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Inside Track: More than just a copier
John Lowery follows dad’s lead on customer service, focuses on management and culture to grow business
When John Lowery speaks about Applied Imaging, the company he founded in 1987, he brims with pride.
That’s because it took several major leaps of faith to build the fledgling office equipment dealer into the $62-million organization it is today.
As far back as he can remember, Lowery wanted to be his own boss. At age 20, Lowery left Grand Valley State University and took a job with Hovinga Business Systems, a West Michigan office equipment dealer, with the intent of one day becoming an owner. That was one leap.
After several failed attempts to buy ownership into Hovinga, Lowery left for Multiline Business Systems, where he managed the Ricoh Division, a partnership between Multiline and copy and fax machine maker Ricoh Corp. that Lowery helped foster. That was another leap.
After a few years at Multiline, Lowery realized his management style differed from the vision at Multiline and decided now was the time to become his own boss.
So at 31 years old, with $500 in savings, a $5,000 loan from his father, an equity loan from Great Lakes Bancorp and most critically the support of his wife, Sandy, Lowery purchased the Ricoh Division of Multiline — now called Applied Imaging Systems — and set off on his own. That was an even bigger leap.
“We really put it all on the line,” he said. “Now when I do an orientation for new employees, I tell them there were a lot of Wednesdays where I would go to my wife and tell her I didn’t know how we were going to make payroll. And we would either sell a machine for cash, or we would install a machine, collect on a lease, or we just got lucky.”
After Year One, Applied Imaging had grown from a $600,000 company into a $1 million one, and slowly but surely the company continued to grow. It endured through lean years and ups and downs to begin passing revenue benchmarks Lowery had set.
Lowery attributes that to client retention fostered by his passion for great customer service — an ideology ingrained in him since childhood, when he would ride along with his father as he made bread deliveries.
“For us, it’s not really any secret sauce, it’s really just good old-fashioned service,” Lowery said.
He recalls watching his dad meticulously stock the shelves, then shake the hand of the manager and ask if there were anything else he could do for them. Sometimes that meant he would go home after his route and hand-paint a price sign to bring back the next day.
“I just thought that’s the way that everybody did it,” Lowery said. “And watching how hard my dad worked at delivering great service, that left a real big impression on me.”
In the past five or six years, Applied Imaging saw its growth skyrocket. In 2003, Lowery went outside the company and hired several consultants to help break through one of the toughest milestones: the $10-million hump. Those consultants helped establish a management process that Applied Imaging still uses today, and from there the company took off.
“That really taught us about the importance of right person, right job, right relationship,” Lowery said. “We started to have a very consistent way of how we managed across the board, and that — for us — was our (turning) point.”
With the company rapidly expanding, Lowery worked to create an established culture that could be easily implemented across the board. Applied Imaging has offices in Grand Rapids, Detroit, Ann Arbor, Lansing, Kalamazoo, Muskegon, Petoskey and Traverse City, and since Lowery can’t be all places at once he devised a plan.
Thus was born “Applied Chemistry” — the guidelines for the company’s culture, complete with a periodic table that includes 12 “elements of success,” from building team unity, community and creativity, to knowledge, success by selection and — of course — service. Overall, the periodic table includes about 100 items that essentially boil down to “Do the right thing, always.”
“We’ve created an environment that’s so empowered and energized that it permeates when you’re around a client,” Lowery said.
That energy is enumerated in Applied Imaging’s Net Promoter Score, a management tool that quantifies client satisfaction through regular customer surveys. Applied Imaging hovers around 90 out of 100 — above companies like Apple, which scores about an 84.
Applied Imaging’s and Lowery’s success has garnered recognition from several organizations, including Lowery recently being named an EY2016 Entrepreneur of the Year for the Michigan and Northwest Ohio Region by the professional services firm formerly known as Ernst and Young.
To illustrate the beginnings of his journey into business ownership, Lowery references a printout from a class he took at Aquinas College that details the four main desires of people who become entrepreneurs: to be one’s own boss, for job security, for an improved quality of life and to succeed financially. He certainly had the first three but says it was never about the money.
Instead, Lowery’s motivation is suggested by a framed photo behind his desk of his 10 grandchildren wearing color-coded T-shirts numbered to show their birth order.
After moving from place to place as a kid, Lowery wanted nothing more than to keep his family close, and in that regard, he’s been equally successful. Each of his three children live within walking distance of Lowery and his wife, to whom he’s been married 39 years and gives heartfelt appreciation.
The day he quit a job at Keeler Brass, having already left school, the suddenly unemployed 20-year-old took all the money he had — about $400 — and bought a ring. He went to Sandy’s father and asked for her hand.
“Yes, whenever you get done with college,” was his answer, but all Lowery heard was ‘yes.’ So the next day, he took what might have been biggest leap. And he heard yes again.
“If I went back and really thought about my biggest break, it’s that she believed in me,” Lowery said. “When we met, I didn’t have anything. So her saying yes and believing in me when I had no money, no job, no real promise of doing anything, she saw something. That was my biggest break.
“Through us not having anything and all through all the tough times, all the times when we didn’t know how things would turn out, she would always say ‘John, it’ll work out.’ And it always did.”