Bruce Pallman just gets it.
Roberts Camera has enjoyed a reputation throughout the industry that is driven by their recognition that the market never stands still. And those slow to transition might not be left standing.
Roberts began as a jewelry store in downtown Indianapolis in 1957, where Bob and Rose Pallman began their journey.
“My parents went from selling jewelry and
watches to appliances . . . and one day realized that we could include a 12-page catalog of camera products in our lineup. And the rest is kind of history,” Bruce explains.
Bruce is that rare executive who not only recognizes that change is critical to the process of success but isn’t afraid to lead the way.
While he grew up in the camera business, he found the time and the ambition to earn a law degree at night. “I probably would have been a pretty good lawyer, and I was proud of the accomplishment,” he says, “but my heart was in the store.”
Bruce is a relationship guy, which is obvious within the first five minutes of meeting him. His understanding of relationships drove Roberts to be one of the country’s most recognized dealers of pro equipment.
“The guys from Sports Illustrated, like George Tiedemann and John Iacono, came around during the Pan Am Games one year, and we took care of them. They appreciated it, and the word spread of our dedication to making sure our customers were always satisfied.”
That led to clients like Time Inc. and many newspapers across the country buying equipment from Roberts.
And Bruce recognizes that relationships will always be the hallmark of Roberts. “I love to roam the floor on Saturdays, when traffic is substantial,” he says. “I just love the interaction with our customers. It’s what makes us who we are.” (I noticed that during our visit, every customer who walked in the door was attended to almost immediately.)
Roberts could have stayed just a camera store, but the emergence of the Internet was like a lightning bolt to Bruce. “We saw the opportunity to sell online earlier than most. And it quickly became an important part of our business,” Bruce notes.
Roberts prospered online, always one step ahead of the curve. It seems as if their DNA is all about pivoting at the right time.
And now is their most aggressive reinvention. Bruce’s daughter, Meredith, and her husband, Corey Reinker, are in the throws of the next transition of Roberts Camera. The two decided to join the family business after working in Chicago for a number of years.
“We wanted to make our own way, but at some point, we also knew we wanted to come home. And we hoped my father would accept the premise,” says Meredith. (It didn’t take much convincing.)
This coincided with the decision to move from their downtown location into a new 35,000-square-foot facility that is beautifully designed. But their hearts are online.
Corey runs their used camera business, called UsedPhotoPro, which is expanding in leaps and bounds. His passion for it is compelling.
“It takes an incredible commitment to be in the used business, but the rewards are substantial,” he explains. It’s not for the faint of heart, as Roberts invests in used equipment all over the country and then has to turn it around for a profit.
Again, they’ve built this business by understanding the tools necessary for success. They’ve gone into partnership with many photo specialty dealers to buy their used equipment—a win-win scenario.
“It’s important that we continue to refine our database of product listings and values to be sure that buyers and sellers are both satisfied customers,” says Corey. They’ve also committed to selling products on eBay and Amazon in a big way.
“You can’t just go in and put up a store on eBay. We’ve committed resources that allow us to put up more than 200 products per day and watch those products online practically every minute. You have to be diligent in what products are moving, and where the opportunities are,” adds Bruce.
“There’s also a science to being successful on Amazon. Again, we’ve committed the personnel to become experts on making sure our products are moving. It’s been very successful for us.”
Bruce continues to transition the company, with the premise that having an Internet structure in place opens the door to reinvent their business—and not just as a camera store.
“We’ve moved into selling speakers and headphones, and we can sell practically anything now. As the photography market transitions, we’re positioning ourselves to not be solely dependent on this category,” Bruce says. “It’s the key to survival and growth.”
Furthermore, the success of the transition and transformation of Roberts from a jewelry store to a camera store to a substantial Internet retailer is evident in the Pallman family philosophy of not sitting still—and in the next generation learning from a visionary.
“I’m not afraid to learn from my dad, but Corey and I are also recognizing that being decisive is critical to long-term success. We appreciate his experience, and I think he appreciates our commitment to bring what we bring—from social media marketing to a true commitment to online success,” says Meredith.
From my observation, Meredith and Corey clearly have what it takes to lead Roberts into the future.
Finally, what does Bruce like most? “I get to see my kids every day. I can just plop down in their offices and it’s like magic.”