By Ed Avis
Dirck Holscher remembers arriving in Budapest in 1990 just as the Russian army was leaving the city. Hungary had only recently won its independence from the Soviet Union, and he was in town to investigate opening a copy shop there.
“I felt like the capitalists were coming in just as the communists were leaving,” says Holscher, who co-owned six Copy General shops in the Washington, DC area at that time. Holscher, who is now the editor of the Larry Hunt family of imaging business newsletters, had been invited to Hungary by Paul Panitz, a friend of his who noticed that Budapest was almost completely without copy shops because of the former communist government’s tight control over printing.
“It was like the wild west in a lot of respects,” says Holscher, who is an attorney by training. “There was no legal system to run your business by, since they previously didn’t allow capitalism. So even the most basic legal structure that we take for granted, such as landlord/tenant law, was not there.”
Nevertheless, Holscher sensed the opportunity in Budapest. Many western-style businesses were opening and needed the services a copy shop could offer. He knew a modern copy shop could thrive.
Challenges: Equipment, Space, Customer Service
Finding equipment was tough, as was finding a retail space to rent. In fact, a consultant who helped Holscher and Panitz wrote an article in the New York Times Magazine about the travails of renting space for the copy shop in post-communist Hungary.
Another challenge was teaching employees about basic western service values.
“We were trying to bring U.S. standards and service to Hungary, which didn’t have either,” he says. “We brought in our head of customer service in the U.S. to train the employees. That was a real eye-opener for them: ‘The customer is always right? Really?’”
Despite the challenges, the first Copy General opened in Budapest about a year after Holscher arrived. Business was good, but many people still considered the shop an oddity.
“I remember in the very earliest days people would walk by and look in our windows and be dumbstruck,” Holscher says. “They had never seen anything like it. And these were sophisticated people in the largest city in the country.”
Holscher says that a sales call on a large university near his shop illustrated the previous government’s deep fear of the printing press. The person he met told him that they already had a copier on campus, and Holscher asked to see it. They took him to the basement of the building where the copier was kept – inside a jail cell!
“I said, ‘Oh, you must be scared that someone is going to steal your copier,’” Holscher says. “They replied, ‘No we kept it in there because we were afraid people would use it.’”
Within a year Holscher determined that there was a market for wide-format printing as well. Wide-format printing had not been quite as tightly controlled by the communist government, presumably because it’s harder to print subversive publications on a diazo machine, and there was at least one business already doing wide-format printing in Budapest.
“But we were much more user-friendly,” Holscher says.
He invested in some Xerox wide-format plain paper copiers and soon had business from the local AEC community. “Over time wide-format became a very big part of our business there,” he says.
Holscher’s initial impression of the business climate in Budapest soon proved true, and eventually the company expanded to six locations in Budapest and beyond. Other investors joined in, and some parts were sold off.
Today Copy General has 25 retail operations in Budapest, Prague, Warsaw, and Moscow and employs nearly 500. A facilities management division runs 30 on-site operations.
Holscher is no longer involved in the day-to-day business, though he still has a small ownership stake. “I still visit occasionally, but I have nothing to do with the business operationally,” he says.
But the memories of that wild-west era live on.
“I think the interesting times were those first five to ten years, when we were blazing a trail,” he says. “It was probably the most interesting time I’ve had in this business.”