Each year, PTN honors one retailer with the distinction of Dealer of the Year for that retailer's out-of-the-box thinking, openness with others in the industry, and leadership qualities. This year PTN has chosen Jerry and Rosemary Sullivan, owners of Precision Camera & Video of Austin, Texas, as its Dealer of the Year. Jerry and Rosemary will be honored at a reception on March 4, 2009, at the Renaissance Hotel in Las Vegas during PMA.
A Historical Look Into Precision's Past
Precision Camera & Video employs 40 people in its 11,000-square-foot store in Austin--quite an evolution from it's (and Jerry's) humble beginnings. When he was 10 years old, Jerry Sullivan found his dad's old Graflex Anniversary 4x5 camera while rummaging around in his grandmother's attic. When the Compur shutter died, his dad agreed to get it fixed if Jerry agreed to take care of the camera. The camera stayed fixed until day 91 of its 90-day warranty, and the repair shop wanted to be paid again to fix the camera a second time. Jerry's dad didn't want to spend the money, so Jerry did what any curious kid would do--he took it apart and fixed it himself. The repair shop had simply forgotten to screw the shutter-speed governor down tight and it had slipped.
In 1974, Jerry spied an ad for an apprentice camera-repair technician; he applied and was accepted. "Within three months, it was obvious to my employer that I had much more talent and integrity than he did," says Jerry. "So like all small-minded, threatened incompetents, he fired me. I went to another local repair shop called Photomechanix and was hired as a technician. This is where I really got my first couple of breaks. Owner, Steve Gamboa, a US Army-trained tech was eager to train me.
"One morning, while running the shop alone, I had the great fortune to meet Garry Winogrand," he recalls. "We became fast friends because I was able to repair his Leica M4 and M2R's. Garry gave me handfuls of his well-worn Leicas to repair. He also referred me to hundreds of his students with their broken Leicas for me to fix over the years."
Jerry's second big break walked in the door one day while he was working at Photomechanix: cigar-chewing master repair technician (and Austin legend) Bob Bacon of Studtman Photo Service. "When I met Bob, he'd been repairing cameras for more than 20 years," he says. "A watchmaker by training, if a camera could be fixed (no matter how badly it was broken, or what parts it needed), when Bob got his hands on it--well, then it was just a matter of when you could pick it up."
When Photomechanix closed, Jerry realized that he needed a steady paycheck and "opened" Precision Camera Repair in 1976. "I basically wholesaled my services to local camera stores, started advertising a little, kept my clients from Photomechanix, and brought the work home, working out of a spare bedroom of my house during the day," he says. "I was 'self-employed,' I had a 'home-based business'; I achieved what many people say they want. I was also basically starving to death."
Seeing that he could use the extra work, Bob Bacon let Jerry moonlight with him at nights down at Studtman's to pick up some extra cash. "What amazed me most about Bob was that in 30 years of working at Studtman's, he missed only one day of work," says Jerry. "How he did it I will never know. He was tough as nails. I remember that he could work all day from 8 to 5 and then go home, eat, take a nap, and return to work from 8p.m. 'till 2a.m. I did the night shift with Bob for five years. It didn't faze him, but it nearly killed me!
"I learned so much from Bob," he continues. "What I learned was technique, but it's mainly philosophy more so than method. Sure, he taught me how to hand-sew curtains for Leica IIIF's and to align Kalart rangefinders, but more importantly, he taught me there is dignity in working with your hands. If you put your heart and head into your work, you may not be wealthy, but you'll be rich with integrity and honesty. He taught me to be stubborn and to finish a job no matter how hard it is, even if you're losing your shirt on it. If you promise a job, you deliver a job. He also taught me the value of good will. It's giving away for free the little jobs that get you a lot more back. He always said that if you give away a little job, those people would do more advertising than you can ever afford to buy. In this day of shoddy workmanship and rip-off artists, the wisdom of what he taught me 30 years ago is more important and true today than ever before."
Jerry then worked at Capitol Camera as a repair tech for three years until 1979, when he established the first freestanding Precision Camera Repair & Rental, and Austin Photographic Gallery. At first it was just a 750-sq ft repair shop, a fine used-camera store (primarily Leica, Nikon, Canon, Rollei, and Hasselblad), and a small gallery space for photos and art books.
"As time went by, the business grew rapidly, and I hired several technicians to keep up with what was quickly overtaking all of my time and the space," says Jerry. "No longer having any wall space, I closed the gallery and added pegboard. Yes, I sold out, but it was easy to do in retrospect. Print sales in those days was unrewarding; sales never covered expenses, much less made a profit. With lens caps and batteries, the profits were plebeian but positive. I saw 'the light' and added Canon and Nikon as our first new camera lines, as well as Agfa and Oriental fine-art papers. We expanded into adjoining spaces and then gutted the original space to add Austin's first Noritsu RA4 one-hour photo lab in 1987."
In 1991, Precision moved into a completely new, custom-finished 4,000-sq ft space less than a mile northwest of the old location. After nine more years of growth, this location got a little cramped, so they leased an additional 4,300-sq ft corporate office/repair service center/warehouse complex, which was completed in June 1999. An additional 2,500 sq ft of retail sales floor was added, along with a complete remodeling of the entire store in November 1999.
In 2005, the former darkroom area was remodeled to make room for the Digital Photo Lounge. Customers can sit at one of seven Whitech kiosks, have a cup of coffee, and work on their digital images. A Cameo Style kiosk is located at the end of the photo lab counter. Jerry says the Cameo Style unit is surprisingly busier than he thought it would be, with its own clientele.
Jerry notes that most of the area's photo labs have closed--only two are left now. One is a pro house that's digital only, while the other still does B&W, E-6, and dip-and-dunk 8x10 film.
Precision sends out some of its work to Holland Photo, including B&W. Custom color and B&W is done in-house. Video-transfer work is done in-house too, as is framing and copy work. E-6 and C41 processing up to 120mm is done in-house on a Noritsu QSS-3211. The store's kiosks are hooked up to a Fuji Frontier 390 for digital printing. The store also has a Xerox/Fuji DocuColor digital press. Wide-format printers include an Epson 4800, Epson 9800, and Canon 6100.
The store sells a wide array of camera equipment, computers, printers and media, film, accessories, and more. Like many retailers today, Precision holds classes, educating its customers on various aspects of digital photography. Precision's repair department is essentially now just a mail-order stop for factory work. "I have one tech--I used to have five on staff," says Jerry. Why the change? Digital. When digital cameras have major problems, they must be returned to the factory to be fixed--you can't just take it apart and fix it in the store.
"I told myself 30 years ago I was glad I wasn't in the CE business, and now I am," Jerry says. "I long for the days when I could take apart a camera for Garry Winogrand and have him take my picture with it when I fixed it. It was a romantic time then. But even though I'm sentimental or melancholy about it, I don't fall into the trap of denial. I love digital. I loved film, but I haven't touched it lately."
Changes in Philosophy
"For the longest time, I thought you had to have a photo geek [on staff]," says Jerry. "I changed my philosophy a few years ago. Pro photographers know all abut new products, and you can't possibly train all your salespeople to be that photocentric." Even Jerry himself--and he considers his photo knowledge to be pretty extensive--admits he doesn't know everything. "I'll say 'you probably know more about this than I do,'" he explains. If customers still have questions, though, of course he'll find the answers for them.
Although it's important to know about current products and technology, Jerry realized that photo retail is a salesmanship job, not a photo job. What does he look for in new hires now? "They have to be outgoing and good with people; they have to be good people," he says. Another important rule Jerry follows is that "you need to really concentrate on keeping it professional." That means regular reinforcement to the staff about the importance of great customer service, and weekly sales training to bring everyone up to the level of salesmanship that they need to be at. "I've got to keep educating myself, too," Jerry adds.