The Greniers Learn How to Develop a Picture-Perfect Family Business
by Jayne Pearl
Three things go into taking a professional photograph: lighting, posing and capturing the right expression, insists Marc Grenier, director of photography at The Greniers, a Holyoke-based family photography business run by four Grenier brothers. But they learned the hard way that it takes more than that to run a photography business. Success also requires keeping professional and personal needs in focus at the same time.
In 1982, co-founder R. Robert Grenier suffered a sudden, major heart attack. He revealed to his eldest son Larry he is not coming back to work in the family business.
"He got very sick one day and that was it," recalls Laurent R. "Larry," now 45. "He said to me, 'You're the oldest and have been here the longest so you're in charge now.' I was 28 and felt absolutely unprepared to manage the company."
The next day the founder was in the hospital. Larry was sitting at his father's desk trying to make sense of piles of "stuff." Several business courses later, and with more than a little help from Aunt Ann, whom the sons hired to help them understand the financial aspects of a business, Larry and his three brothers-Dan, now 43; Marc, 42; and Chris, 39-somehow managed to continue building the wedding and portrait company.
Fast forward to 1991. The four brothers are collectively shooting about 250 weddings and other events a year. They each are working seven days a week, leaving them not just over-exposed, but headed for burnout. Larry's first child, Nicole is born that year. After bringing her and Pat, his wife, home, Larry puts on a suit and rushes to shoot a wedding. The following Monday, he announces to his brothers that he wants out of the wedding business. To his surprise, his brothers express relief. Besides sharing Larry's frustration of missing out on their own big and little family events, they were all feeling a confluence of factors that made them want to leave the altar:
- Their own policy-"you hire the Greniers, you get a Grenier"-was coming back to haunt them (there are only so many Greniers to go around)
- Customers may have insisted on having a Grenier, but they didn't want to spend the money to have a Grenier. "People were coming in asking for discounts. Why should we go backwards?" asks Larry.
- The brothers came to realize, says Larry, "We don't want the business to do to us what it did to Dad, whose type A personality contributed to his serious heart attack."
- Another sector of the business-school portraits, proms and little league sports-was growing rapidly. Because a Grenier doesn't have to shoot those (they could easily train others), this growing segment seemed especially attractive.
The only monkey wrench was their mother, Helene, who still works full time. (Dad works part time.) "It was harder on her to eliminate weddings," notes Dan, who heads overall marketing and is founder and head of the division that photographs children from nursery school to eleventh grade (the "undergrad" division). "She did all the upfront interviews with the bride and her parents, presented previews, placed their orders, and delivered the final products."
However, with all signals indicating it was time to phase out that segment, the brothers began to pursue the school business, while phasing out, over four years, weddings. "Within a five-year period, the sports business replaced the revenue of the wedding business," boasts Dan, whose daughter, Kara, you can read about in this issue (Wanted: Hard Working, Responsible Son or Daughter of the Boss).
Perhaps by redefining the business, the brothers finally were able to take the ultimate rite of passage: In 1992 they bought the business from their father-right at the tail end of a recession. To get through it, the "R" word was avoided. "We rarely talk about recession," says Dan. "We talk more about growth. During the last recession we never had a set-back. We may not have had as big a growth period as we typically would have and we might have had tighter margins, but we didn't go backwards."
They may not talk about recession, but the brothers make sure they do talk. Their ease of communication may stem from having shared a room (bunk beds, set up like barracks) until their teen years. They also shared a newspaper route that got passed down from brother to brother, and then to two of their sisters, says Chris, whose straight face belies his role as family comedian. "Our parents maintained a controlled, structured upbringing. But our house was also like the neighborhood playground. All our friends were always there."
Marc, reportedly the "quiet yet profound" brother who nonetheless has been known to skydive and ride a motorcycle, explains that the brothers loved to compete at sports, but somehow grew up without being overly competitive with each other. That carries out at work, partly because they each have their own turf, but also because Larry keeps them competing in the right field.
At family functions, business talk is verboten. But to keep everyone playing in the right field, they let it all out at monthly "owners' meetings." Although Larry is clearly in charge, his brothers Marc, Dan and Chris, vice president of senior portrait sales, have distinct market areas. The meetings are formal enough to have a written agenda, but loose enough to air their business issues. Mostly, though, the brothers are focused on exciting new opportunities.
Recently, for instance, they agreed to invest in a digital turn-key system for $50,000 that produces photos that rival traditional photography, which they can retouch or add text or borders-on the spot. Customers enjoy the instant gratification, and love to take home their photos along with a disk file. Their next major undertaking will be to find new offices that will more than double their current 6,000 square-foot headquarters and 3,000 square-foot warehouse.
"Someone needs to be the leader," pipes in Dan. "Larry needs to know what everyone else is doing, so we don't duplicate our work."
"Growing up, I didn't view myself in that role," Larry insists. "I was more independent growing up. We all were because we all had our different things. But in my role here I do feel a tremendous amount of responsibility to make sure this business runs profitably and properly because there are so many family and staff members that rely on this company for their personal satisfaction and survival."