Successful Succession: The Legacy of Photo-Imaging Family Businesses

Successful Succession: The Legacy of Photo-Imaging Family Businesses

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In the previous issue, we reported on industry newcomers changing how their businesses interact with customers compared to their stores’ prior owners. Now, we talk to new owners of five companies who took over their photo-imaging family businesses. Some turnovers happened unexpectedly; others morphed over a decade.

In each one there’s a common thread of mutual respect among family members; a drive to ensure family harmony; and a commitment to continue the legacy to benefit the customers, the employees, the vendors and ownership.

                  Photo-Imaging Family Businesses

Allen’s Camera: Levittown, Pennsylvania photo-imaging family businesses-Allens-Camera-Logo-BW

“See you tomorrow” was 61-year-old Allen Leichter’s normal goodbye at the end of the workday at Allen’s Camera. Thursday, April 30, 2015 was no different, except Allen died that evening. Friday morning Allen’s son, Brandon, was faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges. Payroll was due on Tuesday. Brandon had no idea how to handle it. Nothing was written down. There were no phone numbers or contact people of any vendor or service providers.

Allen was very hands-on and ran an amazing organization. He had little documentation concerning operations. Brandon knew his ability to meet payroll on Tuesday would be a major indication to employees and the industry that the retailer would continue. He didn’t even have time to deal with grief.

What Allen did leave Brandon was an amazing following of customers and suppliers. Without asking, customers and sales reps came into the store asking what they could do, supporting Brandon’s efforts to keep the doors open. Sales reps volunteered to staff the store. Their Canon rep, Matt Thompson, greeted customers, answered phones, unpacked boxes—whatever was needed—for nearly two weeks.

Background

Brandon had hung around the store through college. Then he got an international job requiring a lot of travel. He eventually returned to Allen’s. He also reconnected with Mandy, a high school friend, and they married. She was there with practical advice, information, hard work and moral support.

AllensCamera-Leichters
Allen’s Camera focuses on family: Brandon Leichter, daughter Amelia and his wife, Mandy

“I worked for my dad for five years. He was starting to view me as a potential partner, someone he could rely on. Affording him some time off meant a lot to me. I wanted him to have enough confidence in my ability to steer the ship so he could enjoy what he had earned over his life,” Brandon said.

“A few months before he passed, to show I understood that the work didn’t stop at six o’clock when the store closed, I asked him to teach me how to reconcile the books at the end of the day; reconcile the register; account for taxable and nontaxable transactions; and transmit credit card sales.

“On my iPhone, I recorded him explaining to me how he did the procedures. That’s how I closed out the register the first day we reopened. I wish I had a hundred videos as a playbook. It’s a simple way to create a cross-training method. A couple of one-minute videos every week demonstrating the different processes would ensure others can operate in your absence.”

Reflections

Reflecting back, here are Brandon’s thoughts.

  1. Everyone needs an up-to-date will. Allen’s will was made before Brandon started at the business. Fortunately, Brandon and his brother were overly concerned about treating each other fairly. This isn’t how most situations end when there’s no current will. It’s not fair to those you leave behind. They will be grieving, so don’t make their lives more complicated. Digging into a parent’s affairs may feel invasive; however, open communication spares everyone.
  2. Business owners need instructions on how to operate the company. You also need to list all vendors and service providers by name, contact person, phone and account numbers as well as relevant notes.
  3. Talking about why instead of how focuses conversations on the big picture. Let the video playbook talk about how to get things done daily.
  4. Know the major customers and suppliers. Brandon and Mandy called customers to tell them about Allen’s passing and that Brandon would continue the store with Allen’s values. This action in an emotional time brought support and encouragement from vendors and customers, as well as amazing extra support from the staff.

“The staff are really part of the family. With their support, as a unit we honor Allen’s legacy as his store continues to thrive,” says Brandon.

Midwest Photo (MPEX): Columbus, Ohio photo-imaging-family-businesses-Midwest-Photo-Logo-w-tag

In 1989, Stu Appelbaum started peddling used cameras by mail order from a basement. In the early 1990s, a neighborhood grocery store closed and Stu opened the only retail store in the neighborhood.

After college, his son Moishe ran a photo studio until 2006. He closed it to join Midwest Photo. Moishe liked working in the business and packed/shipped orders. When too many ground-glass focusing screens broke in transit, Moishe was promoted to sales; he’s been selling ever since.

By then, the business had diversified to include trade shows; outside sales; a rental department; large-format printer sales; and online sales—all from a slightly larger location on Columbus’s main street. Stu retired in 2014, selling the business to Moishe.

Moishe-Applebaum-19
Moishe Appelbaum at age 19, working the phones at Midwest Photo

The market was shifting. In 2015, MPEX exhibited at 40–50 trade shows nationwide. Each year, the shows generated lower profit margins and fewer repeat customers. It was no longer a marketing initiative. In 2016, Ken Lewis, MPEX sales manager, and Moishe jettisoned all road shows. While they provided millions in sales, the margins were inadequate for the costs. The store focused on walk-ins. Moishe spent more time building the online business, Midwest’s brand, LumoPro.

The retail location was also starved for parking and space. The company moved to a 15,000-square-foot location with 60 parking spaces. An additional 9,000 square feet was added for distribution, which also wholesales Godox, Moza, 7artisan lenses, SmallRig, Varta and others.

Moishe and his team totally changed the focus of the business with more sophisticated physical retailing, diversification in the wholesale distribution business, as well as education, rentals, used and repairs.

Lessons Learned
Moishe-Appelbaum
Moishe-Applebaum

“My dad was a great teacher. If I could do it over again, I would have tried to get into his head more about finances. I didn’t understand how he made decisions and needed guidance when I took over.”

Here are the most important things Moishe believes he learned from working with his dad.

  1. Take care of your people; keep them first in your actions.
  2. Maintain a diversified business, continually affecting change to keep that diversity, with an eye on what’s next.

“There are lots of ways dad and I run the business differently. He gave me the chance to pave my path and figure out what running my business would look like. I’m proud and grateful of the legacy he left at Midwest Photo. I know he’s proud of what we’ve done since he left.”

Roberts Camera: Indianapolis, Indiana photo-imaging-family-businesses-Roberts-Camera-logo

Few attorneys end up owning one of the biggest, best camera stores in the country. Realizing he didn’t like law, Bruce Pallman went back to the family business, selling jewelry, appliances and cameras. His focused on photography and the rest is history. His daughter, Meredith, is completing majority purchase of Roberts this year.

When asked if a family member should work outside the company before joining it full time, Bruce responds in his normal candid, direct style. “I wouldn’t have hired her if she hadn’t worked away from us first.” Bruce believes the outside experience gives the person more confidence in their decision to join the family organization.

Meredith was very successful at the Leo Burnett Company, a global advertising agency in Chicago. Bruce joined Meredith and husband Corey Reinker for dinner in Chicago one night. In the Pallman style, she bluntly told her father to get ready because she was coming back to run the company someday. That conversation worked around to “why wait”? Within a year, Meredith, Corey and their baby daughter relocated.

Meredith was hesitant to go forward with acquiring the company until she knew her three siblings were fine with it. “Our family relationship is too precious to risk losing over the business.” Her siblings all had successful careers and wanted no part of running Roberts.

Understanding and Communication

Before Corey agreed to join Roberts, he and Bruce reached a candid understanding. Corey highly valued his relationship with his father-in-law and didn’t want to impair that. Bruce said if they stayed in communication it wouldn’t. It hasn’t.

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Corey and Meredith Reinker with Bruce Pallman (right)

Bruce dives in headfirst, committing full-time employee(s) and resources to new endeavors. He hired Nelson Coppedge to build Roberts’ used business.

Corey worried he might be expected to “become another Bruce.” There could only be one. When Nelson was hired, Bruce asked if Corey could make UsedPhotoPro soar. “Of course,” Corey blurted. What became obvious to Corey was computerization was needed to bring scale to the used business. He helped devise and implement the system and worked with Nelson to buy and resell used items. The accomplishments of UsedPhotoPro established Corey as another brilliant hiring by Bruce.

Corey and Meredith said Bruce is now less hands-on but still involved and wanting to help. A significant shift happened when Roberts moved from its 44-year location to a redesigned 35,000-square-foot mega headquarters. Bruce had a second heart attack before the remodeling was finished. Bruce’s wife, Wendy, Meredith, Corey and the Roberts team doubled down and completed the move. The family kept Bruce informed while keeping his stress to a minimum. This event and the response to it answered all questions of whether Meredith and Corey were right for Roberts.

One of Bruce’s passions is giving opportunity to employees and family to do what they love. He says to those considering a position, “If you don’t want to do it, it’s no biggie. I’ll look for someone else with your skillset. I want to give you options, not handcuffs.”

Bruce reflects: “They’re running it better and more competitively. It’s not that I’m too old to understand changes, it’s that I don’t want to.”

YM Camera: Youngstown, OH photo-imaging-family-businesses-YM-camera-Logo-vert

Many families believe the next generation should first work outside the family business. Jim Yankush and his son Robby didn’t buy it. Robby graduated from Baldwin Wallace University in 2015; 2016 was the best in YM’s history. Not a coincidence.

Robby brought energy and enthusiasm that created synergy between him and the team. He embraced new technologies, especially social media, catapulting YM to new highs. Robby became a Facebook sensation with customers driving for hours to get a “YM selfie” with Robby. He monitored camera and photo websites, answering questions without being overtly commercial.

Jim understood these efforts would take time to return on investment, so he left Robby alone to mine this fertile new field. He also realized he didn’t have the skillset to countermand Robby’s decisions.

YM’s online reputation was reinforced by both striving to maintain same-day shipping and accurate order filling. Jim quips, “He’s thinking more like me. Or am I thinking more like him? We also stay out of each other’s way on daily tasks and talk frequently about bigger decisions.”

YM-Camera-Jim-and-Robby-Yankush
YM Camera’s father and son team: Jim and Robby Yankush

Jim had worked with his father and is replicating that relationship. “He’s my son, my buddy, my coworker and my partner.” The trust and communication were evident when the store doubled its size by annexing the upstairs of their building. It was Robby’s vision to have a “super community space” for classes, bigger displays, shows and just hanging out. Jim marshaled the project; together they exceeded expectations.

The Takeaway

Candid conversations are mandatory. “I need to know what dad does and doesn’t want to do. He’s handling the administrative/financial tasks; however, he makes sure I know how much is unencumbered in the checking account and how much we can buy,” Robby says.

Robby adds, “It’s an honor to continue a third-generation business. Happiness and pride come from having no gray areas. You must delegate to get rid of the mental burdens. Frequent communication is required. Mutual trust and respect are paramount. If you’re committed to each other and the business, success is easier.”

Sigma Corporation: Kanagawa, Japan Sigma 90mm f/2.8 DG DN | Contemporary Sigma 90mm f/2.8 DG DN | Contemporary SIgma-Logo-Black covid-19

In 1961, a major supplier went out of business, potentially destroying the livelihoods of many families. Michihiro Yamaki became an accidental entrepreneur. He was asked to lead a group of cooperating companies trying to keep their employees working and their companies alive. An optical engineer, it was neither his training nor desire; however, he saw the need and rose to the occasion. Sigma was founded.

In those days, the “experts” believed that what we know as tele-extenders belonged exclusively on the front of the lens. Exemplifying the innovation that has been central to Sigma since inception, they introduced the first rear-mounted tele-extender in 1961. Innovation and trendsetting wasn’t limited to R&D. Michihiro also charted his own management style, breaking traditions of both Japanese and American CEOs at that time.

During the 1970s and 1980s, there were hundreds of Japanese lens brands. Some rose, some fell. Camera manufacturers started fighting for the customers. Kit lenses arrived, which drove prices down and starved out smaller, indistinct competitors. Sigma continued their focus on innovative products.

Successful Succession

In January 2012, Michihiro Yamaki passed away and his son, Kazuto Yamaki, became CEO. Kazuto grew up living above the early factory and worked in various company roles. An optical engineer, he was responsible for the 28mm aspherical f/1.8 II lens. It received rave reviews for sharpness and compactness. His father always assumed Kazuto would run the business. He told him, “People take pictures in their happiest and moving moments. A camera and lens are close to life’s emotion. It is a rewarding job.”

Sigma-Kazuto-Yamaki-w-camera
Kazuto Yamaki, Sigma CEO. Photo by Junya Taguchi (Spoon)

Later in 2012, the Sigma Global Vision (SGV) was announced. Art, Contemporary and Sports lenses launched as categories. The success, especially of Art lenses, is key to Sigma’s recent success. The consumer acceptance of Art lenses caused Sigma’s retailer partners great joy. While this strategy was discussed before Michihiro’s passing, it was Kazuto’s leadership and delegation that generated the success.

Sigma America

In 1984, Sigma America was established to serve the U.S. market. President Mark Amir-Hamzeh joined the company 33 years ago in service and repairs. He worked up the corporate chain to his current role.

As he explains, “Creating innovative products, focusing on customer service and establishing strong working relationships with our retail partners were critical success factors for Sigma since its founding under Michihiro-san. We continue to reflect these principles under the leadership of his son.”

The Yamaki family hasn’t operated in ways American retailers expect from Japanese companies. Talking to vendors, a typical comment is: “Sigma is amazing. You ask some companies for help with a Valentine’s promotion and they don’t respond until Thanksgiving. Sigma doesn’t go back to Japan. The company makes decisions in the U.S. the same day or the next. While they don’t always say ‘yes,’ they do immediately respond. Many times a ‘no’ becomes a ‘maybe’ if certain adjustments can be made.”

Retailers say the immediate, open feedback makes Sigma unique. That comes from the ownership and leadership. “No other Asian vendor seems to trust their USA teams like Sigma.”

Concept and Context

Today, Kazuto is a familiar face to customers and retailers. In numerous videos, he explains new products as well as endeavors. He’s a champion of Sigma’s cameras, talking about how he likes to shoot street photography with his Sigma fp. There are very few CEOs who explain what one fan called “Sigma’s concept and context” in an understandable way.

Recently, Kazuto said his three goals are:

  1. Make the best quality and best performing products.
  2. Be the brand customers and business partners love the most.
  3. Make Sigma the best organization so employees and people related to Sigma are happy with it.

Judging by the enthusiasm among users and retailers, he is reaching the goals that his father exemplified.

       A Conversation with Kazuto Yamaki

Bill McCurry: You have a different decision matrix and delegation of authority than traditional Japanese companies. Do you ever feel pressure to make more decisions from Japan?

Kazuto Yamaki: No, I believe local representatives know their market best. We choose reliable local staff and trust them to do the rest.

Did you have any hesitation about launching SGV after your father’s passing?

Of course. We knew if it failed, it would impact the company tremendously. Bankruptcy was a possibility. However, we also knew if we did not go ahead, we could not continue manufacturing in Japan. As a result, we would not have been able to protect the jobs of our employees and subcontractors or maintain the quality and continual improvement of Sigma products. We had no choice but to take a stand.

Sigma-SIDEBAR-Kazuto-w-fp-l-meditation
Kazuto Yamaki contemplating the Sigma fp L camera. “I was dressed in a modern, tailored suit and sat in a traditional Seiza position. I tried to portray a modern Samurai showing respect to the products we produce, just as the real Samurai respected their Katana (swords). We liked the contrast. However, we were not too serious; we wanted to create the photo with a sense of humor.” Photo by Sigma for Film and Digital Times
Do you like being the face of the company?

Honestly, I do not like and am not very good at public appearances or statements on the company’s behalf. I prefer to avoid them. On the other hand, I do want to convey the thoughts that our employees put into each of our products and services, our corporate philosophy, etc., to our customers as much as possible. It is difficult to cover this on our website and PR materials alone. I have an obligation to play a part and believe it is one of the ways I can contribute to the company and its employees.

Can you discuss your succession plan to continue Sigma’s excellence?

We have many employees who can talk about the excellence of our company. That is why I believe it is important to have a leader who understands their values. The environment surrounding companies is becoming tougher year by year, making it extremely difficult to pursue ideal management. It is a great challenge to see whether our unique management philosophy will carry through, in such tough times, and the burden on management will increase. I would like to entrust Sigma to an excellent leader who can overcome such difficulties.

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