Advance Business Systems was a pioneer in marketing and branding.
Before Jeff Elkin accepted the keys to Advance Business Systems, a company that has helped businesses in the greater Baltimore area function more smoothly since the 1960s, his father, Alan, and mother, Lois, ran the show.
In 1964, Alan and Lois Elkin’s first sale totaled $8 — for two sets of correction tape. Early on, the couple cornered the market on copier performance. Today, Advance provides hardware solutions, electric content management and more. Jeff, 51, answered a few of Jmore’s questions about what it’s like growing up in a household where your parents own a thriving business together, and what it’s been like to work for them.
You joined Advance in 1990, but you and your aunts – Elaine Epstein and Berenice Kleiman and your sister Karen Mazer – grew up around the company. What was it like, as a child, to grow up in a household with parents who were co-owners of a company?
At the time, it seemed like a perfectly normal upbringing. As I got older, it was clear that it was different than the upbringing of my peers. There was business conversation going on 24/7. One of the first times that this struck me as unusual was following a family dinner that my first girlfriend attended. I remember her asking me if we normally talked about copiers and customers at dinner. The answer was yes!
Did they tend to bring the work home? What level of exposure did you have to the family business while you were growing up?
Advance was a young business during my childhood. My parents worked unimaginable hours, but always made sure to be present for the family. As a result, there was constantly work going on at home. In retrospect, I probably learned more about business by the time I was a teenager than what many people receive in a formal educational environment.
There is this preconception surrounding family businesses, that there is a strong pressure to step into your parent’s (or in your case, parents’) shoes. Would you say that such a pressure existed for you?
If anything, I would say that the exact opposite prevailed in my family. There was a rule that prohibited the kids from entering the business prior to at least two years of work following college, doing something else. When I ultimately approached my parents about joining the business, my father went overboard to make sure that this was what I really wanted and that I wanted it for the right reasons.
Your parents ran many funny ad campaigns. One of them, featuring the tag line “They Need Me,” featured them responding to customers’ needs, no matter the inconvenience. Apparently, this wasn’t too far from the truth — your father offered your home phone number to some clients. Do you think that his deep understanding of customers’ complex needs and expectations led to a natural transition to your modern, digital offerings?
As goofy as the ads may have been at the time, the premise that they were based upon was in Advance’s DNA. We later transitioned to “We Live and Breathe This Stuff,” but both campaigns were built on the very real commitment that we had to do whatever it took to exceed our customers’ expectations 24/7/365. We have always existed to make our customers’ businesses better by providing products and services that allow them to focus on meeting their business objectives.
What was it like to work for your mother?
It’s been a gift to work with my parents. We had personalities, skills and knowledge that complemented one another. My parents always knew that they wanted Advance to perpetuate beyond their time, and they created an environment that allowed me and the entire team to develop and learn in a way that would make this a great multi-generation family business — despite the overwhelming odds to the contrary for family businesses in general.
The blend of humor and excellent customer service that your father Alan was known for has certainly left an impression on not just Advance’s clients, but the greater Baltimore area. Does this ethos live on via Advance’s business model?
Absolutely. We have never taken ourselves too seriously — we love what we do and have fun doing it — but we are incredibly serious about our customers.
Which of your achievements as president are you most proud of?
The achievement that I am most proud of is one that was carried out by the entire Advance family. When my father passed away last September, it was a huge loss for our family, our Advance family and the community at large. However, we had prepared for over two decades for this inevitable day, and our business didn’t miss a beat. 2017 was the most successful year in our 54-year history. In addition, we were voted as one of Baltimore’s best places to work. Serving this great team and our incredible customers is the part of my role that provides me with the greatest pride.
To learn more, visit advancestuff.com.
Kyle Fierstien is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.