While it's true that couples who play together stay together, for the husband-and-wife team of Marsha Phillips and Doug Bundren, it's a shared passion for their Bozeman, Montana, business that keeps the home fires burning.
Marsha and Doug bought F-11 Photographic Supplies, a full-line photo specialty store with full-service minilab services, in 1998 (Doug had started working there in 1982, Marsha in 1985). Both Doug and Marsha are photographers, and their passion for the craft becomes evident after spending a short time with the couple. While Marsha handles the day-to-day operations of F-11, like staffing, vendor selection, equipment purchases and IT, Doug is the more creative one. He'd rather shoot with a Holga, where Marsha's ideal camera is the latest DSLR. Many of the staff also share that passion for photography-most have photography degrees from nearby Montana State University.
Knowledge Is Power
F-11 is well-known for its educational offerings, which range from classes, seminars, one-on-one tutoring, mini-classes, and the employee-organized Glass House (a women's photography club). "We'd been eyeballing classes since we bought the business," explains Doug. "In the beginning, we relied solely on vendors to teach. Now the staff does it."
More than half of the employees teach. Marsha and Doug feel it's so important that they even pay their employees for the time they spend preparing for the classes. They are also paid double-time for the time they're actually teaching. "I think it's a pretty good deal," says Marsha. "It's great to have staff sell a camera and teach the class two weeks later." Some employees also tutor customers one-on-one.
F-11 also brings in special instructors, such as local photographer Bob Sisk, and Yellowstone instructor extraordinaire Sandra Nykerk. For in-depth digital imaging classes, Kathy Eyster, who has assisted Photoshop gurus such as George DeWolfe, Katrin Eismann, and John Paul Caponigro, is brought in for her computer expertise. While Doug and Marsha often pitch in to help teach, Eyster is their go-to-woman when it comes to prowess in Photoshop. She's fluent in Mac and Windows, and is involved anytime the classes include computers or Photoshop.
The classes have dramatically increased [in number] over the past two years. "We finally dedicated space for an in-house classroom about a year ago," says Doug. The classroom area is separated from the sales floor by rolling walls, which allow the space to be reconfigured based on class size. Amenities include a coffeemaker and a selection of herbal teas.
"We think the best way to learn photography is to do photography," says Doug. It's for this reason that many of the classes also incorporate shooting opportunities. Doug explains that the customers who take classes at F-11 that include off-site shoots often learn more. He notes that it's more difficult to do off-site shoots in the winter, but "we'll be integrating more shooting when we can." Marsha adds, "I see us continuing to expand our classes and workshops in the future."
The mini-classes are free 15- to 20-minute classes that F-11 holds for drop-in customers a couple times a year to promote the educational offerings. Doug says the mini-classes really help F-11 get the word out. "We think a better-educated customer is better for us."
One of the more popular locations near Bozeman is Yellowstone National Park; however, they also schedule class photo trips to parks within Bozeman and to events in nearby towns, depending upon the time of year, accessibility, and availability. (The weekend that PTN came to visit, the photo shoot was at the Wilsall rodeo.)
"Photography should be fun," says Doug. The staff at F-11 Photographic Supplies strives to make the classes, photo shoots, and other events enjoyable for their customers. Their passion for photography certainly helps their customers get excited, too.
The store recently finished Canon Discovery Days, and Nikon, the first vendor to teach classes in Bozeman, has consistently provided instruction and gear. Tamron also heavily supports F-11, sending reps out to give special presentations and shipping in extra lenses so customers can demo the products. Apple pitched in during a field workshop in the Bridger Mountains this June as well.
Other educational offerings include seminars. "That's one of the ways we can support local photographers," says Doug. Another form of support is the store's gallery space, which was added in 1999. Each photographer's work hangs for one month at a time. Some shows have displayed work by F-11 staff, others by local photographers. Doug says the gallery is booked through 2008. The store has vaulted ceilings, and large prints cover much of the wall space. There are also photographic prints in the classroom area for inspiration, and Doug recently added a private gallery space for his own work.
Unlike dealers who offer classes after hours but won't open the register, F-11 won't turn down a sale just because it's an evening or a Sunday. If customers are in the store for a class, they can make purchases. However, relationship-building is the real key to how Doug and Marsha have built their business. "We do sell equipment during class," says Marsha. "But more importantly, we make friends with our customers." They are also close to many of their vendors, considering them friends in addition to people they do business with.
The duo also understands the importance of not considering themselves "an island." They're members of PMA and IPI, and they are affiliate members of the PRO buying group. "Each group has its particular benefits," says Marsha. "I think being a PRO affiliate helps us share with [the] successful camera stores in the country. Some of the best minds in the country in photofinishing are IPI members. We've been good at utilizing ideas we've gotten from these sources." In fact, Marsha says that she finds the buying groups to be more useful for the exchange of ideas than for the buying power.