My first question to Phil Livingston when he picked up the phone was something to which we all can relate: “What were you thinking when you decided to get into the camera business now?”
The rest of our conversation made it abundantly clear that there was no better place for him at this point in his life. With a good chunk of his career behind him, Phil was looking for one more challenge. He investigated a number of businesses that might fit the bill. However, while one by one the deals didn’t work out, he was fortunate to come upon Precision Camera. The very-well-established Austin camera store was looking for a buyer.
One More Challenge
“I was 60 years old, had a long corporate career and was looking for one more challenge,” said Livingston. “I’m an operator—not a deal guy; I was looking for a business to buy. I was actually close on a few opportunities; then Precision Camera came along.”
Given the current photography market and the peril of brick-and-mortar, wasn’t a retail store in this business a scary prospect?
“It scared a lot of investors, and a lot of other buyers,” he said. “But I was always into photography. I had a darkroom when I was 14 years old and printed pictures my father would shoot. I’m also a gear guy; this seemed like the perfect match. Especially because it combined my passion for photography with a great business opportunity. I was very lucky.”
I asked what surprised him most about his new business. He was quick to praise his employees.
“The sales force is the most impressive thing. Notably, their knowledge of this category and of their roles is incredible. It’s not that they just know about cameras; it’s also their attitude, their skills in treating customers and knowing how to close a sale.”
Then on top of everything, Covid-19 happens. I asked what he learned from running a retail business during a pandemic.
“People are more adaptable and willing to try new things than you would imagine. Suddenly, we were introducing new things to our employees, like online training, online sales, salespeople calling customers, curbside selling—and they responded. Customers also appreciated us trying new things. We realized that when customers walked into our stores, they were looking for a fast transaction, which was to our advantage. We made sure we could respond in a number of different ways to make their experience safe and enjoyable.”
Blending Lifelong Passions
Phil Livingston also relishes the day-to-day operations of a retail environment. “I was a bit surprised at how many moving parts there are in a small camera business, all having to work at the same time. While this is not a big business, many things come into play, like supply chain, the POS system, marketing, HR, inventory control and managing products.
“I spend half of my day working on the business and half talking about cameras and photography with customers and employees. People walk in all day, drooling over products. I love watching our salespeople, who are so passionate about photography, talk to customers. It’s a big love affair on the sales floor all day long.”
Precision is now embarking on a new location—in the middle of a pandemic! What was Phil thinking?
“After analyzing customer surveys, we realized while we were doing a great job in North Austin, we weren’t serving customers in South Austin—a growing area. We were going to start with a pop-up store at the end of 2019; however, we weren’t able to open in time for the holidays. So, we opened a small store on a month-to-month lease. It worked out so well, we’re moving to a different spot with higher traffic. It’s the right thing to do for our customers and for our brand.”
It seems like the passion thing is working out.
“I’m at the crossroads of all the things I love to do. I’ve been involved in a lot of different businesses, so I know at least a little bit about a lot of industries. But I’ve never been involved in a business where I feel so passionate about the products, the people and the potential for growth. Yes, it’s working out just fine.”