One thing most people can agree on is that Jerry Sullivan, president and founder of Precision Camera & Video of Austin, Texas, is a nice guy. And that speaks a lot to the success of this year’s PIR Dealer of the Year.
At the heart of Precision’s success is the attention to customer service that differentiates their store from both the big-box dealers and the Internet retailers that are a continual threat their business. From their salespeople and their repair folks to their back-office staff, the success of Precision Camera & Video is primarily based on its people.
“In the old days, we used to hire a lot of people that just had photo knowledge,” said Sullivan. “But we realized over the years that we may have been approaching it the wrong way. We changed our philosophy around 10 years ago, when our first priority became actually liking the people we hired. We looked for people with outgoing personalities, and figured we could train them to do the rest.”
Precision Camera was born from a service angle, which is very different from many of our past Dealers of the Year, which were family businesses passed down for generations.
“I started as a repair technician, so customer service was in my blood,” said Sullivan. “After my attempts at becoming a professional photographer, I realized many of those with whom I was competing were graduates of Brooks, RIT and other photo schools (he’s a proud University of Texas grad). So I began looking for a job in a camera store, and a guy hired me as a camera repair technician; he taught me how to repair Leicas, Hasselblads and just about any other camera.”
An entrepreneur at heart, Jerry Sullivan went out on his own in 1976, opening Precision Camera Repair. He started a photo gallery in his repair shop, where some of his clients would exhibit their photographs. He had quite a run as a photo gallery operator, and then he started selling books and accessories.
“When I did a camera repair, my customer would be looking to buy a roll of film, so I became a Kodak dealer. Then he’d want to print, so I started carrying paper and darkroom equipment and supplies. Eventually, when I couldn’t repair their cameras, they were looking for new equipment, so I became a Canon dealer and ultimately started selling new cameras. After a while, I was doing everything at Precision Camera Repair except repairing cameras, which I would do until 2:00 in the morning when I could find the time.”
Sullivan incorporated in 1981, and the rest is history. But through all the years, he recognized that the ability for him and his employees to connect with their customers was the reason he’s been able to survive.
“People come to us because of our reputation, which is something I have to guard very carefully,” said Sullivan. “The Internet is a tough competitor, especially when e-tailers have an 8-1/4% tax advantage on us. But what we can offer prospects is full customer service, a knowledgeable staff and a depth of accessories in a full-line camera store. And a pleasant ‘Hello, may I help you,’ when they walk in the door.”
And the nice guy thing doesn’t just extend to his customers.
“I don’t understand dealers who throw camera vendors out of their stores,” he said. “It’s nuts, because it has to be a partnership. I want to be friends with my vendors, because people like to do business with people they like. If I can’t be a friend to my vendor, then I won’t keep them. Life is way too short.”
The same is true of their reps. “Gregg Burger, our general manager, is a former Minolta rep, so he understands both sides of the coin. We’ve made great friends with our reps, because when we need some extra advertising funds to run a promotion, or we want to do a show, we need to work together. We don’t look for handouts. If you give me an extra $10,000 in advertising funds, then I should be buying more products to sell. That’s how businesses should be run.”
So what would Sullivan pass down to the next generation of camera store owners?
First of all, you have to continue to innovate. “I’m looking to build an iPhone accessories department right now, not because I think they’re better cameras, but because that’s where the market might be going. You can’t turn a blind eye to progress.”
And of course, you have to treat people the right way. “This is a people business. You have employees, you have vendors and you have customers. You all should be in it together to make it work. People are going to walk into your store because they want to do business with you. And if you’re not a fanatic about customer service, then you’re giving business away. I like my employees. And I like my customers.”
And, apparently, they like Jerry Sullivan and Precision Camera & Video, too. Congratulations on being named Photo Industry Reporter’s 2011 Dealer of the Year.