Gary Pageau of the Dead Pixels Society talked with Mark Hommerding, president of SchoolPictures.com in Ypsilanti, MI. In this interview, Hommerding talks about his long career in the volume photography business, including stints with Jolesch, Herff Jones, and Lifetouch, before taking over SchoolPictures.com. Since the takeover, the business has doubled, which has brought with it management challenges.
SchoolPictures.com is a Michigan-based school portrait company that provides high-quality photography services with the goal of generating money for schools and serving the academic community.
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Produced by Gary Pageau
Edited by Olivia Pageau
Announcer: Erin Manning
Erin Manning 0:02
Welcome to the Dead Pixels Society Podcast, the photo imaging industry's leading news source. Here's your host, Gary Pageau. The Dead Pixels Society podcast is brought to you by Mediaclip, Advertek Printing, and School Photographers of America.
Gary Pageau 0:18
Hello again and welcome to the dead pixels society podcast. I'm your host, Gary Pageau. And today we're joined by Mark Hommerding doing the president of schoolpictures.com. And actually, we're here in the world headquarters schoolpictures.com, and Ypsilanti, Michigan.
Mark Hommerding 0:33
Yes, we are.
Gary Pageau 0:34
Hi, Mark. How are you today?
Mark Hommerding 0:35
I'm doing great.
Gary Pageau 0:37
So Mark, why don't you start out for the people who aren't familiar with your story. Describe your your long career in the school pictures business.
Mark Hommerding 0:47
So I started in the volume business. And I started in 1994, working for a company called Jolesch photography in Des Moines, Iowa. And for years, I worked with them. And we from there, sold, he sold the company to Herff Jones, their photography division, and we were there for 15 months, and then the Herff Jones photography division sold to Lifetouch and then I was with them for about nine years, I think. And then I came here.
Gary Pageau 1:21
So talk a little bit about the Jolesch kind of business model, because you weren't really shooting really you were, What were you doing?
Mark Hommerding 1:30
So I was hired as a production manager, but Mark's company was and still is the best marching band contest photography company in the world, in the history of the world more. And so I would photograph each weekend photographing bands, and then we take care of the production work afterwards. And then gradually, I moved into managing kind of the local business, the graduations, the proms, the that kind of stuff. And then I managed a studio for five years where I did seniors and weddings and then and then came back to do more of the college graduation work. And that's how that went. So I was there for well for a long time. And then you moved into hurt Jones and really just kind of had a time for a cup of coffee there before Lifetouch came in and during that big consolidation wave of what the early 2000s That was? Well, when we joined Herff Jones, I'm guessing around I'm gonna guess 2006-07 ish. I don't remember the timeline Exactly. But we had worked with them for a while trying to convince them that they needed to be more in the graduation business for profit as opposed to just as a service item. And so we started partnering with them, and then they liked our business model, and so they purchased company from Mark and his partner. And then Herff Jones, then of course was purchased by LifeTouch push, what was your role and lifetime thing? Because it wasn't during production? What were you doing then for lifetime? So when LifeTouch acquired Herff Jones, the Jolesch photography part was kind of an odd man out, it was not in their normal course of what they were used to. So I went up to the headquarters and talked to them about, hey, you might want to consider photographing graduations more seriously. And I, the line I used was, you know, down at Jolesch photography in Des Moines, Iowa, we feasted on the crumbs that you guys didn't want to eat. And so at the time, their senior director of marketing, his name was Orren Welch. His name still is Oren. While he's still in the business. Yes, I learned very well. Yeah. And he came down to Des Moines saw what we're doing and was interested in having us launch that. So there was a test pilot in some territories. I was involved in that. And my job was to help the business grow in commencements. Nationwide, and then within our territory in Des Moines. It was to concentrate on the college market.
Gary Pageau 4:07
Okay. And how successful was that during during that early period?
Mark Hommerding 4:13
Well, we went from off the light from no business to some significant amount of business, the high school side, in the end, by the end we were doing, I don't know 3,000 graduations of the high school side and, and the business that I was managing, we tripled in the course of about nine years in terms of the college side. Okay, so significant growth, one would say yes, yes. Okay. I like to grow like a growth is going to be a tougher it'd be coming back to a lot. Okay.
Gary Pageau 4:39
So when did you leave Lifetouch? You said you were there about nine years and what precipitated that change?
Mark Hommerding 4:47
So in the fall of 2019, I had had my second presentation to senior management two years to invest in our product line and commencements was not up near the top of the list, right? So if they're going to choose to invest, they're going to invest in the things that are going to bring the most return for the dollar. So underclass, or seniors or yearbooks, and I realized that it's probably not going to, I've reached the limit of what I'm going to do here. And so I started thinking about what I wanted to do next. And in roughly January, February of 2020, I decided it's time for me to look for other opportunities. Right before the pandemic, right? Didn't know that was? Well, no one saw that one. Yeah.
Gary Pageau 5:35
So So what was your plan? Then? Was it a specific company? Was it inside the industry outside, inside the industry outside the industry?
Mark Hommerding 5:42
You know, you're going through a process where you're, you know, we're, most people are looking at, hey, I'm not going to start something new. Yeah. So my thing was, is that when you consider your career, each career you move you make is about a five to seven commitment, and then you should be looking for what's next on the horizon. So I'm thinking, you know, mid 50s, I've got one real career move left. And if I don't make it now, it'll be too late for me to make it right. So at the time, I had five options on the table, one was get out of the business entirely, right. And two was stick it out. Three was start my own business, and four and five, were to actually four, five and six were to partner with various people within the industry that I had been talking to. And I pretty early decided that I probably did not want to leave the business because I had a pretty good sized Rolodex. And so I didn't want to just leave that behind, because that had value that I thought about starting my own business and knew that I was a good growth person, but maybe not a good builder. It's the difference between, say, writing and editing, right, you know. And so in this case, I started talking with people I wanted to partner with. And one is, I called up my friend Skip Cerier and said, Hey, would you consider working together and he was looking for an opportunity himself? And so he said, I, yes, but I need you to come out here and to view the place. And I said, Well, why? And he goes, Well, you'll know when you get here. And as you know, because you've toured the building. It's it's a pretty impressive. So for those who don't know, Skip, talk a little bit about Skip and what he's built sure in Ypsilanti. Sure, and you know, straight up, I could never have built his business. Right. And, you know, to Skip's credit, he recognized he couldn't grow any further, if he could have you would already already done it. So he started in 1978, and founded American Photo Marketing. And he was involved with colleges, graduation graduations, he was involved in high school, senior class groups, plus graduations. And then he was also involved in Greek sorority stuff, right. And so he got involved in school pictures around 2004 ish, I think 2005. And he and I were talking at a PSPA when I was starting to get Jolesch photography involved with the underclass. And we had just stayed in touch. So he had built a very nice business here. And yeah, he's, he had a heck of a run.
Gary Pageau 8:13
So specifically, talk a little bit about the facility here, because I think that's kind of got an interesting little story.
Mark Hommerding 8:18
And then oh, yeah, so Skip was had grown out of his old facility, and he was looking to expand and he was like, Okay, I needed to be relatively near an airport for travel, I needed to be relatively near some major highways to get the photographer's on and off the road. And he was looking around the area we're in right now. And this facility used to be owned by Ave Maria College. So and, and they had let it go. And so it's a former school, a former primary school and a and a superintendents office. And that's the buildings we're in right now. So it's kind of interesting. We've got a school photography company in a school building. Yeah, it does kind of still have that feel as though there's been massive renovations over the years. Yes. So.
Gary Pageau 9:05
So tell me about the conversations you had with Skip to come into the business.
Mark Hommerding 9:08
So I flew out here, the first Saturday in March, and we toured the building 2020 of 2020, during the pandemic, right before. So three days later, the Wednesday later was when all heck broke loose. And by the end of the week, I was calling him up. And anyway, but I can come back to that, but I toured the building. And, you know, I had various questions like, Who are your best photographers? Well, I have a photography manager, but I'm not really familiar with that. And well, who are you know, who your salespeople and what are their, you know, what are your top 10 prospects, what your cost of acquisition goes? Well, I'm not really familiar with that. And afterwards, we went out to dinner and he said, What impressed you most and I had seen the room where he prints all the ID cards, and we had all these, well, he had all these printers, and I said, What's the cost of you printing an ID card and we went over the cost structure and it's Uh, I, you could have said any number and I want to know, he really had a handle on the operation side of it. And I really hadn't, I would say handle on what I was called the b2b side of it, the making sure that I was able to get and retain clients, and also making sure I could execute on the photography. And so I got into business through photography. And so we had complementary skill sets. And so then we realized, hey, this, this could be something good.
Gary Pageau 10:18
So you've worked out an arrangement where you're now the president of the business and skip is a still involved,
Mark Hommerding 10:40
We talk every day. So so good guy. And, you know, here's the thing, I knew I was getting a business partner, but I got a benefit. I also got a friend and I wasn't expecting that. I don't think he was either. And, and that's just been a really wonderful thing for us both.
Gary Pageau 10:53
Good. So but then you come in and this is this, even though Skip is still involved is so your baby?
Mark Hommerding 10:58
Gary Pageau 10:59
So when did you actually physically move here in the middle of a pandemic?
Mark Hommerding 11:04
So I started in October of 2020. Right? And, and then we became partners. While it was like, let's let's, we intended to do all the paperwork, but we didn't sign anything and become officially partners until the end of the year. So the new company started on January 1 of 2021.
Gary Pageau 11:26
And as I recall, just because I happen to be here on that, and there was some overlap between Skip being here before he moved, yeah, and you being here. So that must have been a nice training period.
Mark Hommerding 11:36
It was great. So you know, we have this house right next door that I live in, and, and skip, and I were both living there. And every day, I would, you know, five o'clock going over there. And we talk all night about, you know, these aspects of the various business and what strategic decisions we needed to make and, and what we needed to do going forward.
Gary Pageau 11:53
So what were some of those things you had to do going forward?I mean, just just for the folks who haven't been able to tour the building yet. You know, you've got some production on site, you've you know, and you've got some, some overhead here. Yes, a significant amount over.
Mark Hommerding 12:09
And, and, you know, there's times where I'll talk about, well, you know, we need to manage managing the overhead is a tough part of the business. So, but for me coming in here, the first and foremost thing was we needed to have more of a sales effort. So I went around, actually. And for the first 90 days, a lot of it was just observation, and hey, what's going on here asking a lot of questions trying to learn. I'm natively more involved in commencement photography than I am in school pictures. So I was just kind of learning kind of what the what the tripping points were in, in that industry as well. And for me, it was asked everybody kind of what you think is going on here. So I use questions that I got from the book, "The First 90 Days," and from Marcus Cunningham's first Break All the Rules. The other one was a book called "The First 90 Days," which is kind of the standard in the industry. And the third area for questions I mined from a company called Manager Tools. I've listened to their podcasts for 15 years and shout out to them. They've helped me make my career what it is today. Anyway, so those three areas, I just asked everybody the same questions. So what I was doing was going around and talking to all employees, hey, what's going on here? What do you think's working? Well, what do you think needs to improve? And there were a number of suggestions. But one of the ones that I knew I could affect right away was, hey, we need to have a more robust sales effort and help with that. So that was the first thing I knew no need to do like.
Gary Pageau 13:39
So on a sales effort, though, you get a lot of top line growth and you've had so can you kind of illustrate maybe in a percentage, how much growth you've had?
Mark Hommerding 13:47
Yeah, on the on the school picture side, we've had about 30% growth. So maybe a little bit more, I'm not sure the exact numbers in terms of number of accounts. So we've also had some growth because we raise prices and restructured things, but I just number of people we photographed that's grown by 30%. In the last two years. We've grown a lot on the commencement side. But that's been more due to acquisition and old clients looking me up and saying, Hey, I would like to come still work with you.
Gary Pageau 14:17
Because you got that big fat Rolodex, you're telling me. So but with growth comes, increases and other things like overhead and expenses and things like that. So yeah, how have you manage like the cashflow side of the business on that?
Mark Hommerding 14:32
Okay, so the cashflow side is I think that's the roughest part. Because you've got to, especially for me, so I'm used to budgeting but I was not used to managing cash flow. And that's where actually Skip has helped me a lot. So there's another woman who works here Lorraine, she's been very valuable in kind of coaching me in terms of hey, these this is what's coming up and you know, that kind of thing. So, but when you make a lot of change, that change in and of itself is work, right. So we have had to put in some new systems to account for the growth, that change in it of selfless work. So you have more labor assigned to a task than you might necessarily have in the future. Right. So there's a lot of, I call it investment in the future company by doubling down on something. So for instance, going into this past spring, when we knew we were going to grow by a lot, when graduations about 300%, we started hiring people early and having them on staff gearing up. And that was not labor that we should have had in a normal year. But we wanted to have it in preparation for this past spring, right? Because you anticipated to bring them on board and in the way you wanted to do things and train them and the procedures that you want, it was gonna take extra time, which means more. Yeah, and the people who've been here for a while they've been tremendous. So I'll just give a couple examples like, say, Crystal, or Tony or Shawn, those people have been here a long time. And they knew the business well enough to help the new people learn the systems and get in place and do better. Now the thing is, is that as you add more people, that last person in knows the business the least right? So you have that quality issue with that last person that you don't with, say Shawn putting together graduation, who's actually been to them and photographed and Mark Tony, who's been to graduations, and now he's in charge of getting the flyers, printer crystal, in terms of the matching, you know, those people are really key to making sure that the business remains successful. So as you've grown, how did the rules change? For example, you came into an existing operation, like you said, you established staff with how many people right now we got 40 ish, but we when I got here, there's probably 20. Yeah, so you've grown the staff? Yeah. And so yeah, sales are great. But you got more overhead. Yeah. And then you've also had to restructure the business? Yes. Can you talk a little bit about the restructuring, you just had that sure that that is to drive the operations and the sales into future growth? Sure. So what I did was, I just started think conceptually about kind of where things are in the value chain. So the first part of the value chain is what I call the b2b part. And that includes your sales that includes your photo that includes anybody that's going to touch a client, which is different from a customer, to me, a client is the school where the customer is the person who's purchasing the photo in the right, right. So that first part that b2b part was where I felt like I needed to concentrate a lot when I got here, on improving photo quality. And also on the sales effort, the middle section of the value chain is the operational area. And that's where we had a team that was was very good at managing the volume that we had. And then the last part of the value chain is the manufacturing part. And that's where that would be your equivalent of, say, all kit, which is one of my suppliers, or Canon color systems, which was one of my suppliers. Those folks are the printing aspect. And but we also have that here. So we've got all three parts of the value chain. And so when my life touched territory, it was just the b2b side, a typical school picture company will have the first two parts of the value chain, they'll have the b2b side and the operational side, and they'll export all their manufacturing to an external lab. And so we had all three, so I had to conceptually think about that. And then I organized the groups into basically two teams, originally, external and internal, right. And the external was the sales and the photo, and the internal was everything else. And now we had another restructuring. At the time, when I did that, in January of 2021, I said, my experience is you want to restructure about every 18 months to two years, just so you don't get cobwebs. And you start to rethink about what you need to do in terms of your business to move it forward. So you want your structure to serve the business you're working in, right. And so what I did was we now made all have operations, one unit where it used to be to different areas, and then manufacturing. It's kind of its own thing now because they bring a unique value to us that that other companies can't compete against, right? I mean, for example, you can respond quickly to retakes and reorders and things like that. Yeah. The example I gave we were talking about earlier was we had an issue where we produce our own yearbooks in house and, and we had a client call where they had mixed up in some yearbooks for some identical twins. And we had those printed out within a day and delivered to the school the next morning, you know, which, you know, from a customer service standpoint is huge, because he responded right away. We rebuilt the school. Yeah. Good job, Randy. As you're listening to this, and you know, that, you know,
Gary Pageau 19:39
That's one of the things that I when I talk to school photography companies, that's really been an adjustment for them in the kind of the COVID post COVID world is they're becoming much more in contact with customers and the end users than they used to have. And you know, the the expectation in that world is I'm not waiting five weeks for my picture. Yeah, I need everything. You know, next, why can't have this sooner. So you're well positioned for that.
Mark Hommerding 20:05
Yes. And the other thing that's key is in the market is a differentiated marketplace, right? And the way that we differentiate from our competition is through that aspect of it. You know, like, I love when we have clients come here into the building. These are the people who are going to design your yearbook, here's the people are going to print your yearbook. You know, here's where I sit, you know, so that you know that I'm right around the corner and can take care of this for you in a heartbeat. But how are you going to do that, as you continue to grow? Let's say you grow 30% Every year, you're gonna spend all your time doing tours, I will accept that problem I will have many tours is because every time I bring somebody here, I can brag about the company and the people that are here, right now, in the end, it's not the walls that matter. It's the people that are inside of them. You know,
Gary Pageau 20:51
so going forward, what are some of the opportunities you see for schoolpictures.com and the industry? Because I think we're kind of at an inflection point for this segment of the industry in that it's now becoming more of a full feature supplier almost Yes.As opposed to we're just at school picture company. I mean, there are volume photography companies, we're getting into graphics that are doing the entire corporate identity for schools. I'm not saying you're gonna do that. But obviously, you're very plugged in the industry, you're seeing some of these things. And it's almost like it's a blue sky type environment. Yes. For me right now.
Mark Hommerding 21:29
My blue ocean right now is digital ID cards. And the reason is just i It's a hard thing to implement. We know because we've done it. it well. It's complex. If you're doing it. Well. Let's put it that way. And I just see that that's I haven't had a paper ticket to go on an airplane in 1015 years. Right. I don't ever expect to have one. There's an issue with when a school has a crisis. We had one recently here at Oxford. I don't know if you remember. Yeah. Oxford High School. Yeah. But that's one of your school. Yeah, up for graduations, not for the school pictures. But that graduation was actually kind of tough for us for my crew to sit through, right. But they had the situation where when they had the school shooting, all the kids ran down the hill to the local I think was a Meijer or Kroger or something and they closed the store. And the police came on by and said, Hey, show me your ID, well, I don't have it. It's upstairs on my bookbag. But I have my ID or I have my phone. And that was the turning point. For me. It's like, every kid's got a phone. Right now I know that some don't. But we can print those out. So there's a few high schools that we're doing this out that are very engaged in. And that to me is is something that I'm looking at. I'm also looking at just making sure I'm as vertically integrated as I can be. So we took all of sports inside, right? We we use blueprint to manage the sales, but then we do all the shipping and printing right here. And we're turning those things around in 48 hours. So my mom orders a picture. It's leaving here from this building, getting just going down the road, as opposed to leave him from a national lab and taking three days later, but we can correct that stuff on the fly. So for me ability to be customer and client focused is better than ever. And digital a lot enables a lot of those opportunities. But people still want the physical print. That's what Correct, right? It does people still want those dead pixels.
Gary Pageau 23:22
Well, it is interesting, too, though technology's enabled, actually the production of more dead pixels, and much more variety of ways. I mean, yeah, I mean, just look at their facility here you have a big die. Big sublimation area, you do plaques, you you know, ink on paper, you don't have any silver halide here, but I'm sure you have people for that.
Mark Hommerding 23:42
We have so many surface stuff. And we have, we have press and we have you know, sublimation and we got the engraving area, we don't need to go to with the exception of kind of those the vinyl banners that you'll see up for sports. That's the only thing really that we have to export well. And also large, little 40 by 50 prints. We don't have that, but we could do everything else in house if we choose to do so.
Gary Pageau 24:06
Great. Well, thank you very much Mark for your time and looking forward to seeing more future growth from schoolpictures.com
Mark Hommerding 24:14
Great. Thanks, Gary.
Erin Manning 24:16
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