lines are being blurred between what machines are. Is it a printer? Is it a copier? Right now our biggest competitor is SymQuest. We have to be very clear on the solutions we can offer to our customers."

Agency status means Vermont Document can concentrate on the upper levels of the market. "A big part of our business is high-end," says Williams.

He obviously relishes working with the industry leader. "Xerox is an incredibly inventive company," he says. "Research and development is one of their biggest strengths. ... Now that the copying process is going digital, Xerox is the only company that has built a digital machine from the ground up.

"Xerox does have an input in the way we run Vermont Document," Williams explains. "They want us to increase our competency in high-end and networking. Selling copiers used to be all about 'speeds and feeds,' " he goes on. "You had to tell the customer, 'It's this fast, it does so many pages,' things like that. Things are much more sophisticated now. Customers are more educated. Everyone has a network now. They need to know how a copier will integrate with their computer system. Basically," he sums up, "we're selling productivity."

Tim Williams also owns Mesa Contract Inc. The company, which manufactures office furniture, supplied thousands of items to the U.S. Census. "The order took up five tractor-trailer loads!" Williams says. Pictured: Jeff Jackson and Susan Roy.

Advanced doesn't necessarily mean expensive. "The lowest-cost digital machine is $2,000," Williams points out. The advances in technology have been good for business at Vermont Document. "Our turnover was a little more than $4 million gross, last year," says Williams. Although, as he points out, "That's not what we get in commission, of course. Our target is 20 percent growth, and we're doing fine."

Williams was born in Barre -- "My parents were just passing through en route from Corinth to Shelburne," he laughs -- and grew up in Shelburne. In the Williams household, business and home life seem to have been unusually entwined. In 1976 Williams' parents, Larry and Berta, started an office supply company, Copytek Office Products, in the family home. "Before he had a warehouse, there was office furniture in the basement," Williams remembers. "They used my bedroom as an office. I had to get up early so people could go to work!" Copytek eventually employed 100 people. "Dad and I worked together virtually from the beginning," says Williams. "As soon as I could drive, I did deliveries." Williams' two sisters, and his brother-in-law worked for the company at some point.

Williams worked at Copytek through his years at UVM, where he majored in resource economics. He graduated in 1985 and became Copytek president seven years later. "In 1996 we sold the business to Boise Cascade," he says. I worked for them for 2 1/2 years. This business, Vermont Document, was a division of Copytek that Boise didn't want, so I bought it."

Tim isn't the only Williams to be making a mark in Burlington's business community. Brother Larry is co-owner, with Doug Nedde, of Redstone Commercial Group, a commercial real estate company that sells, owns and manages property throughout northeastern Vermont. A notable coup for Redstone came when it found the site for Magic Hat Brewery's manufacturing facility on Shelburne Road after that company decided to relocate from its Flynn Avenue site. More recently it built a 25,000-square-foot development on South Brownell Road in Williston, where Vermont Document made its new home in September 1999, occupying 4,000 square feet. "Our landlords are my brother and my best friend -- and they're good landlords!" jokes Williams.

Williams recently added another string to his bow when he acquired Mesa Contract Inc., a small company that designs and manufactures office furniture. "I bought it from a friend of mine in February last year," he says. "Mesa supplies ergonomic accessories to office furniture dealers," he continues. "We sell primarily in the Northeast, and we have a warehouse outside of Boston. We use independent sales representatives who market our products to office furniture suppliers all over the country."

The catalog is full of high-tech items like keyboard drawers and arms, mouse platforms and monitor lifts. "I have an architect who I work with on designing products," says Williams. "We have a line of chairs coming out soon, and then a line of work tables. I'm getting back to my Copytek roots," he adds, grinning, "but I'm on the wholesale side now."

Vermont Document Co. is primarily a Xerox agency: It earns commission from the sale of Xerox machines, but doesn't pay the overhead of moving and storing large inventory as dealerships do. From left: Mark Sherwin, Shane Muth and Ben Byrd.

Mesa got a big boost during its first year when the firm landed a big contract. "We did a job through a dealer for the Census," Williams reveals. "Every census taker in the U.S. -- I think there were 4,500 -- used one of our ergomonic keyboard platforms. It was amazing. The order took up five tractor-trailer loads!"

Although Williams has taken his business into new arenas of technology and state-of-the-art design, he has remained close to his roots. R.B. Klinkenberg, who runs Harrington's in Richmond with his father, has been a close friend of Williams "since fifth grade. I worked for Timmy and his father for four summers during high school and college, and I've known him through his years at Copytek, Boise, and now Vermont Document and Mesa," he says.

"Timmy took many of the qualities that made Copytek work, and his experiences in a family business, and brought them to his own businesses. He knows how to treat people well, how to motivate them. He's a good sounding-board, and his success hasn't come without a lot of hard work."

"Having worked for my family, I could never have a real job," Williams laughs. "But, really, seeing my father begin as an entrepreneur and build a successful business, that was very important."

Loyalty and friendship are obviously vital for Williams. "First and foremost he's the most generous guy around," says Klinkenberg.

Another old friend, Ron Bouchard, sales and marketing director of real estate developers Homestead Design Inc. in Essex, would agree. "I've known Tim for 20 years, from growing up in Shelburne, and at UVM," he says. "Tim's real strength lies in his personal life -- the way he treats people, his commitments to his wife, friends, family. He's extremely generous and concerned for the welfare of people close to him. He's one in a million -- doesn't have a malicious bone in his body."

In an industry where the employee turnover rate averages up to 45 percent annually, Vermont Document experiences little attrition. The majority of the company's nine employees are sales people. H. Wright Caswell is general manager.

Williams admits that running two companies does not leave him a great deal of freedom, but, he says, "I spend a lot of time working outside. I built a house a couple of years ago, and did a lot of the grunt work myself. I'm really into machines," he confesses, "tractors, dump trucks, chain saws. My dad and my sister just bought a camp by the lake, and I'm helping them fix it up." Williams and his wife, Lisa -- the couple were married last September -- live in Shelburne. "We spend a lot of time boating on the lake," says Williams. "I ski a lot in winter; play lousy golf in summer."

The pace of technological development is speeding up, but Williams is prepared. "He's probably the most resourceful person I know," says Klinkenberg.

"Everything's going to be digital," Williams says of the future. "Everything will be connected. We'll be getting into higher-end printing systems. Printers and copiers will be able to do things that today can only be done on a press. And we'll be bringing those solutions to our customers."

Pip Vaughan-Hughes is a free-lance writer recently arrived in Vermont from London