When Gordy Opitz talks about ComDoc Inc., he starts at the beginning, explaining matter-of-factly that Walter G. Griffith founded the business equipment sales and service company in Akron in 1955. He traces its financial growth into the millions of dollars and outlines its industry’s evolution.
But the part of the story that elicits the most enthusiasm from Opitz involves the ComDoc employee stock ownership plan, which took 21 years to make its 615 employees 100 percent owners.
“We took an unbelievable amount of pride in being able to say to people that when you are working with ComDoc, you are working with people who own the company,” says Opitz, the company’s president and CEO. “That was an incredibly exciting time for us.”
Those exciting times, however, would come under threat. ComDoc was facing two serious obstacles in 2008: The great financial chill that had befallen the economy, and the loss of its largest product supplier, Ricoh, which was acquired by ComDoc’s biggest competitor, ostensibly pitting the former partners against each other.
Here’s how Optiz lead ComDoc through a turbulent period by ignoring the noise that could have silenced the company.
As ComDoc was moving toward 100 percent employee ownership, it was keeping its eye on Xerox, the industry leader, benchmarking with it to determine a fair share price for its own stock.
“As long as we could stay within 5 to 7 percent of that share price, we were going to keep it as an employee-owned company, which we were able to accomplish,” Opitz says.
ComDoc, at the time, was generating about $125 million in annual revenue. It had a great 2007 and was having a great 2008 when mid-year, Xerox inquired about ComDoc’s interest in being acquired.
Xerox’s midmarket customers had been a target for ComDoc. According to Opitz, “We built our business by going after Xerox placements.” But Xerox adjusted its strategy.
“Xerox recognized that the independent dealers, the ComDocs of the world, were closer to the street, closer to the customer, more effective, more efficient, had better billing processes and better service to their clients — all the things that we had done in building ComDoc,” Opitz says.
Simultaneously, the economy was cooling and ComDoc’s primary product supplier decided to sell direct to the customer. It was then that Xerox made its offer.
“Xerox put something in front of us and we knew it was our fiduciary responsibility to do the right thing for all of our shareholders,” Opitz says. “And we sincerely believed, given the circumstances in front of us, that making sure that our people who had been a part of this organization for many, many years were going to be secure. And that’s exactly what happened.”
ComDoc agreed to be acquired by Xerox, and the deal was finalized in February 2009.
It was a difficult decision to let go of the ESOP the company had worked so long to achieve, Opitz says, but the acquisition had a strong appeal.
“Our employees never had to worry about whether that stock price was going to decrease by 15 or 20 percent in one year, and how long it would take to recoup that drop,” he says.
Xerox was going to allow ComDoc to operate within the culture it had developed over the years, though it was under the new corporate ownership. The move, however, wasn’t without some turbulence.
“As we made the transition, I would say for the leadership group, there was angst involved because we had built succession plans moving forward for the future. Many of us on the leadership team had worked together for 20-plus years. We had been excited about what the future held for ComDoc,” he says.
For the most part, the company was able to retain its key people. Though there was some loss.
“I could probably count on one hand how many people ended up leaving ComDoc because of the transition,” Opitz says.
The hardest transition
While it was able to retain most employees as it transitioned from ESOP to corporate ownership, ComDoc was still facing the loss of its No. 1 product supplier, Ricoh, which, at the time represented about 80 percent of ComDoc’s business.
IKON Office Solutions, a multibillion-dollar company, and ComDoc’s biggest competitor bought Ricoh. Having lost its primary supplier, ComDoc got to work learning the product line of its new corporate owner, Xerox.
Technicians on the service side of ComDoc’s business were somewhat accustomed to servicing different products because there had been many iterations to the company’s product line, which foundationally was 3M, transitioning through Harris 3M, Lanier and Ricoh.
“So we had been used to selling and servicing different products. It was always at our speed, though. In this case, the race came to a quick halt in February 2009, and we could no longer sell Ricoh, so we immediately had to switch to the Xerox product line,” Opitz says. “That was the hardest transition, and I’m going to call it the learning phase — learning the product and then training all our service technicians in being able to service it.”
The task of servicing a brand new product line in a very short time was daunting. Coupled with the company’s sagging morale and the challenge was even more difficult. To get his company headed in the right direction, Opitz had to help his employees manage the problems individually and keep the lines of communication open.
“If you think about communication, it isn’t about all the times when things are going right, it’s also about finding out how people are feeling, what they’re thinking, being able to listen to them and help them understand and provide perspective,” Opitz says.
By having those conversations, he found that what was an issue to some people was irrelevant to others.
“But you’d never know unless you really stopped and asked the question,” Optiz says.
The next step was to reduce all the challenges the company faced into manageable tasks.
“You can’t allow it to become so overbearing that it consumes your thought process,” Opitz says. “We’ve always approached business that way — break it down into its simplest form and take these factors as they’re given to you. What are the pluses? What are the minuses? How do we sort through it? What are the strategies and tactics to push through it? And when you really break a task down, it sure becomes a lot easier to get after it.”
Learning to walk again
That philosophy was applied to training. Service technicians learned the product line at ComDoc’s service training center where they’d work on the product for three to five days to become proficient, and then follow up on their training in the field.
To train its sales force, the company utilized training webinars and developed matrixes of e-learning for each product.
“We would set matrixes up for each of our people with the products. They could do e-learning two hours a night from 5 to 7 p.m. So there was a lot of personal pride, there was a lot of time commitment by our people to get that accomplished.
“We had more than 200 technicians who had fully trained on certain products. I believe the first year we had more than 12,000 hours of training,” he says, which includes both the sales and service sides of the business.
“We had a big vision of what to do and we continued to break that down into small tasks, small focus areas, and we just made our mind up that we weren’t going to let external things influence our company,” Opitz says.
Though it’s a simple philosophy, it was still a very difficult transition. The year the company was acquired was flat compared to the prior one. But once the company started to understand Xerox and its product line, it started to expand, seeing its managed print business grow exponentially during that period.
ComDoc increased its revenues and profitability every year between 2009 and 2013. It grew from $125 million to $155 million in revenue during that time frame and its employee count has increased to 675 employees. ComDoc’s customer base continued to renew and grow year-over-year.
“And every year we just continue to challenge ourselves to continue to get bigger and stronger,” Opitz says.
A tough lesson
Once a company suddenly has the odds stacked against it, there are some simple steps to take to address the issue.
“Communicate early and often with your people,” Opitz says. “Make sure you have shared buy-in for what you’re trying to accomplish, and help people break down their challenges or tasks into small pieces and work hard at getting a resolution to them.
“Don’t let people become overwhelmed with what they believe might happen or what they believe might change.”
Opitz says he just tried to do the best he could every day and tried not to make the circumstances out to be an alarming issue so his colleagues didn’t become overly concerned.
“In my mind, at that time, ComDoc had more than 20,000 customers that had been great, loyal, ComDoc customers who knew our people personally,” Opitz says. “And if we were doing all the right things by our customers while in a product change, I just truly believed in my heart of hearts, that our people would find a way to work through it.” ●
- Communicate early and often.
- Breakdown challenges into manageable tasks.
- Do what’s best for the company and its employees no matter how difficult.
The Gordy Opitz File:
Name: Gordy Opitz
Title: President and CEO
Company: ComDoc Inc.
Birthplace: Meadville, Pa.
Education: He received a bachelor of arts in education from Westminster College.
What did you learn from your days as the assistant general manager for the Atlanta Braves AA team? It’s very simple. Be willing to do anything. I was a shortstop and third baseman for the Westminster Titans. The front offices for minor league teams 30 years ago were small, so, when I say be willing to do anything, I mean there were some days where we did all the marketing for the club. There were days we helped sell tickets. There were days that if it rained we helped cover the field. It was a ton of fun. I realized it doesn’t matter what your title is. If the job needs to be done, you’ve got to figure out a way to go accomplish it.
Who has done the most to inform your perspective on business? Retired ComDoc Chairman Riley Lochridge and former ComDoc President and CEO Larry Frank. They taught us the business, and all the things I’ve talked about before — let’s make sure we continue to do things the right way, make sure we continue to attract and retain the right people in the organization. And ask, ‘Are we building a culture that is going to allow us to grow and sustain our growth?’
How would you like to be remembered at ComDoc after you retire? I’d like to be remembered as somebody who helped make a difference and helped make ComDoc become a better place; somebody who helped fulfill our vision of being a great place to work and a great place to be a customer.
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