Executive Q&A: Tim Elliott, president of Chickasha-based Standley Systems, started working in the family business at age 12. His grandfather founded the 80-year-old company, which originally sold and cleaned manual typewriters.
By Paula Burkes
When he talks about the untapped potential of three-dimensional printing, Tim Elliott, president of Chickasha-based Standley Systems, likes to recount a time in 1979 when a mortgage company owner and one of his company’s longtime customers, the late Fred Smith, called him up to request a “fak-sim-uh-lee” machine.When he hung up the phone, Elliott asked his grandparents, dad and uncle what it was. None of them knew.
A persistent Mr. Smith called Elliott back five days later to learn what he found out about his facsimile machine.
“What is it?” Elliott asked him.
“I don’t know, but people are calling me wanting my fax number,” Smith said.
“Similarly, when people hear about 3D printing today, they think it’s neat, but they don’t know why they need one,” Elliott said.
“The technology has been around for 20 years, but we’re in the same educational phase as we were with the fax machine in the late ’70s or with copiers back in the ’50s,” he said.
From his Oklahoma City office at 26 E Main in Bricktown, Standley, 56, sat down recently with The Oklahoman to talk about his life, career and the future of 3D printing. This is an edited transcript:
Q: Your company is 80 years old this year. How did it get its start?
A: My paternal grandfather Fred Standley or “Pop” (actually he was my step-grandfather but he raised my father) opened the business in 1938 during the Great Depression. His mother, my great-grandmother, traded Indian-allotted land in Amber to help him buy the company’s first building in downtown Chickasha.
Over the years, the company — which originally was named Standley Typewriter Company and renamed Standley Office Machines in 1968 and Standley Systems in 2000 — has sold and serviced manual and electric typewriters, adding machines, electronic calculators, copiers, fax machines and now state-of-the-art Ricoh-manufactured digital machines, which can fax, scan, print and copy at hundreds of pages per minute.
Q: Tell us about your childhood.
A: My father, Jim Elliott, worked for the family business. He and my uncle, Don Elliott, bought it from my grandfather in 1968. My mom was a stay-at-home mom. I’m the oldest of their three children.
My brother works as a lawyer in Oklahoma City, and my sister, as a Standley saleswoman in Chickasha. From the time I can remember, I was in and around the store. In the early days, Grandpa leased one side to a barber, and I used to ride my tricycle around the barbershop chairs.
Aside from Boy Scout camp, church camp and summer vacations to Colorado, Disney World and elsewhere, I worked, which kept me out of a lot of trouble.
From sixth grade on, every summer I took apart typewriters, scrubbing them with fats, airing them out, oiling and reassembling them. During high school, I not only worked at the store, but also sacked groceries until 8:30 at night and milked a cow in the mornings and evenings to sell milk for a buck a gallon.
My grandma loaned me $2,000 to buy my first car — a pre-owned red Dodge Colt — and I paid her back $100 a month. She handed me back the $2,000 when I graduated high school.
Q: And college?
A: My father arranged for me to work for typewriter companies in Shawnee, where I could live with my aunt, or Stillwater so that I could attend OBU or OSU. But me going to college and having to work to pay for it and study was not how I envisioned college.
Instead, I joined the family business the day I graduated high school in 1976. We’ve grown tons since. Today, our overall annual revenue is about $22.5 million, but I can remember our first $10,000 month. When I was hired, I was only the sixth employee. Today, we have roughly 100 — and six locations: Chickasaw, Ardmore, Duncan, Lawton, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and can have a repairman respond to a service call anywhere in the state within four hours.
I took over the business in 1985, and my cousin and our chief financial officer, Greg Elliott, joined five years later.
Q: When you meet new people, how do you describe what you do?
A: I try to create opportunities for 100 employees to be successful at their individual jobs.
Q: How did you meet your wife?
A: My first wife and I split up after 23 years of marriage.
My current wife, Melissa, was the widow of a longtime employee of Standley Systems. Her late husband was an ordained Baptist minister and worked 13 or 14 years with us, before losing a battle with melanoma. After he died, our company bought a home for Melissa and her baby daughter, Carleigh, to live in.
Two years later, Melissa and I got acquainted, and started dating, through a singles group at church. When we married, Carleigh, whom I adopted, was 4.
We had two more children. Though I’d raised three sons, I wasn’t going to cheat Melissa out of the big family of which she’d dreamt. Besides, I love kids.
Q: So, why do people need 3D printers? What’s their future?
A: One day, 3D printers will revolutionize everything — from home building to car parts and more. Versus showing you paper house plans, homebuilders one day will show you a miniature 3D model of a home, like a child’s playhouse, so you more easily can visualize floor plans, or where you want to knock down walls or add on rooms.
Meanwhile, manufacturing and the point of sale will be the same place for many products. If you need a part for your car, you’ll walk in a store, order it and walk out with it — as simply as you buy an e-book for your Kindle today.
In the past year, we’ve sold five 3D machines that print in gypsum or rubber and plastics.
Customers include Canadian Valley, which bought a machine to teach the technology to their students, and Tinker, Carlisle Food Services and an ammunition plant in McAlester, which are using them for various modeling applications.
The printers start at $20,000 and go up from there.