Gary Pageau of the Dead Pixels Society talks with James Aziz, the new CEO of Edge Imaging, about what brought him to the company, the challenges faced by the school photography industry in the face of COVID-19, and the bright future.
Aziz came to Edge Imaging effective March 16 from Transcontinental Printing and Packaging’s Premedia services for Printing and Packaging. Aziz has expertise in finance, operational reporting, continuous improvement, manufacturing systems, cost-containment, restructuring, mergers and acquisitions, as well as strategic planning.
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Gary Pageau 0:03
Hello again and welcome to the Dead Pixel Society podcast. I'm your host, Gary Pageau. And today we are joined by James Aziz, the new CEO of Edge Imaging in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Hi, James, how are you today?
James Aziz 0:18
Hey, Gary, I'm doing just fine. Thanks. How are you?
Gary Pageau 0:21
Great. Now, most of our listeners are well aware of Edge Imaging, which is probably the leading school photography company in Canada, and hopefully soon the United Statses. So, James, tell us a little bit about where you came from. And what drew you to Edge Imaging?
James Aziz 0:53
I'm sure, Gary, that's actually it's an interesting story. So prior to joining edge, I was working at TC transcontinental one of the largest Packaging Companies in North America and the largest commercial printer up here in Canada. I started off my career there in in the finance function I'm not I'm actually a finance guy, I say my career my profession is is I am an accountant. And I got into that business about 20 years ago. I evolved over that 20 years, and I took on a few extra portfolios. I was always super interested in the operations, I managed continuous improvement, I managed the operational systems that ran our factories. And I've always had, as I said, an inkling towards getting into the operations and into the business over the last five years that I was there, I was managing the pre media operation responsible for all of the the graphic arts and the content creation for both the printing and the packaging divisions there. You know, after a while there was, you know, the, I guess the secular challenges more so on the printing side, that necessitated that the company restructure and reorganize, and I actually authored part of that reorganization along with the senior leadership at the time that was there. And after 20 wonderful years, I exited the business in December of 2019. And took a little time to think things through and you know, was reaching out to some of my contacts. And actually, edge imaging is owned by a private equity company based out of Montreal called Walter Capital Partners. And I know, the director of investments, there is somebody that I actually, ironically enough hired when I was the Comptroller of the transcontinental so when I reached out to her indicating that I'd be leaving the organization and she said, Well, you never know maybe there's a you know, there's there's a spot here at Walter at one of our investment firms and, and one of our investments, sorry, and so I ended up chatting with her a little bit, then a couple of interviews later. And next thing you know, I'm speaking with one of the operating partners, and they make me an offer to come in and to be the CEO here at edge imaging. I guess part of the appeal was, I do come from a commercial print background, which is how we put into to paper here, obviously, and I do come from a content creation piece when I was managing pre media. And so I ended up after I took a plane, I came over here to edge I met the team, I wanted to make sure that there was a good fit and good, you know, that we clicked. So I did that I met the whole senior leadership team when I when I got here. And as I was leaving headed back to Montreal, you know, my mind was made up, I was going to join this organization. for a few reasons. What attracted me the most to it was you know, being a parent of three kids myself, and you know, being a consumer and a customer of school photography for so many years. I saw the passion in everybody's expressions in the way people spoke to me about this business about this organization. Everyone loves what they do here. And everyone connects with, you know, their customers. And, you know, my The only comment that I just felt, I don't know any other way to explain it other than to say that I felt I was home. And you know what it just felt right. So, yeah, you know, I had a few, a few options, a few alternatives. But this is home. So this is why I joined edge imaging. I do have some background that helps me understand the business. I can't pretend that I understand that as well as a lot of the other people that are in here at agian been business and industry for many years. But I do have a good skill set. I believe in AI and I think that joining the organization was For me, great move. I'm happy to be here. So wait, sorry to interrupt Gary. By the way, I did start here middle of March of 2020. I did not bring COVID with me everyone's about that. But that was that's not true. That's just, it's just a rumor.
Gary Pageau 5:16
Well, that was the big. That was one of the questions I was going to mention was, your timing was impeccable. for joining a industry that requires people being in school, and you're right there at the beach, just the start of the spring shooting season and there's lockdowns. Now, what was the situation in Canada at the time.
James Aziz 5:41
So so for for us here in Ontario, I was joining the exact date was March 16, which was just the start of spring break. So you know, it was a nice easy introduction, I was going to spend that week here at the lab, get to know everyone get to know, you know, everyone who's working here in the lab. And then the week after that the plan for the integration plan called for me to be present with in the field at a couple of shoots, just to get to see and get to know and get to. And I've always I've always prided myself by, you know, my approach to things I've taken the time to properly understand and really see what makes the business tick. Not to say that we don't want to go in and try to improve things. But I really just wanted to get a better understanding that completely got flipped over on its head. We went right into crisis management mode, because as soon as I started, we knew we were not going to get access to schools following spring break, right. We had some shoots that were photo days that were scheduled that were now canceled, we had retake days that were no longer going to happen. We had no access to be able to get those those those jobs done. Yes, we were able because we were considered to be ecommerce table to continue the lab and to push through some of the you know, all of the orders that had come in prior, but we could not continue, you know, our bread and butter businesses out there to capture images and create memories for parents. And for students, we just couldn't do that anymore. So we had to rapidly put in, you know, all kinds of crisis management situations, as in most jurisdictions in the world, governments were coming up with all kinds of incentives to support and to help industries are ourselves included. So we have to sit back and understand all of these things, and really try to manage, not gonna lie to you some of the more difficult decisions have to be made regarding some layoffs that have to happen, because we just didn't have activity going on. So we had to you know, coming in, it was a difficult start, it was a difficult as opposed to the plan being learned the business and see what we could do to make things better moving forward, gain a better comprehension of, you know, what makes the business the intricacies of what makes the business ticket, it just pick, we have to pivot instantly and go right into crisis management mode.
Gary Pageau 8:02
No, and I imagine, you know, because this was new to not only, you know, edge management, this crisis, but also to like your local authorities I mentioned, you had to do a lot of on the fly adjustments to everything from, you know, what people are doing the field if they could be in the field to what you were doing in the lab?
James Aziz 8:23
Absolutely. We were pivoting, you know, easily two or three times a week, just really quick. And we were I've never been on so many zoom calls or conference calls. I mean, literally, you know, 1015 hours a day on the phone, or on zoom calls, just trying to figure things out.
Gary Pageau 8:41
And, you know, how did it feel to you, I mean, being basically the new guy in charge, in a crisis, the first week, you're there. That's got to be tough.
James Aziz 8:53
It was not easy. I'm not gonna I'm not gonna say it was. And honestly, what I did is I reverted back to the financial crisis of 809. So I was, you know, at my previous employment or employer at that time, that crisis in a way to nine was was a catalyst for us to reinvent and transform the business, which created some foundational elements to support a quite, quite successfully, our ability to get out of it. So I tried to revert back and to think back as to what things what we did back then. The difference. The true difference, though, Gary, is that that's an industry that I knew very well, by the time Oh, wait, oh nine had rolled around. I had no eight, nine years under my belt, and I knew the business quite, quite well. I had about eight, nine minutes in this industry. So you revert back to your, you know, Business 101, and there's under crisis circumstances and instances. You just got to revert back To some of these things, and you just try to do your best, you have to remember, you know, I was trying to be as respectful as I could be, I understand that these are people's livelihoods. I also understand that this is a very, I've gotten, I've got to understand over the last number of months that I've been here, this is a very stable and somewhat predictable business. You know what it's, it's there's a pattern and we do, and we go through that pattern on an annualized basis. It changes Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to imply that it's, you know, cut and paste, but right, it is very small business, everyone. Yeah. And here we are. And I'm talking to some people here, who are seasoned veterans, and who are telling me I've been in this business, 20 plus years, 30 plus years, 40 plus years. I've never seen this. So when I heard that, you know, it, we were all on the same level playing field, you know, so we were all on the same playing field. And together, we, you know, we got the team together, we made some very difficult decisions. And we're not we're not out of the woods, yet. I'm not trying to imply that, you know, we're through COVID. And we're out on the other side,
Gary Pageau 11:08
The whole world's not out yet
James Aziz 11:09
For sure. But what we're trying to do here at edge, is very proactively and transparently and respectfully work through some of the changes that that that I believe are necessary for this organization. And perhaps for you know, some maybe influence the industry a little bit in the sense that we we want to come out of it stronger, better and more nimble as an organization. So we need to change a few things.
Gary Pageau 11:36
So what's, what's the situation there? Now? You're we're we're recording this in early October. Hopefully, there was some fall shooting, what what changed? And how did you adapt?
James Aziz 11:51
There's a few component parts of that question. So we are not in a business as usual mode right now, as obviously, most people in this industry in North America are in the same situation, we have access to certain schools, some of the boards have indicated that they would like for us to come in and create, you know, have photo days and create memories for the students and their parents and their loved ones and families. And we are doing that, in some, in some jurisdictions, in some areas with some boards that have given us the Okay, we are finding very creative and nimble ways to leverage the studio that we have here in our Burlington facility to receive students who, where we cannot enter the schools. So we have our own studio here where we're able to capture some images, certain areas of the country here in Canada, where we have a Western presence, it's a little bit more business. As usual, I would say some of the northern regions that are outside of the major metropolitan area of Toronto are also in a bit more of a business as usual scenario. So we have a mix of a little bit of everything. We're trying to manage as best as we can with the business as usual areas. And we're trying to be as proactive as we can be with the boards and the schools. Over the summer, we we did a, we had a real deep dive and a real big Blitz on putting together our covid protocols. And we find that these protocols, which are going to ensure the health and the safety of the students of the staff in the schools and of our employees, are really well and properly communicated to the schools and to the boards. And we found it that proactivity explain how we want to approach photo days in the schools has helped us. So we are getting a little bit of traction. But I'm not going to lie and tell you it is business as usual. Because as you very well know it is not. And we need to be very nimble and very creative in the way we've approached things. We need to be very diligent and very tight in certain areas and so far as health and safety are concerned and we are doing that.
Gary Pageau 14:06
So what would be an example you need to go through the whole protocol, but what would be an example of some of the safety procedures that you might have enacted like on a shoot because I've I've talked to some labs and studios who have gone into contactless protocols and things like that. What would be an example of something edges, edge has innovated in.
James Aziz 14:28
So over the summer months, as I if we go back to you know, obviously what transpired last last spring, us not being able to photograph a lot of the senior senior grads and some of the junior grads. What we did is we establish a built a studio here in the lab. Before we did that though, we went through a full JSA a job Safety Analysis whereby we emulated what would happen if a student comes in parent drives in here. How would the schedule work who would you know, receive them out? At the parking lot where they would park ensure that they would have physical distance scenes, what they would do as they walk in how they would sanitize, disinfect what we would do in terms of, you know, the gowns, sashes and caps, how we would utilize and then subsequently clean or have the proper waiting time before it can be reused, document everything. When we went through that. We also said here are the touch points, here's the contact points, what can we do to eliminate the move. And I'll give you a quick example just to move to digital not to have camera cars, not not to have physical proofs go back to the schoolhouse, but yet push more to have as much as possible digital proofs go out to parents so that they can order just all of that kind of stuff was just totally analyzed, documented, and improved. And that was our basically our if you want to call it the beta test, sure, that was the foundational piece whereby we started to build out those protocols. And then they they morphed into much more than just a studio day. What would we do if we were in a in a in a school? And we found out that one of our photographers would test positive? Or has tested positive for covid? Or if we were informed that during one of the days that we were there, a student or staff member tested positive? Right? What is the proper PP that we are required to have, as we entered schools, etc, etc. So I'm getting into a lot of detail here. But but but really that that the experiment, if you will, as we set up our studio here in the lab over the summer months, was the foundational elements that that created that core COVID protocol base on which we elaborated. And then we have flowcharts, whereby it's, it's visual, and you could take a look at you know, here's what to do no one at edge imagenes, in case there is a confirmation of a positive case, would say, who do I call? What do I do? No one would do that, because they have the protocols. And I think that that productivity has enabled us to have really good discussions with some of our associations, our schools and our boards to demonstrate our, you know, our initiative and productivity in this area, which has now become our new norm.
Gary Pageau 17:21
Well, that's right, I think one of the important things we as an industry you need to keep in mind is the process is not going to go back to the way it used to be even after COVID runs its course, there will still be a heightened awareness of this sort of process and the need for it. So I think you've raised a great point is, you know, you develop this process, even at this process, and and it's going to be the process going forward, there is no going back. And I also think one of the things that is interesting is the point you raised before about like push pushing the links for online proofs as opposed to paper proofs and things like that, because I think what COVID has done has forced the hand of many business to go in that direction. Because it was sort of a a inertia thing. You know, yeah, we're gonna get there eventually. But it's working now. And we'll just keep on doing proofs and keep in it, but now it's, it's it's forced people to change that.
James Aziz 18:31
You know, what, Gary, you're absolutely right. And, you know, I've often said that COVID is a catalyst to drive change, change is never easy. And doing it. You know, without that big catalyst behind you is a little bit more difficult. It is not a nice to have right now, these are necessary initiatives to help evolve and to help ensure safety. And you're right, we're not going to go back once these things are done. They're done. And these are these are, you know, it's been an enabler. COVID has really been an enabler to push some of the, what I will call best practices that we should be,you know, should we should be pushing in this industry.
Gary Pageau 19:20
A lot of people look to Edge as a leader in best practices in a lot of areas, and one of the areas that edge has distinguished itself has been in privacy, right, maintaining privacy being a very secure environment, protecting students information. Do you think the rigorous process that it took to develop that sort of thing enabled the company to move into stronger COVID steps?
James Aziz 19:56
Certainly is fundamentally and culturally speaking You know, edge has always been extremely secure. It's been part of the DNA here. You know, we pride ourselves on having, you know, all student photography. You know, we really pride ourselves on being able to say that all of this is on our servers, hosted locally, and and basically, super secure never leaves Canada, it's always here. And it really is an element of security that we have that we feel distinguishes and differentiates us, compared to others, the governmental rules and regulations associated and all around security and privacy, we not only meet those criteria, we surpassed them in certain instances. So yes, we are priding ourselves on that, and that just that mindset, that thought process about saying how important security is, or cybersecurity is for education for the parents and for the students. For the schools. That whole philosophy has really embedded and was embedded and supported in the development of those protocols for COVID. Because it's not the same thing. But the methodology that was used to develop those is pretty much the same thing. And how critically important these these protocols that we've put in place are, you do get a sense, I mean, there's no COVID is a terrible disease, it's out there and you can't avoid it, it is out there, that everything that you can do to mitigate, or to lower the risk of spread an approach that in that rigorous manner, as we've done with cybersecurity, I think it's part of the DNA of this organization, and it has helped us get to those Cova protocols that we believe are so far knock on wood so far functioning really well.
Gary Pageau 21:57
Because I think that's, that is important to have that culture of having that, that process. And as you know, I know, some of the technical team there, I know some of the some of the things that they've been striving for. So I think it's totally in character for the company to try and become a leader in this process. So, so going forward. What's saying to 2021? Where do you see the company going? You've the management, the the equity firm is, you know, talking about, you know, future expansion, future acquisitions? I'm sure. The, the the current crisis has put a halt to a lot of those plans. But you know, looking forward, do you see the industry growing? Do you see what are some of the new opportunities?
James Aziz 22:44
So, so maybe just a quick word on just the industry to start, and, you know, a few things that I've heard from, from some folks, and then I'll talk specifically about our, our strategy moving forward. You know, some people have mentioned to me, as I was, as I just started started, or before I started with edge was, you know, there are some secular challenges in this business in this industry, you know, we are seeing some declines in bio rates, you know, there's, there's alternatives to school photography. And, and, you know, I was scratching my head when I, when I said, Okay, well walk me through this, and then folks would walk me through and and I said, you know, with all due respect, I'm not going to say that there are no secular challenges. But you're talking to someone who's coming from a commercial print world.
Gary Pageau 23:34
Right? And for the readers, who are the listeners who don't, aren't aware that that industry has been in the static to the client for many years?
James Aziz 23:46
Well, I would add that, you know, 2008, was that financial crisis, and the industry has been in decline ever since. It's been, you know, a massive migration towards more digital products. However, I would tell you that commercial print is going to be around for many years to come. So it doesn't mean to say that there's no secular challenges in that industry. Right. So that said, I come from that world, and I come into edge imaging and school photography business. And people say, Well, you know, there's a lot of secular challenges. And I said, Okay, well define that for me. And then we went through some of those numbers and, you know, declining by rates and, and I'm thinking like, Okay, I'm not I'm not saying that there isn't any, but I'm seeing a long, successful runway ahead of us here. Right. It does provide us the opportunity to grow the business either organically through market share gains. And you're absolutely right. Our strategy is to grow this organization to grow the business to have a presence outside of the province of Ontario. We are very large and we have a very large position in the province of Ontario. We are now working in some of the Western provinces in Canada as well. We're going to continue that growth path. And we are going to continue to grow organically and we're going to continue to grow through a acquisitions. I've, you know, had the opportunity over my career to be involved in in at least a dozen major acquisitions. So it's it's part of the work that I that I like to do. And I and I totally entirely believe that there's a great opportunity for edge to continue down that path. You're right, when you say, Gary, that, right now we're in that quote, unquote, pause mode, because of COVID. However, I like to look at things perhaps a little differently. Again, with the increasing demands on the necessity to be, you know, super secure from a cybersecurity standpoint, confidentiality and privacy, there are a lot of smaller organizations out, you know, having a lab setup is another example, and not knowing what you're going to be doing when you're going to be doing it because of COVID, I believe provides the opportunity for our organization, to consolidate in the industry, if there's some smaller organizations out there that are just thinking, you know, maybe, maybe I can't get to the cybersecurity level that I need to get to maybe it's just, you know, too insecure. I'm just too uncertain about starting up my lab and that kind of thing. It provides for us some opportunity to take a look at some of the smaller players that are out there. So, so absolutely, we are going to I'm not going to say that we've been, you know, on a rampage on an m&a front. Right. But I'm that I am, it is part of a plan. And it is of what we'd like to see happen for edge imagingmoving forward. Absolutely.
Gary Pageau 26:42
You are relatively new to the industry, but you know, the industry, both the photography industry has gone in cycles, where this has happened in the past, where they used to be the wholesale photofinishing industry where you drop off a roll of film, and then the one hour film processing came in, and that caused a great consolidation in that industry. Right. And then when there was the, and then when there was the analog to digital conversion, where you had a lot of these retail locations have to spend a lot of money to to change their equipment from analog to digital, that spurred another wave of consolidations, because people reach the point their business, they're like, do I really want to spend if I'm a small retailer $300,000 to put in a digital lab? Or would it be better for me to sell at a location. And I think, you know, COVID to some extent, and certainly cybersecurity and some of the technology demands that are going to be coming, I think we're going to create another wave of that, or has even started a wave of that, as we've already seen here in the United States with some recent acquisitions. So I think you're, you're well positioned for that, if that's the direction you're going.
James Aziz 27:57
Oh, absolutely. And I'm going to have one other thing. You're absolutely right on the points that you raised. One other element is also you know, what we pride ourselves one of our unique selling propositions, for sure, cyber security is one of them, top notch customer care, really being responsive to, you know, both the schools and the parents. The other one that I think is also important is the quality of what we produce, you know, you're absolutely right, in terms of, you know, the evolution. But one of the elements that, you know, when I went through this back in the commercial print days, as we, as we migrated more so to digital printing from the masses, and more one to one relationships, particularly marketing collateral compared to just you know, carpet bombing, marketing collateral, right, we see that as well and to be the ability to reproduce and the ability to create product that is just, you know, just just punchy colors, and just great you know, just a great product for the parents and for the students. And we pride ourselves on having some some pretty state of the art equipment that we that we we can produce some some pretty darn good product for, for our customers, as well.
Gary Pageau 29:07
And on the other end of that is, with the new substrates and their printing technologies, all the things you can print pictures on now have created more opportunity where I think, you know, in the old days of school photography, you basically sold a package with some which is basically a pieces of paper and an envelope. And now you have the opportunity to sell other things that have that image on there, which may or may not, you know, be a piece of paper, but it could be a Christmas ornament. It could be a greeting card, it could be some as a gift for for grandparents, there's a lot more opportunity there about that relationship with the parents, as you've talked about, that's an opportunity, I think,
James Aziz 29:47
Oh for sure. I mean, we're, you know, we're based on my very, you know, shorts short time here but but you know, being a parent and being a customer What a customer what I will speak for myself what we were purchasing, when we were purchasing, you know, as you said, either a mug or a Christmas ornament or a calendar, or the full package, a photo package, you know, you're purchasing a memory, you're purchasing an emotional moment in your child's life. And you're purchasing something that is going to allow you to look at it years down the road and say, Oh, I remember that. Geez, remember that time that, you know, remember what happened when you were in sixth grade. And it's enabling you to have these conversations. And I'm just going to do a quick aside here, Gary, and during COVID, when we were going through the loss, you know, the shutdown, and when we were in that that spring period, we had a few parents, we had a few customers reach out to say I'd like to purchase the last six years of my of my kids or you know, like, we had a lot of it was an emotional time. You know, it was a very emotional time. And the value of school photography, the value that parents attached to this is just it's incredible, you know? So anyways, I mean, when we take a look at, you know, what we're doing and how we're doing it and where we want to go with it. From not from a quality standpoint, I mean, I I believe we're really well positioned. I believe we're really well positioned.
Gary Pageau 31:21
Well, great. So I will say welcome to the school photography industry. Yes, and then cetera. And thank you very much for your time, James, and I wish you well.
James Aziz 31:32
Gary, thank you very much. wish you well also and stay safe and looking forward to talking very soon again.