Orfalea reflects on childhood, Kinko’s sale, and his ‘one measure of success’
Paul Orfalea still hasn’t forgiven the alphabet.
“I think it’s chickenshit, the alphabet,” the Kinko’s founder told a lunchtime meeting of the Rotary Club of Ventura-South on April 25, at the Tower Club atop the Topa Financial Plaza in Oxnard. “ ‘GH’ is an ‘F,’ ‘PH’ is an ‘F’, and ‘F’ is an ‘F.’ Why would you do anything that’s so confusing?”
Orfalea has dyslexia, and during his speech to the Rotary Club he listed his difficulty reading, which led him to fail second grade and be placed in schools with severely disabled classmates, as one of the four qualities that made him successful. The others: he is “extremely restless,” incapable of sitting still; he has “no mechanical ability whatsoever,” and never learned to operate the machines at his own business; and growing up in a Lebanese American family full of merchants and entrepreneurs, he “never knew a human being who had a job.”
“I was lucky,” Orfalea said. “I wasn’t capable to do anything except manage people and businesses. … I don’t think there was a place in the middle for me. I’d either be homeless, or I’d be here, so I pinch myself all the time that I wound up here.”
In 1970, when he was a student at USC, Orfalea saw students lining up at the campus print shop. He figured every college town would need one, so he took out a $5,000 bank loan and opened a shop near UC Santa Barbara. He called it Kinko’s, after his own nickname, which came from his curly hair.
That first store in Isla Vista grew to a chain of more than 1,200 with multibillion-dollar annual revenue, run out of a corporate headquarters in Ventura. For generations, Kinko’s was the place to make copies, print a resume or design a brochure. Orfalea became a management guru of sorts, on the strength of a unique style that he described as “get out of the way” and keep your employees happy.
But by the 1990s, he saw the writing on the wall.
“I saw that laser printer coming along, and I kept thinking, ‘I don’t have a competitive answer to that,’” he said. “Money came too easy to us. I knew we had to fundamentally change the business.”
In 1997, Orfalea and his partners sold a large stake in the company to a private equity firm, which bought the rest of Kinko’s in 2003. The next year, it was sold to FedEx and renamed FedEx Kinko’s, and then FedEx Office.
Selling Kinko’s was a magic elixir for Orfalea — suddenly his neck pain, his stomach troubles and his insomnia were cured. But the way the deals went down are still a sore spot. He and his partners sued the private equity firm over the terms of the deal. He wasn’t happy when the buyers moved the headquarters to Texas, or when FedEx dropped the Kinko’s name a few years later.
“We sold the business to these absolute dumbshits from New York,” Orfalea said. “Harvard, Yale, all this pedigree, and they didn’t have any common sense.”
When a Rotary Club member asked him why he moved the company out of Ventura, he replied, “I didn’t do that. The idiots did it.”
Orfalea is now 74 and lives in Montecito. These days, he is focused on his family, his philanthropy, and on teaching business classes at USC and Loyola Marymount University. The Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo is named after him, in recognition of a multimillion-dollar donation, and so is the Orfalea Childhood Development Center at Ventura College.
“I don’t believe in retirement,” he said. “I’m repurposed.”
When he was the CEO of Kinko’s, Orfalea practiced an extreme form of what we now call “work-life balance.” He was unreachable to anyone at work when he was home, and he took six weeks a year off.
“There’s only one measure of success in this world: Do your children want to be with you when they’re adults?” he told the Rotary Club. “The best thing I’ve ever been called is ‘Dad.’ My kids like me, so I’ve succeeded.”