Ed Zemba: Growing Pains Pay Off

Ed Zemba: Growing Pains Pay Off

Image by Ed ZembaTo the Zemba family, photography is more than a passion; it's the family business. It began when Robert Charles Zemba purchased a high-volume contract studio, renamed it and started doing things his way—quality first. When his sons, Robert F. and Edward, joined forces with him, they helped keep that same high standard. Today, this commitment to excellence has paid off in record profits and consistent growth even through the recession.  But they will be the first to say the journey wasn't easy.

"In the beginning, we basically worked for free," Ed recalls. "That's the growing pains of a company. But it was a tremendous opportunity, one we wouldn't have had without our father."

Growing Into the Business
Robert Charles kept an open door to the studio, but he never pressured his sons to choose photography as a career path. That they did on their own.

Robert F. Zemba, now the studio's award-winning photographer, was originally thinking of becoming a sculptor or pencil artist. However, the camera quickly became his form of artistic expression once his father introduced him to the allure of black-and-white photography. Bringing his own signature style to the studio, Robert F. introduced photojournalism to the Massachusetts area after studying with Denis Reggie out of California. (This was back when photojournalism was still questioned as a legitimate form of pro photography.) Thanks to him, though, it didn't take long for the studio to become known for this new photographic artistry.

And while Ed himself dabbled in photography for a year or two, he soon discovered that business development was his true calling. For example, he once came across a drawer full of marketing and sales ideas that his father had gathered from previous conventions. Unfortunately, very few of them had been implemented. "The missing ingredient for us at that time was follow-through," Ed explains. "Like with many studios today, we knew what we should be doing, but we just weren't getting it done." After a family meeting, it was decided that Ed would concentrate more on managing the business so that his brother and father could focus more on further developing the photography.

"In a nutshell, I became the ‘accountability guy,'" adds Ed. "I worked with our team to set clear objectives and followed up to ensure we stayed true to our goals. This didn't always make me the most popular guy in the room; but once we started making progress, it became clear that this was an important role for someone to play. Things were getting done."

Growing Pains
As their business grew over the years, they began to experience more success. According to Scott Kurkian, PPA's CFO and COO, their sales were among the top 10 percent of studios countrywide! But soon a new challenge arose, one of profitability. They were bringing in a lot of revenue, but not keeping enough of it to ensure their business could continue to grow.

"We could finally afford to pay all three of us running the business, but it wasn't really a livable salary," explains Ed. This had a lot to do with their insistence on keeping quality the highest priority—well before profits. "It sounded great at family meetings, but it started to become clear that we needed to be able to maintain quality balanced with a workable business model."

Through fortunate timing, Ed met Scott Kurkian, who was in the process of forming what is now PPA's Studio Management Services (SMS) program, which provides business and financial consulting to studios. Scott asked Ed if they would be interested in becoming part of this new initiative. "It only took us about 30 seconds to say a unanimous yes!" says Ed. "Unbeknownst to us, we became one of the first studios of the SMS family."

With Scott's help and the new SMS program, Ed focused on the necessary changes to raise their bottom-line. "Scott and SMS told us what we NEEDED to hear, not necessarily what we WANTED to hear." Having someone like that in your corner can truly transform the way you look at your business, as it did for the Zembas.

Getting Great Results
One of the hardest things for Ed was getting his studio's cost of sales in line. Quality was non-negotiable for them, and they wanted to pay their team well to ensure they employed the best. So, how could they balance these costs and grow at the same time?

One key was to make a very important decision. They either had to significantly lower their quality or charge enough to offer the level of products they felt their customers deserved. It wasn't an easy decision, as many people told them they should reduce the quality of their albums, paper, retouching and photography to better fit their secondary market. (Their studio isn't located in a major metropolitan area, and they were told that their smaller market wouldn't support their vision.) The Zembas unanimously decided that they would either build their business based on quality, or they would leave photography all together.

"SMS showed us what our problem was and what we needed to do. It was up to us to accept this reality and act on it," notes Ed. That they did. Without ignoring other important aspects of their business, they worked with SMS to bring their costs under control and increase their market presence. In fact, Ed says that their sales have increased about 900% since they first started working with SMS.

Growing Quality & Profits
Now that they have their profits in line, the Zembas are able to thrive on the quality they never lost. "Quality has been the center of our universe ever since Dad started the company," notes Ed. For example, they recently ordered 20 8x10 prints just to test how one black-and-white process could be improved. "In short, we really live by our promise for quality—it's not just a catch phrase."

As an SMS consultant now himself, Ed's goal is to help other photographers concentrate on the style of photography they are passionate about while building a business that will support them. He wants to help others make a living doing what they want to do—just like his family.

To learn more about Ed Zemba and his family, visit Robert Charles Photography. To learn more about PPA business workshops and consulting services like the ones the Zembas used, visit Studio Management Services.

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