Bob Clement rebuilds laser printer cartridges in his Medford garage. - Jim Craven

A future written in ink

Finding a second career can be as tricky as developing the first one.

Bob Clement discovered trial and error goes with the territory, but once he hit on the right idea, the business he started after retirement took flight.

After a couple of false starts, Clement found his niche when he began remanufacturing toner cartridges used for printers, copiers and fax machines.

Clement was a Snap-on Tool dealer in Southern Oregon and Northern California for 23 years before he called it quits and started touring the country with his wife, Janet, in a motor home.

"When I retired, we sold everything in an auction and then hit the road," says the 70-year-old Clement.

When they got back to town in 2003, Janet Clement said she wanted to live in a house again.

"That meant I had to do something," he says. "So I decided to start a business."

The first venture was remodeling a house for resale. They sold it and bought another house with the same idea, but the softening real estate market put a damper on that enterprise.

"We decided we could do something better," he says.

After sorting through the possibilities, Clement launched Rogue Valley Ink Jet and Toner, reloading ink jet printing cartridges and remanufacturing toner cartridges. He later narrowed the focus to toner cartridges and reduced the business name to RVIT — complete with a frog on the logo.

Clement is one of a growing number of formerly retired people who have re-entered the working world, says David Tally of The Business Group in Grants Pass.

"A lot of retired people are finding it very boring, and they look at the alternatives and start a business or restart their old jobs when they're in their 60s and 70s," Tally says. "For a lot of people, you figure out what you did wrong the first time, think about what you should have done the second time and do what you really want the third."

During a trade show in Las Vegas, Clement saw his future was wrapped up in providing ink for $1,500 printers instead of $50 ink-jet printers. He refills cartridges made for Hewlett-Packard, Canon, Sharp, IBM, Dell and Lexmark.

"To remanufacture ink-jet cartridges, you have to clean them, and the failure rate was way too high," Clement says. "That was a total flop, so we got out of it."

During the first three months of business, RVIT had perhaps 10 customers. Today, he serves about 100 clients, ranging from school and government entities to professional offices.

"Most printing is text, so it's primarily black and white, although there is a move toward color," Clement says. "One customer may go through a cartridge a month, others may not replace theirs for three to six months."

Toner cartridges are designed to last "one cycle, plus a little more," he says. "You can refill them by punching a hole and dumping out the old toner, pouring some in and putting on a cover. But they don't last very long that way, because the components don't last."

When Clement overhauls cartridges he changes out the imaging tube, developer roller, bushings, bearings and computer chips after working over the recycled unit with a vacuum.

"It takes 20 to 40 minutes now, but when I first started it took two hours," says Clement, who was trained by parts supplier Static Control Components of Sanford, N.C.

He says he can refurbish an $80 Hewlett-Packard cartridge for less than $50 and a $300 IBM unit for $190. He says he doesn't know the ultimate duration of recycled units, but he claims remanufactured cartridges can outlast new ones obtained at office supply stores because he adds more toner.

"People with all those years of experience look around and say there's got to be a more cost-effective way of doing things," Tally says. "This is not only something we can do better for ourselves, but also we can do better for the market."

Clement says his retirement business has the potential to produce income rivaling his old job. His goal is to expand his current volume of 50 to 60 cartridge overhauls to more than 150. "When we get to that point," he says. "We'll probably do a storefront and go back to doing ink jets as well."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463.

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