Toner Trade

Sherry Cushman's Vermont Toner Recharge keeps offices humming while reducing landfill waste

by Craig Bailey

There's a reason Sherry Cushman is dressed in black, and it doesn't necessarily have to do with fashion. The owner of Vermont Toner Recharge has been in business long enough to know that saving toner cartridges from the landfill means occasionally getting her hands dirty. "It's not very often that I dress in white," she says with a chuckle. "If you wear anything nice" while shuffling through inventory, Cushman says, "you're bound to get dirty."

Vermont Toner Recharge in Burlington remanufactures toner cartridges for laser printers, copiers and fax machines. "It's less expensive to remanufacture," says owner Sherry Cushman, "and you're also taking stuff out of the landfill." The fastest growing demand is in the small office/home office market, as ink jet users move up to laser printers.

The workshop, a sizable portion of the company's leased space above Recycle North on Pine Street, Burlington, is surprisingly clean. Bursts of compressed air punctuate rock music playing on the radio as technicians Dana McKenna and Chad Dewyea go about their business. "They're very self-sufficient," Cushman offers. "They have certain lines in terms of which cartridges they're remanufacturing on a daily basis, but they're cross-trained so they can cover for one another."

McKenna and Dewyea meticulously disassemble, clean and rebuild toner cartridges for laser printers, small photocopiers and plain paper fax machines. They replace all worn parts with factory-fresh components and recharge each cartridge with new toner, the life blood of nearly any business, jet black and fine as talcum. After reassembling the units, they test them using a few dozen printers and photocopiers the company keeps on hand to accommodate the vast variety of cartridges that comes through the door. Then they add them to the company's inventory of several hundred remanufactured cartridges that are ready to be sold back into circulation.

Cushman's clients are mostly local businesses and institutions of all sizes. She says, "Many of these customers have been with us a very long time." The prices of the company's remanufactured cartridges take into account the value of the empties the clients offer in exchange. Cushman estimates customers exchange 500 cartridges each month. An empty isn't required to purchase a remanufactured cartridge from Vermont Toner, but Cushman encourages it so her company can maintain its inventory while reducing landfill waste.

Vermont Toner Recharge is as much about concise record-keeping as it is remanufacturing. Quality is the key, and Cushman assures it by tracking each cartridge the company works on with a comprehensive database.

"We never touch a cartridge that's been remanufactured by someone else," Cushman begins, "because we don't know the history." Pins that hold the cartridges together tell the story: A pair of trained eyes, like Cushman's, can determine if they've been removed and replaced, indicating a remanufactured cartridge. Some units, by their very nature, can't be rebuilt. For example, the manufacturer might have glued components together rather than using screws.

Vermont Toner Recharge works only on virgin cartridges or those it's handled previously. Cushman's employees affix a Vermont Toner label to each unit they work on, and assign each a serial number that acts as a unique identifier in the database.

The database tracks each time the unit was rebuilt, where it went to, when it came back, the manufacturer of the toner put in it, even the batch number of the toner. "If there're any problems with quality control in a particular batch," Cushman explains, "we could pull that up and contact those customers" who received the problematic toner. "We've got a pretty good system down at this point."

All cartridges have a lifespan, a maximum number of times Cushman is willing to remanufacture them. It varies depending on the type of hardware with which the cartridge is designed to interface. "Anything that we may not feel comfortable remanufacturing again, we'll get rid of," she says. When cartridges are ready for retirement, Cushman will throw them out or often sell them to other remanufacturers, many of whom put them back into circulation. "That right there tells you that there're many different levels of quality control in this type of industry," she contemplates.

One of Cushman's biggest challenges is pitching new customers who might have been burned by purchasing poorly rebuilt toner cartridges from competing remanufacturers, often out-of-state companies. "When I first started the business there were many companies that were out there that were basically drilling holes into toner cartridges, pouring toner in and closing up the hole. That wasn't remanufacturing; that was refilling."

She adds, "It's been a long time since I've seen anything like that," but the negative impact can be long-lasting. Customers hesitant to purchase a remanufactured cartridge from Vermont Toner's inventory can opt for a one-on-one exchange: The company will take the customer's empty, remanufacture it and return the same cartridge to the customer.

Furthermore, all Vermont Toner Recharge cartridges come with a 100 percent guarantee. "You don't have anything to lose by trying," says Cushman, who offers replacements or refunds for dissatisfied customers. "I want this to work for people. Certainly it does."

"There is no difference," enthuses Sally Washburn about new and remanufactured cartridges. "You just don't know you're using a recycled anything." Washburn and her partner, Kathy Rose, own Vermont Craft Workers Inc. in Essex, which promotes craft and fine art shows throughout Vermont, New Hampshire and New York. Their toner needs are substantial.

Washburn takes advantage of Vermont Toner's free pickup and delivery, and credits the company with helping her out of an occasional jam, such as when she runs out of toner on-site during one of her craft shows. "They'll deliver wherever I am," she says. "They're a small business, but they really provide big-business service.

"I didn't know if I was going to get the same quality out of a recycled cartridge," Washburn recalls of the time she started using Vermont Toner Recharge, 10 years ago, "but there is absolutely no difference. And there is a big difference in cost."

That cost difference -- up to 50 percent, according to Cushman -- along with Vermont's reputation for environmental conservation provided inspiration for starting Vermont Toner Recharge. The year was 1990. Following the booming '80s, the economy had nose-dived. "It was a good time to present a company like this with the economy being the way it was," Cushman recalls. "At that point people were looking to save a little bit of money."

Technicians Chad Dewyea (left) and Dana McKenna are half of the small business's work force. They use a variety of printers and copiers to test every cartridge they rebuild for quality control.

The Essex native had married John Cushman two years prior; the couple's first child was born in 1989. "We were looking to do something after Derek was born that would allow me to work part time and really make our own hours. My husband had seen an article in a trade journal of some sort in the computer industry about this and really felt like it would fly here in Vermont."

The couple set up shop in its South Burlington condominium. "I would make sales calls during the day," Cushman says. "Then in the evening, my husband and I would remanufacture the toner cartridges after my 1-year-old went to sleep. That's when I started drinking coffee!" she says. In addition to routinely working past midnight for the toner business, Cushman was managing the office of Williston sculptor Richard Erdman a few days a week.

The business maneuvered over speed bumps typical for any small start-up, in addition to a couple of unique ones: Most prospects had never heard of remanufactured toner cartridges, and until Cushman could get the pump primed, she didn't have an inventory of empty cartridges to remanufacture.

"I ended up making my first sales call to a company, taking the order and not having the product yet!" she laughs. Early on, all transactions were one-on-one, until Cushman could accumulate enough spent cartridges through donations to build her inventory. "I was going out and picking up toner cartridges at people's offices," she says, "and returning them a few days later."

Eventually, the business outgrew the couple's condo. "My hallway looked like a storage facility," Cushman says. In 1992, Vermont Toner Recharge moved to Pine Street, and John became less involved. Sherry believes the 3,000 square feet of space her business occupies is the "perfect spot" for an enterprise like hers. "The only drawback to this space is that there's no elevator. So moving large quantities of toner cartridges up and down our stairs is a very big drawback."

For the last two years, Cushman has been scaling back her administrative duties at Vermont Toner Recharge. Recently, she's relied more on manager Andrew Perkins, who rounds out the employee roster with McKenna and Dewyea. Perkins handles administration so Cushman can focus on sales calls and get out of the office by midafternoon to pick up her children after school. "My goal is to try to structure my hours around my kids' schedule," states Cushman. "The whole objective to working for yourself is to find a happy medium." In addition to 10-year-old Derek, Sherry and John have a daughter: 7-year-old Alexandra. Both are students at Mater Christi, a private Catholic school in Burlington.

While the Cushmans build a new home in South Burlington, Sherry's days include commuting to and from a second home in Waterville. The hour-long commute is a temporary burden, but living near Smugglers Notch has allowed her easy access to skiing, and her property's acreage has encouraged gardening, Cushman's new-found hobby.

John plans to become more involved with Vermont Toner Recharge. He's developing a website for the business, which Sherry hopes will expand the company's reach outside the immediate geographic area. "It'll be good for new business," she theorizes. The site, which Cushman predicts will be up this summer, will allow customers to order online.

For ink jet users, the business sells do-it-yourself refill kits. They're well-suited for the company's ink jet customers, who tend to be individuals who might run out of ink on the weekend or off-hours. Sherry Cushman pictured with manager Andrew Perkins.

Cushman says, "The big push right now is color development." Just as ink jet printers evolved from black to color, Vermont Toner Recharge has seen an increase in customer inquiries for services for color laser printers and photocopiers. "We're holding cartridges for customers right now who want us to do it," she says. "When you're using a color laser printer, you've got four different toner cartridges in your machine" that are exhausted at different times. The challenge in remanufacturing them, she explains, is making sure the one that is replaced is compatible with the other three. Vermont Toner hopes to begin offering color remanufacturing service in the fourth quarter.

Color toner is on the cutting edge, but Cushman sees the black stuff as providing the real green for her business in the future. It's a future that continues to offer opportunities for growth. After a decade of diligent print and broadcast advertising, she says she still encounters people who are unfamiliar with Vermont Toner Recharge. "That always amazes me," Cushman says, "that there are still people out there who we have not reached yet."