Manny Park is a True Believer. He believes in America, in Free
Enterprise and, perhaps most significant, in the future of the
"These past two years have been a difficult time for small businesses," he acknowledges. "But I truly believe we are on the verge of a period of new growth and tremendous opportunity for people who are well positioned in the imaging industry," he says.
If his track record is any indication, Park ought to know. In the early '90s, he launched a consulting business to help independents start up their own photo stores—despite the fact that he had no direct retail experience himself. In three years, his company helped to launch almost 200 labs in New York and New Jersey.
Then in 1996, he decided to put his money where his mouth is. He opened his own store, Pro Image, on Manhattan's upper west side. Today, that store is a thriving imaging center with 20 employees that serves consumer and commercial customers alike. He has also opened a second location 20 blocks north, and is already planning a third.
"I spent years developing a business plan for myself. Most independents don't invest the time and energy in long-range planning, but it's really a critical step for any successful business," he explains.
Like any businessman, Park takes some risks. He prides himself on being ahead of the curve in adopting new technologies. He offered online digital image output on dye sublimation printers and large-format inkjets as early as 1998. More recently, he was among the first to install the Noritsu QSS-2711DLS digital lab system.
But he's quick to point out that New York's photo district is full of businesses that went belly up by investing too freely on bleeding edge technology. "For a small business to invest in anything—equipment, human resources, new technology—timing is so important," Park says. "The imaging industry today is so dynamic. Companies can make two mistakes: investing too little, too slow, or too late to remain competitive; or they can invest too much, too early."
Knowing when to pursue a new service or market is one of his greatest keys to success. And Park pursues new opportunities almost on a daily basis.
"My vision is for Pro Image to be a kind of imaging department store," he explains. "If a customer comes in and asks, 'Can you do this?' nine out of 10 times, the answer is yes."
The Noritsu digital lab system alone has added several services, and simplified the work of providing many previous services such as prints from slides, film scanning, black-and-white printing, and writing scans to a Kodak Picture CD. Of course, straight 35 mm develop-and-print work is still the backbone of his photofinishing business that drives both the digital lab and an Agfa analog lab, both printing on Kodak Royal paper. Consumers also continue to use the Kodak Picture Maker to make photographic copies of their favorite images, at $8 per 8 x 10 for self-service, or $11 if a store employee makes the print.
Park's long-term plan is to open 10 Pro Image stores. If that kind of optimism seems to border on insanity, consider this: his first two stores are performing within 5 percent of his long-term business plan — that's 5 percent on the positive side. And in a down market. After being open just 14 months, his second store already has 45 percent of his first store's revenue, and he projects it will reach 65 percent next year.
One of Park's strategies for growth is based on brand recognition. When he opened the second Pro Image just 20 blocks north of his first store, customers recognized the name, and that helped to grow business quickly.
But because Park's long-term strategy might involve new stores in areas where Pro Image is completely unknown, he joined the Kodak Image Center Solutions (KICS) program. "If you partner with a well-known, well-respected name, people are more inclined to trust in your professionalism and quality," he says. "Even if they don't know you personally." Kodak Image Center Solutions participating stores share a common look, signage and a broad range of imaging services. Stores are individually designed in consultation with Kodak, and member stores earn rebates based on their purchase of Kodak film, photofinishing supplies and merchandise items including frames, albums, and photo gift items.
The philosophy behind the KICS program mirrors Park's: to create new interest in imaging of every kind and, over time, increase the size of the market overall. He's happy to share his experiences about what works and what doesn't with other store owners—in some cases, his direct competition-because he envisions a future with plenty of room for everyone.