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VENTURA COUNTY BUSINESS

Trust, Complementary Skills Make Printer Firm's Partnership Work

Entrepreneurs: Two friends built $4.5-million business from scratch by staying out of each other's way.

February 20, 2001|DAN GORDON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Gail Solomon says her business partnership with Ellen Dee is like operating a train.

As their laser-printer service and repair company roars ahead--$4.5 million in annual revenue and climbing--Dee is in the engineer's seat, looking at where the track is headed.

"And I'm definitely in the caboose," Solomon said. "I have to make sure the wheels are greased and everything is operating properly. And the train just keeps getting bigger, so the work never ends."

Since starting On-Site LaserMedic in 1992 with $10,000 and few client leads, Dee, 54, and Solomon, 45, have built an account base of more than 5,000, including Fox Television, EarthLink Inc. and Occidental Petroleum. The company's technicians service about 3,000 Canon-engine printers a month at clients' locations.

On-Site LaserMedic has more than 40 employees in its Woodland Hills office, and has opened satellite offices in Santa Ana and San Francisco, with a Chicago office soon to follow.

The two women responsible for the quick climb are not only business partners, they are best friends and neighbors--they live four houses apart in West Hills.

They attribute their success in great part to complementary skills--Dee specializes in marketing and sales; Solomon handles the operations--and a complete trust in each other's abilities and respect for the boundaries.

"You know how we decided that Ellen would be president?" asked Solomon, who holds the title of vice president, although profits are divided evenly.

She flipped a coin.

They acknowledge some rocky points early in the relationship, particularly when one was perceived as meddling in the other's province.

So they resolved to give each other complete authority over their own domain--Dee supervises the salespeople and the telemarketers who make their appointments; Solomon oversees the field technicians, dispatchers and office staff, as well as handling the company's finances.

At the same time, they use each other as sounding boards, offering ideas and airing disagreements in meetings.

Because of the hectic pace of the business and the unusual nature of their friendship, those meetings are most likely to take place on weekend getaways.

"We need a retreat," Dee said before a recent trip to Santa Barbara.

"That's when we're able to think most clearly," Solomon added.

They met in 1981. Dee, who had moved from Chicago three years earlier, was a sales trainer for an office products company in Culver City when Solomon, a former real estate agent, accepted a position in Dee's department.

In 1982, Dee, Solomon and another co-worker left to start a business specializing in computer supplies.

*

By the early '90s, they were finding it difficult to compete with the office-supply superstores and began looking for alternatives.

"We were selling a lot of laser toner, and we kept getting calls from these clients asking if we could recommend a good company that would ethically and expeditiously service their printers," recalled Dee.

After hearing their share of horror stories--technicians who would show up without the proper parts to do the repairs, customers who signed annual maintenance agreements only to find it next to impossible to get a service call answered--Dee and Solomon became convinced they had found their niche.

They sold their portion of the business to the third partner and went to school to become Canon-certified technicians. (Canon makes the engines for about 70% of the laser printers sold.)

There, seeing the importance of reliable maintenance, they developed a business strategy.

"We would tell [clients] that the less you need us, the better job we're doing for you," Dee said. "No one else was doing that. It became our yellow brick road to Oz."

On-Site LaserMedic opened in a 605-square-foot space in Sherman Oaks in 1992. Dee was convinced that the way to get clients was to invest money in the company's im age, starting with professional stationery and a logo to contrast with the more amateur-looking mimeographed sheets handed out by many competitors.

They bought pink uniforms with the company logo, and a leather doctor's bag. The stethoscope Dee wore on early sales calls still hangs in her office to remind her of the company's beginnings.

"It was gimmicky, but it got us started," Solomon said.

With few leads, they made cold calls. "That's how we got Sony," Solomon said. "We left a message on voicemail and they called us back."

By 1995, having outgrown its space, On-Site moved to its current offices on Ventura Boulevard in Woodland Hills.

After several more expansions, the company is now at 7,000 square feet and looking to move to larger quarters this summer. The Santa Ana office opened in 1997, San Francisco in 1999.

When it came to hiring, Dee and Solomon were of one mind.

"We wanted this to be like a family," Dee said. "We wanted people to have what we never had when we were employees, which is to be at a place where you look forward to coming to work on Monday."

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