Free Agent, Free Spirit

Why Kinko's founder wanders and wonders.

Kinko's founder Paul Orfalea isn't much for fancy titles -- or glossy photos. (He refused to be photographed for this article.) False modesty from a mogul worth an estimated $225 million? Hardly. It is an authentic part of the grassroots spirit that has infused Kinko's since Orfalea began the company 27 years ago.

Orfalea insists that he does not "run" Kinko's. His job, he says, is to "wander and wonder" -- to visit as many of the company's 865 stores as he can, to spend time with coworkers, to soak up innovation, and to communicate new ideas across the Kinko's network. His favorite knowledge-sharing tool is voice mail. If Orfalea is at a Kinko's outlet and he hears about a good idea, he immediately dials into the company's voice-mail system, introduces the coworker who described the idea to him, and lets that person record a message -- which then flows back across the system.

Lately, Orfalea has had a second reason to wander: he wants to reassure the company's 23,000 people that its spirit won't change, even as its structure does. A big investment by Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, announced in June 1996, was a watershed moment for Kinko's -- not only bringing in needed capital but also acting as a force for organizational change.

Clayton Dubilier's "roll-up" plan transformed Kinko's from a decentralized confederation of locally managed stores into a smarter, sleeker, more disciplined global company. In return for its $214 million, the Wall Street firm got about 30% of the company. Orfalea kept an estimated 34%. His 130 partners were allowed to swap holdings in their local operations for shares in the new company.

Now Orfalea's challenge is to make sure that the Kinko's strategic roll-up doesn't roll over the grassroots enthusiasm and creativity that was so crucial to the company's early growth. "You can't take care of your customers unless you take care of your people," he says. "Everyone has good machines. Our coworkers are the only tie-breakers for us. I don't think the old feeling will change too much."

Nor will Orfalea's approach to his job. "People think I'm busier than I am," he jokes. "Basically, I've got this job down to about six hours a week. The rest of the time, I'm wandering."

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