This Data-Driven Store Excels with Core Values and Relationship Building
Precision Camera opened in 1976 as a camera repair shop in then laid-back Austin, Texas. Serving the musician and creatives boomtown for the last 20 years, the business has benefited mightily. In 2013, Precision moved into one of the country’s largest single-location camera stores—a 20,000-square-foot facility on the affluent north side of Austin. It was on this base that industry outsider Phil Livingston structured a leverage buyout that’s catapulting Precision Camera & Video from “Good to Great.”
Livingston led a group of investors who purchased the company in early 2019. Many knew Phil had a Super Bowl ring as a member of the 1980–1981 Oakland Raiders. However, not as well understood was his academic background and executive experience in myriad industries, specializing in financial/accounting assignments. Additionally, Phil’s passion for photography drove his interest in acquiring Precision Camera. As CEO, his strategic thinking as well as ability to galvanize a team changed the company’s methodology and rate of success.
Digital Marketing a Key to Sales Growth
“Online customers are ‘raising their hands.’ A retailer must respond through the media the customer prefers,” Phil says.
Precision Camera had started in 2019 to strengthen its website SEO as well as digital marketing tactics. It increased spending on Google, Facebook, Hulu as well as Instagram advertising. The company also experimented with Yelp, Waze, Twitter and Pinterest. This was starting to build when the pandemic hit. Precision Camera also shifted more ad dollars to the web, doubling and tripling its online transactions.
Megan Gillett heads digital media. Like everything at Precision, media is data-driven, and they monitor every penny invested in media. Google expenditures track conversions, store visits as well as clicks. Moreover, Megan’s earned important Google certifications, keeping her up to speed as SEO and digital efforts morph.
Digital advertising also brings measurability and accountability. There are other marketing formats that may create store awareness. However, if Precision didn’t place the digital ad, the customer might not come to the retailer. That final connection is the culmination of the marketing funnel, with merchant and customer interacting.
Precision is also quick to drop nonperforming media, possibly after two weeks of disappointing performance. More than likely, they would tweak the new media over two to four weeks. Furthermore, Precision rejects the belief of digital media executives who advise running it six months. Using her own hypothesis, Megan tests it to prove or disprove the theory; e.g., she’s proven statistically that Pinterest is best for lower price cameras.
In addition, Texans like to buy “local,” meaning anyplace in Texas whether Dallas, Houston, San Antonio or the hinterlands. Often, customers find the store online and drive from distant areas.
Precision Camera also buys “in market” keywords. A search for “Sony” would yield a large group of non-camera buyers. However, “Sony camera” as a search term would isolate those specifically interested in cameras.
What’s more, Precision started with Waze just as the pandemic hit. Subsequently, people weren’t using driving instructions during lockdown. They may try Waze again when GPS usage resumes.
The retailer also found minimal value spending money with Yelp. Yelp shows a rabbit instead of a picture of the store. Yelp says that’s what a customer uploaded with their review. If Precision wants to change it to show a picture of the store, Yelp says Precision has to pay.
Notably, there’s a virtual store tour on the retailer’s website, located at precision-camera.com/about-us. The tour starts in the store’s spacious, inviting comfy-chair gathering area.
Willing to try new digital tactics as they arise, Precision also anticipates testing Uber’s new marketplace; Uber drivers go to the store to pick up product and deliver it to the customer. While realizing Uber surcharges make camera sales impractical, Phil envisions high-margin ProMaster accessories could do well.
Social Media Builds Community
Precision also tracks the effectiveness of social media. One of their top–performing YouTube videos—“What Size Can You Print from Your iPhone?”—has almost 29,000 views. Their “Exploring Austin with (insert new hot product)” series produces good customer engagement. The Sigma 50–100mm f/1.8 DC HSM Art lens earned 131,000 views.
The retailer also strives to have a friendly, laid back but photographically serious persona on social media. Valerie Meek has primary responsibility for the store’s social media voice; other employees are available as needed to provide online voices.
Megan is also involved in social media advertising. She believes it’s highly effective when ads or boosted posts are targeted by user interests. Advertising needs to “break out of the box,” and super-targeted messages do just that.
Virtual Sales Consultation: New Customer Contact Point
Before Covid-19, customers loved sitting and talking to photographers, employees and reps. Now, with Remo software, having hours when customers “drop in” to talk with sales personnel is enticing. The salesperson is in the camera department. The “studio” has a computer, camera, lights and a headphone with a mike. A sign indicates the salesperson is helping a customer via the Virtual Sales Consultation. The setup tells in-store customers what’s happening; this allows the sales team to easily introduce the service for follow-up usage to solve questions customers have with purchases.
Moreover, the Virtual Sales Consultation (VSC) differentiates Precision from Amazon or B&H by establishing local connections and relationships even when customers aren’t local. New customers use it to inquire about a camera purchase; current customers ask about using recent purchases or improving their images. Immediate sale or not, these conversations lead to better engagement between staff and customers. Gradually, the customer sees Precision Camera as their main or only photographic resource.
The launch of the VSC, a huge culture shift for customers and employees, started slowly. “We made a mistake at launch only being open two hours a day. Now we’re open six, so there’s a broader window and customer flexibility. We’re looking at the Virtual Sales Consultation as a new store. Sales volume will be significant, as will relationship-building successes. We’re seeing much better accessory sales than on straight click/buy website orders. Candidly, the perfect platform doesn’t exist. We use Remo and work around its quirks,” says Mike Luxenberg, sales manager.
“Many things were forced on us by Covid. Success comes from not fearing them. We embrace them, using them successfully or failing. It’s okay to fail if we learn from it. In this case, the ‘build it and they will come’ model works successfully,” he adds.
Properly Informed Outside Board of Directors Offers Counsel
Additionally, Phil believes in and uses an outside board of directors. He’s also a believer in reality. Legally, the board is Phil’s boss. He discloses everything with candor and transparency. His reports include successes and failures or disappointments. Phil says, “If they don’t know what’s actually going on, how can they help? A good board is a discussion forum, a coach and a critic.”
Last quarter his report was 63 pages. These are some of the topics:
- Detailed company metrics
- Comparison of actual, budget, prior period in major categories
- Sales and profits by manufacturers and product categories; top-producing SKUs
- Performance by each salesperson compared to goal and history
- Marketing investment by each manufacturer
- Digital advertising metrics: Yelp, Spotify, e-mail, website, etc.
- Top five digital ads by engagement
- Balance sheet, income statement
- Past quarter accomplishments
- Objectives for current/future quarters
- Industry update
- What we didn’t get done that we said we would, where we are and what was done to adjust target or get back on track
- Reprint of corporate vision, company core passion/purpose/cause and Precision Camera core values.
Core Values Build a Cohesive Team
Phil and Gregg Burger, general manager, believe corporate values need to be lived, not lectured. Salesperson Mark Ott had a customer with a Sony a6400. The customer was a very high-ranking person with a top global technology company; price wasn’t an objection. The technology executive was often teased for the poor quality of his image and intracompany video meetings; it embarrassed him.
Ott invested over an hour investigating the issues, finally determining the customer had the wrong software and dongle. However, the “only sale” was a tabletop tripod. Mark instructed the customer to go home and sign into the VSC so they could confirm how it looked. Mark’s diagnosis was correct.
No one questioned the hour+ of Mark’s time for selling just a $39 tripod. Now a major leader of a global tech company sings the praises of Precision Camera and the Virtual Sales Consultation to colleagues worldwide.
Moreover, Saturdays are usually jammed at the camera counter. Precision’s salespeople are happy to take whatever time is needed to help customers with any camera, even those bought elsewhere. It’s not the immediate sale they’re seeking; it’s the continued relationship that’s important.
Last year, Craig Mayhew, Gregg Burger, Mike Luxenberg and Phil sat down and crafted Precision Camera’s vision, purpose and core values. “It’s important to have a team work well together,” Craig reflects. “When we articulate, especially in writing, where we’re going, everything is easier.” Here’s what they created.
Precision Camera Vision
Be the heart and driving force of Austin’s photography and videography community.
Precision Camera Core Passion/Purpose/Cause
To create a fun, unique community that fosters great images, memories, creative expression and lifelong relationships. We seek to be one big family in the most positive way.
Precision Camera Core Values
Passion: At our core, we all share a passion for the creative process. We especially appreciate the unique creative vision of every individual. Creativity is a tool we use to enrich our customers’ experiences as well as our own.
Community: We are committed to nurturing a special community of photographers and videographers.
Education: We are at our strongest when we are educating our customers and one another. We embrace lifelong learning. We learn from each other and from our customers. And we love to listen and be a part of our customers’ creative journeys.
Trust: We seek to build trust in our own community by being transparent and fair and respectful. We seek win-win solutions for our customers, employees and vendors.
Growth: We seek to grow the company in profitability, expertise and relationships. As individuals, we seek to grow as professionals and creative collaborators.
Hiring Key Positions
Precision uses a video interview process for key hires. Megan Gillett, a more recent hire, graduated from the University of Texas this year. She had lived in Austin, knew of Precision Camera and was focused on a job in digital advertising. She saw Precision’s online job posting.
After completing a competitive video interview process with four Precision management members simultaneously, she was hired. She was unanimously selected because she showed herself to be “brighter, articulate, more knowledgeable about digital marketing terms and processes, showed higher initiative and had a superb GPA, in addition to her internships and employment load.”
The search for key people is more competitive in Austin because growth and employment opportunities are booming. What made a top-of-her-class graduate want to work at a camera store? Megan says digital marketing is her passion and she perfectly fit the job description. Equally important, she picked up the vibe of a strong will to grow the store and a culture where it’s okay to fail. She’s 100% accurate.
Phil Livingston credits his University of California, Berkeley, MBA as “life changing.” It taught him critical thinking and intellectual honesty. His style is “get it done, don’t overanalyze, don’t be afraid to fail.” He became a CFO at 32 with a seat at the board of directors’ table. What he learned helped him balance the “need for data with need for action.”
“My purchase of Precision Camera wouldn’t have happened if not for Jirair Christianian (Mike’s Camera). I relied heavily on his insights about what makes sense in this industry. Everyone told me I was nuts to buy a camera store because retail was dying. Jirair showed me the inner workings of Mike’s Camera, explaining how a well-run camera store can thrive. He helped me understand how spreading the fun and value of photography could boost sales and support a focused industry, possibly smaller but vibrant and profitable when efficiently run,” Phil explains.
“Jirair also introduced me to the PRO buying group. Let me thank PRO and its members. Their products, support and constant idea exchange are a lifeblood for us.”
Looking at Phil’s work history, some wonder when he’ll sell Precision. Phil says, “That’s not in my thought process. I was looking for a business to buy when working with a private equity group. A partner came to me with the Precision deal; it was too small for his firm. I’ve always been crazy about photography. I knew darkroom techniques before I learned camera techniques. I love making big prints to display. I’m committed to photography; there’s no better place for that than Precision Camera.”
When Phil became CEO, he had 47 employees. There are 55 today. The South Austin store and online workforce added to the count. Administration and production saw reassignments based on metrics and workflow.
A Data-Driven Company
Phil has made Precision Camera a data-driven organization. All financial ratios are updated weekly, if not daily. Cash flow budgets and actual results are closely watched.
Tuesday morning meetings are with the eight top managers; Thursday’s with the marketing department. Data is distributed prior to each meeting; attendees are expected to review it before the meeting, so only exceptions to plans are discussed.
Management knows the top-selling SKUs by sale and margin dollars. Before anyone meets with a manufacturer, they know that supplier’s importance in terms of direct profit dollars. It’s important to focus on how few margin dollars cameras can generate and how critical services and accessory sales are to keep financially viable. It’s margin dollars, not percentage of margin, that matters.
Management and sales watch their metrics by number of customers, attachment rates, average transaction size, SKUs sold, margin, number of items on a ticket, sales by category and other actionable data.
For example, this summer Mike Luxenberg saw a dramatic filter margin shortfall. It alerted him to work with the marketing and sales teams on the importance of filter sales. A special spiff was added to apply after salespeople hit their filter sales goal. The absence of filter margins was corrected.
Furthermore, website traffic along with digital marketing expenses by each media and interactions and/or sales are tracked daily. The same ad is used in numerous media and is tracked by impressions, results and media. This quickly identifies which ads are best on which media.
Customer Surveys Provide Actionable Information
Annual in-depth surveys help Precision better understand customers’ desires. Survey Monkey responses vary from 1,200 to 2,600. An “open essay” question generated responses like these, reminding the team what’s important to customers.
- Best sales staff. Phil’s keeping the well-earned reputation of the store and staff intact.
- I’ve bought cameras at Precision since 1985. Knowledgeable and honest staff, fair prices, never feel rushed or pressured. Keep it up :).
- I get honest, ethical help and suggestions from my salesperson, Robert. He takes time to figure out what direction I’m heading.
- Extremely knowledgeable, professional crew. Best selection of photo/video equipment in the city, maybe in central Texas, as far as in-store purchases. Fair pricing and trustworthy reselling procedure of used equipment.
- It’s a really solid store in terms of selection, staff knowledge and passion. However, the rental program is why I recommend Precision. It’s a great way to supplement gear with rarely used and expensive components or test-drive before buying.
- Amazing service! The staff is the heart and soul of Precision! They never hesitate to go above and beyond! My photography journey would have ended long ago without Precision—a true friend!
- Everybody is friendly and knowledgeable. They help you make the right choice and give you options. They don’t just talk about it, they live it; they’re photographers who spent the time to learn and share knowledge.
The survey also asks marketing intelligence questions like what other products should Precision carry. Additionally, it asks if customers are aware Precision offers financing, such as six months same as cash or monthly payments. Or a low-price guarantee. It also asks if they know Precision offers virtual sales consultation online, with no appointments necessary.
Moreover, survey results give the marketing team low-awareness areas on which to focus marketing assets.
New South Austin Store
What’s more, answers to the survey also led to the opening of the new South Austin store. The 2019 survey showed 70% of Precision Camera’s customer came from Austin’s north side. The city has terrible traffic conditions. Watching the city’s expansion patterns, Phil saw the need to serve photographers in South Austin.
A recently vacated retail location was leased short-term. This second location was born late in 2019 at minimal cost.
The small store’s success resulted in a new 5,000-square-foot location opening soon with space for classes and events. Phil, Mike and Gregg put significant effort into the test store and now the new larger store. They believe the nearby Best Buy and Target will draw traffic from photographic-oriented consumers who rather shop at Precision Camera than a big-box store.
A Highly Regarded Sales Team
The company’s tracking of dozens of operational metrics daily helps management and employees see how each salesperson is doing. It also points up outliers who aren’t performing within the norm. Robert Backman is rarely described as “normal”; his production is 25%–60% ahead of all other salespeople. He’s an institution within the institution.
In many environments, the highest volume salesperson is considered a sales hog or prima donna. Instead, Robert is seen as a personable, humane, passionate photographer who wants to help everyone. His loyal and growing following was built one customer at a time. Phil describes Robert as, “A warm personality backed with immense photographic knowledge, industry minutia, credibility and passion for excellent photography by himself and his customers.”
Robert says he makes friends, not customers. “We’re in an industry where people don’t need it, but they really want it. That makes it very personal.” He also shoots for media around Texas, including events like Formula 1 racing. He can show customers his portfolio put together using cameras he recommends. Occasionally, he coordinates events so his customers get unique access for picture taking.
He also has his own private Facebook group for his customers. It’s not unheard of for him to post something at night similar to “I just saw a used XYZ camera that’s going on sale tomorrow for $xxx. E-mail me tonight if I should set it aside for you to pick up tomorrow.”
In addition, most of Precision’s salespeople have their own sample books. Everything’s big in Texas, so Precision Camera sample books are printed on 11×17-inch paper. This shows the image’s quality and also creates an awareness of large, high-quality prints made in Precision Camera’s lab. Another selling tool, each print identifies the camera, lens and accessories used to capture the image.
The photo lab is an important segment of the company’s offerings, and these big sample books make a lasting impression. To ensure awareness, every camera purchased comes with a $15 lab certificate, which directs the customer to the lab.
Building Austin’s Photography & Videography Community
The education component of Precision Camera is critical to building community among customers. “We’ve committed significant space to classes in both locations,” says Phil. “We also have comfortable areas for photographers to hang out, whether waiting for a processing job, picking up a rental or sometimes using our store to meet clients. We want to be the place photographers gather.”
Moreover, instructors play a critical role in establishing Precision Camera within the Austin imaging community. Tamra Green, assistant sales manager, is famous for her “Mother Duck March.” After classes, students follow her like ducklings to the sales counter for whatever products she prescribed. Rarely is price discussed or does the customer balk.
Phil adds, “We want to be the heart, the driving force, of our very vibrant photographic community. Austin is unique. It’s creative, diverse and growing beyond expectation. It’s known for visual arts, so its culture merges with us. Every day, new customers come into our megastore, pause at the front door and say, ‘Wow!’”
Not Just the Photography Community
Operation Turkey is a different aspect of community support. This year the store committed to feeding 1,000 people on Thanksgiving Day, based on revenue earned between November 1–15. “We have an obligation to give back to our community,” Phil explains. “Many employees, especially some newer employees, really want to give back, and we’re excited to have them actively participate. Because Austin’s also a musically active town, we support HAMM, Health Alliance for Austin Musicians.”
Gregg Burger is by nature a community builder. Precision has built a reputation for community service and support. Gregg is an active manager who’s always front and center at Precision’s community events.
Like most market-leading camera stores, Precision provides photo contests, classes, photo walks, product unveilings and events. They also offer unique events like free headshots by professional photographers. The website states: “We know times are tough for businesses right now. So, we’d like to help you and support local photographers by paying for your headshots! Come in between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, November 20–21 for a FREE headshot with a local professional photographer.”
Inventory: The Lifeblood
It’s critical to have products in stock when the customer wants them. Phil worries, “If they leave our store with money in their pocket, will they succumb to the call of a new pair of skis or an ATV? As an industry, we need hobbyists committed to their hobby. Nothing cements commitments like buying new lenses or bodies. We need to have the products in our stores when customers are ready to reinvest in their hobby. Disappointing customers because of out-of-stock inventory risks losing the customer forever to other discretionary spending.”
Product availability puts immense strain on Craig Mayhew, Precision’s Purchasing manager. “We try to work with each vendor in a true partnership. Some are more forthcoming with projected inventory levels than others. It seems our business grows with those who help us plan and project.”
One of Mike Luxenberg’s goals is to boost the used equipment beyond selling 500 pieces a month. The store recently rearranged the Used Sales department to emphasize the broader selection.
Mike’s additional product goals are to boost video, vlogging and work–from–home imaging/audio gear. He sees the video segment as rapid growth, with recently added Blackmagic Design and other higher end products.
The PRO Factor
Further, Precision Camera has been a PRO member for decades. Gregg Burger has sat on the PRO Group’s board of directors since 2014. Yet, it wasn’t until last September’s PRO convention that Precision started recommending the new ProMaster Rugged cards to customers.
Memory sales went up 12% and margin dollars rose. Gregg admits, “Yes, we should have switched earlier. It didn’t take the sales force long to see the benefit of ProMaster cards. We think the volume increase came from their enthusiasm along with PRO’s aggressive MAP pricing in following any competitive retail pricing drops. It appears we are more competitive using the ProMaster brand, and our margins are still good. Increasing memory cards by 12% through a pandemic is a huge impact to a store like ours.”
Covid-19 Safety Adjustments
Precision Camera instantly proactively attacked the economic and health damage from the coronavirus. Employees were assured they would receive normal pay and benefits despite how long the shutdown. Those on commission received an allowance to compensate for reduced sales volume. Precision also obtained the maximum Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan.
Employees have to keep working in new and different jobs. Assigned tasks include salespeople calling past customers and leads from digital inquiries. They also service customers curbside.
Moreover, Precision committed resources to the VSC, Facebook Live, Click Meeting training and Remo sessions to maintain customer relations and virtually stay in front of them with product introductions and photo tips.
Mike Luxenberg wrote the Precision Camera Covid-19 Operating Strategy. It includes a full-time, easily identified safety officer who got everyone onboard with safety standards as well as confirmed everyone was properly masked. If you’d like a copy of this strategy, e-mail Bill McCurry (wmccurry@McCurryAssoc.com).
The Precision Camera & Video Staff
The Sales Department
The Photo Lab
The PCU Staff
The Service Department
Precision Camera & Video’s Future Is Bright
Precision Camera & Video will continue to improve aspects of those operations their metrics reveal as the highest priorities. New slide scanning equipment, new event and online software and continual inventory updating as well as expansion are all imminent.
Other immediate projects include more customer virtual access to the sales team via remote alternatives, as well as the Precision Camera Advantage with free remote classes. It will also support convenient pickup options, including curbside and free shipping, as well as expanding sales to Facebook Shopping. Additionally, it will update rental offerings responding to coronavirus-induced changes.
The future may be uncertain, but the course and direction of Precision Camera’s solid values point to continued success. Congratulations to Precision Camera & Video, Digital Imaging Reporter’s 2020 Dealer of the Year!
Phil’s Thoughts for Success
After reading Phil Livingston’s resume, www.phillivingston.com/resume.html, we thought ambitious businesspeople could derive some benefit from his experiences. Digital Imaging Reporter asked his advice on what could lead readers toward a more successful and rewarding business career. His thoughts follow.
- Network and build relationships over the years. Work on keeping old friends while making new ones.
- Create options as you go along. Take that call from a headhunter; consider wild ideas from a friend; have lunch with a stranger who wants to network. Always open doors until you decide to close one.
- At every interview, convince the interviewer they want you to do the job. This creates an option for you to say, “No thank you.” Or, “Not at this time.” If you don’t do well at the interview, you have not created options for yourself.
- Your personal integrity is your biggest asset. Never compromise it for some stupid, short-term gain.
- Think about your career toolbox. What tools do you have? What tools do you need to get ahead? Have a plan to get those tools.
- Serve on a nonprofit board to learn about strategy, finance as well as governance.
- Always listen to the voice of the customer. Learn about net promoter scores (NPS) and methodology.
- Be a lifetime learner. Go to industry trade shows, conferences and also local business-oriented events. Read the Wall Street Journal daily for an education about industry and trends. Find online magazines that interest you.
- Be independent-minded. Think for yourself. Gather your own facts and find your own truth. Groupthink is cheap. Strong, independent analysis is unique and adds value.
- Treat your brain like a muscle. The harder you work it by reading, writing as well as engaging on hard and new topics, the stronger it will be your entire life.
- Remember, your ears don’t work while your lips are moving. When you’re in a meeting, listen to what’s said rather than thinking about what you’re going to say.
- Of course, photography is the best hobby in the world. Any hobby strengthens the brain and the soul. Whatever your hobby, be passionate about it.
Good luck to you, but recognize luck tends to favor those who work the hardest and are prepared for its arrival. Most important, work hard!
LBOs Can Finance Photographic Retail Companies
There were industry nonbelievers when Phil Livingston headed up a group of investors to buy Precision Camera & Video through a leveraged buyout (LBO). Was an LBO possible in the retail climate of 2019? As it turns out, it was.
The essence of a leveraged buyout is to take advantage of a reliable cash flow business with debt financing to acquire the entity. Debt reduces the amount of equity investment needed. As a result, after the ongoing business repays the debt, the return to investors is higher.
Here is the package banks were given to evaluate:
- A 44-year-old company with a positive track record of solid earnings
- Five other investment partners with solid business experience
- A seller willing to take a partial note for payments; retain some equity; and also agree to be available through the transition
- A solid, upscale as well as growing market in Austin, Texas
- An established market penetration unique among retailers
- Solid “bench strength” with a management team agreeing to continue
- A vesting stock ownership incentive for the top managers
- Phil Livingston’s background in a wide variety of industries and also positions; thus giving him the ability to challenge every established norm (this attitude comforts bankers)
- Phil’s recruitment of a high-functioning, engaged, outside board of directors
- Phil’s enthusiasm as well as commitment for photography as a factor; this passion was evident in his dedication to making Precision Camera & Video successful.
In addition, Phil was fortunate to find Texas Capital Bank with a veteran banker who understands retailing as well as product distribution. Moreover, Phil practices the “never surprise your banker” philosophy with frequent and candid updates.