Strategy Sessions: Harold’s Photo Centers’ 100-Year History Lesson

Strategy Sessions: Harold’s Photo Centers’ 100-Year History Lesson


It’s not easy to last 100 years in business, but somehow Harold’s Photo Centers has survived a depression, a few recessions, two world wars, the tumultuous 1960s, the film to digital (or should I say nothing to film to digital) transition, 18 U.S. presidents and a fire that nearly destroyed their history. I sat down with Bob Hanson recently, Harold’s current president, and asked him to give me a sense of Harold’s 100-year history. Here it is, in his own words.

My grandfather, Emil Hanson, was a second-generation American from Sweden. In 1910, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was a small town—the population was around 20,000—and he had learned the studio photo business in Minnesota. I don’t know why he chose Sioux Falls, but he bought a studio there that was somewhat already established. At the time, he was a boarder in a small rooming house that is still standing, so I’ve traced out how he walked to work every day.

He was in his twenties and not yet married when he met my great grandparents on my grandmother’s side, who had also just moved to Sioux Falls. He married their daughter and they ended up investing in his studio. (I also found through my research that my great grandparents lived in a house around eight blocks from where I grew up. I had gone past it thousands of times but never knew it was part of my family history.)

So my grandfather and his new wife, Agnes, operated this photography studio called Hanson Studio. He wasn’t selling equipment yet, because you couldn’t buy roll film cameras at that time since George Eastman hadn’t perfected the technology. Later on, my father and uncle—Howard and Harold Hanson—graduated from high school and became interested in the business. 

My grandfather, father and uncle had an interesting marketing sense. For example, as the town was starting to grow, they wanted to prevent possible competitors from moving into their territory. So, to make it look like there were more competitors than there really were in that market, they opened other studios under different names—studios named Howard’s, Harold’s and Hanson—at different locations, but they were all owned and operated by the same family. Savvy move.

Then in the ’30s, as film really started to catch on and it became practical to sell cameras, they decided to start selling hardware. But in order to get a Kodak franchise, you had to have a street-floor location. At that time, portrait photographers were located on the second floor so they could take advantage of light through skylights—and if they let all of the photographers become Kodak dealers, it would have changed the marketing of Kodak products. So Kodak stipulated that retailers had to have a storefront on the street level. My grandfather decided to name the first retail storefront Harold’s, because Howard’s was already up and running, and that became their first camera store and studio.

At this time, my grandfather, grandmother and their two sons were working together but in separate locations. The depression made it tough, and when my father and uncle ended up going to war, in order to keep things going, they closed the other studios and concentrated on the Harold’s store. 

Both my father and uncle were photographers in the service: Uncle Harold was in the Navy, mostly stateside; my father was in Europe for a year, beginning with the invasion of Normandy. During the war there wasn’t much to sell, but they did their best. 

After the war, it became practical to get into photofinishing. My uncle was very progressive, and they began to provide black-and-white photofinishing services, and also started to do wholesale photofinishing.

Back then Kodak was only selling color film with processing prepaid, and a lawsuit was brought against them for restraint of trade, because no one could process their film and they dominated the market. Once the lawsuit made its way through, Kodak had to sell film without the processing attached, and they made the decision to put independents into the color photofinishing business. Harold’s became a lab using Kodak paper, equipment and chemistry, so Kodak pretty much put us all in business. 

My uncle installed one of the first color labs in the country in the early 1960s, and by the end of the decade we had become a fairly significant wholesale color photofinisher. At this point, the family opened a couple of stores, but
they were all struggling.

My uncle and my father had divided the business into the wholesale photofinishing side, which my uncle ran, and the retail side, which my father headed up. My dad and my uncle got along pretty well; they used their different personalities to the business’s advantage. My father was an unbelievably good salesman, so he’d work in the store selling, and my uncle, who didn’t like to wait on people, was in the office making the numbers work and running the equipment.

By the late ’60s and early ’70s, my two cousins and I had joined the company. I started working there before high school. I was primarily in the store, waiting on people, even though I could barely see over the counter. Since my dad was on the retail side, that’s where I started, and I pretty much remained there. The same working relationship that my dad and uncle had developed continued: I ran the retail side and my cousins ran the wholesale finishing side. We then started to expand; at one point we had nine stores and the wholesale lab.


“My grandfather was in the photo business before he could even sell film cameras, and I’ve already sold my last film camera. So we’ve seen the whole consumer film business history.” 


Then in the ’70s and ’80s we expanded a lot, including into other businesses. We had these trucks that were going out to the towns to deliver photofinishing, so we asked ourselves what else we could transport in the trucks. We were innovative, and there was still no real population, so if you were going to drive into a town that had a couple of thousand people, we figured we could also take wholesale auto parts or other items. And that was the beginning of Harold’s Delivery, Harold’s Dry Cleaning, Harold’s Travel—pretty much Harold’s everything.

South Dakota was then an interesting place to do business—kind of tough, because you would have to drive hundreds of miles to deliver photofinishing, where now you’d only have to go a few miles in a metropolitan area to reach the same amount of people. So it was tough to make money.

When we put in our one-hour labs, we started to do photofinishing in-store, which was a lot more efficient, but we also continued the wholesale business to supermarkets, drugstores, etc. Then around 20 years ago (1991), our main store, the original Harold’s, burned to the ground from an electrical fire. It wasn’t only our main store but also housed our business offices and our warehouse. It was devastating. Not only was it an 80-year-old business, but it was also a 100-year-old building, so it was very big news in our town. 

We had to make a quick decision on what our next step would be. We decided over that weekend to rebuild, but it wasn’t practical to rebuild at the same location, so we moved to the edge of town (out of the city) and relocated all of the offices and the warehouses. We spent about a year getting back into business.

About a year after the fire, the consolidation started in the wholesale photofinishing business—Kodak and Fujifilm were in a race to consolidate all of the wholesale labs, for a very good reason. Independent wholesale labs primarily dealt with independent retailers, but then independent retailers started disappearing as the retail chains started taking over. The big killer was Walmart, and it was becoming a very difficult time. 

Also, it was harder for retailers to go to independents for their photofinishing, especially as Kodak and Fujifilm we erecting labs across the country to service them. So those two companies started buying all of the labs, and Ritz and Wolf began buying up all of the retailers. The result was a major consolidation in the imaging industry.

Faced with such an environment, we decided to sell our wholesale lab to Fujifilm. We pretty much had to, and we had to split up the company: one of my cousins went to work for Fujifilm to run our former lab; another cousin took over our ancillary businesses—the delivery and travel businesses; and I took over the nine retail stores.

Around eight years ago, my three kids graduated college and entered the business. Admittedly, I made some mistakes integrating the family into our business—partly because my cousins and I had decided there would be no other family in the business—and then when my cousins left. I spent around five years trying to put it back together, and all of a sudden I turned around and my kids had snuck into the business. But it really sets us up for the future.

Two interesting things looking back: my grandfather was in the photo business before he could even sell film cameras, because roll film wasn’t practical; and before I’m even finished, I’ve sold my last film camera. So we’ve seen the whole consumer film business history; we were there at the beginning and we were there at the end.

How do you keep it going for 100 years? Well, you have to be awfully lucky. We were lucky that we were in such a great town and that our communities always supported us, even when our store burnt to the ground. And, most important, in a family business, we never brought it home. Keep your business and family lives separate. It makes you happier in both places. 

And finally, keep innovating. You can’t rest on your laurels or you’ll be out of business before you know it. I learned that from my grandfather, my father and my uncle. And hopefully, my kids will learn it from me.