PIR’s 2010 Dealer of the Year: Dodd Camera

PIR’s 2010 Dealer of the Year: Dodd Camera

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As we pulled up to the large, weathered red brick building on the corner of E. 30th Street and Carnegie Avenue in a scruffy looking industrial area of downtown Cleveland, we checked our GPS to make sure we hadn’t taken a wrong turn. Then we noticed the two giant Olympus camera posters and the neatly lettered logo, DODD CAMERA & IMAGING, with arrows pointing to the side entrance.

The instant we stepped inside the store, we were awed by the cavernous, inviting, brightly lit, ultra-modern retail space that showcases in amazing depth practically anything a consumer, serious enthusiast or professional photographer could possibly want. There were forests of Manfrotto and ProMaster tripods, entire aisles stuffed with camera bags, a well-stocked rental section in one corner, and a huge and sophisticated lighting equipment section in another.

The central hub of the headquarters store is arranged in a radial pattern to ensure that salespeople are always in a direct line of sight with their customers. The arcs that form a concentric pattern contain commodious, gleaming display cases that are individually dedicated to major camera brands, including Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, Tamron, et al. Near the geometric center is a medium-size kiosk section. We could go on for several more pages describing all the carefully conceived, beautifully executed retailing elements, but Dodd’s underlying concept is stunningly simple—empower the customer by presenting almost every conceivable option in the most enticing manner possible.

We were greeted by Dodd’s engagingly low-key president, Mark Leonard, who ushered us into his modest, well-appointed office that is decorated with fascinating local poster art. In response to our questions, he traced Dodd Camera’s Cleveland roots as a family firm going back to 1891, noting that it originally sold sporting goods and art supplies as well as Eastman Kodak cameras, and that it was owned and run first by the Dodd and later by the Greiner family.

“Even as late as 1978–79, half our business was in art supplies,” noted Leonard, “but we evolved as we grew, becoming purely photographically oriented shortly thereafter. Our original location, now gone, was in the heart of downtown Cleveland on E. 4th Street, and we added a second store around 1964 and a third one a couple of years later. Years ago, the founder, R.C. Dodd, sold the company to the Greiner family, and by 1983 Dodd Camera had 14 stores—more multiple locations than any of our competitors in the Cleveland area. If 14, and currently 17, stores sounds like a lot, bear in mind that there are about 1.8 million people living in the Cleveland metro area and around 2.8 million in the region covered by Cleveland-Akron newspapers and TV.

“The Greiners are a large family and many of them had no interest in running a retail business,” Leonard continued. “That’s why they hired nonfamily members to manage most of the stores. Our present somewhat loose, very lean corporate structure reflects this history, but we take it to another level. We’re very careful in selecting the right people, and once we do, we trust them to run the stores as if they were their own. We actively encourage an entrepreneurial spirit among our managers and staff, and we reward success with aprofit-sharing program that incentivizes efficiency and promotes effective marketing. We like our salespeople to be enthusiastic about what they sell, and to a great extent we support choices that make that possible.

“In a typical top-down company,” said Leonard, “the chief executive is in control of the entire knowledge base down to product selection and which brands and models are pushed. I consider myself more of a coworker than a boss, and that’s more than just a figure of speech. I believe that providing complete access to information and a frank interchange of ideas is a much more effective way to manage than simply giving orders from on high. I am really in the business of maximizing the human potential of everyone in this company. That’s why there are no quotas here; it’s up to the individual store managers, and each one of them is directly responsible for the success of his or her store. The sole exception to this is Chris Korllos, who oversees the E. 30th Street store and is also the regional manager of our six stores in Dayton, Ohio, about three or so hours away. Chris has been making frequent trips to Dayton, but we’re working on perfecting a corporate webcam system for future management meetings based on two groups of people, including the ‘Dayton 6.’

“Another key factor about Dodd is that we have a clear brand identity,” observed Leonard. “We’re a trusted name that has been part of Cleveland forever. Customers know we understand the products we sell, and they’re aware that we carry a wider variety of products than almost anyone else. Customers may think they pay a bit more here, but even that is not necessarily a bad thing, because it gives us the opportunity to show them that in fact we offer the same prices as, say, B&H or Best Buy. In other words, we’re not only friendly and knowledgeable, we’re also priced right and can match the big-box stores. We even have play areas in our stores to keep the kids occupied and safe while mom shops or prints out at a kiosk. The only problem is that some kids are having so much fun they don’t want to leave!”

Dodd Camera currently consists of 17 stores, counting the one in Chicago that will sell cameras but is primarily a rental operation, however, Leonard still sees Dodd as a small company. “And one advantage we have in appealing to customers is that they know and actually experience the fact that real people run the show,” he explained. “That’s one of the main reasons I publish my direct telephone number in our ads. When a customer calls me with a complaint or a compliment or simply for information, I look at it as an opportunity to establish or extend a human relationship.”

If that sounds too good to be true, consider this gem we unearthed in the Dodd Camera comment area while checking out a Cleveland store-rating site on the Internet. It says it all:

“My name is Mark Leonard and I am the president of Dodd Camera. I try to be very accessible to our customers. Most of the time we provide fantastic service and we receive plenty of praise. Sometimes we fail to meet customer expectations and that is always disappointing. I like to know when that happens so I can help resolve the situation or at least work to ensure future customers with similar situations do not encounter the same frustration.

“Should you ever have a reason to offer a criticism or compliment, I can be reached at 216-361-6811, where you will be greeted by a real-live human being answering the phone, and easy access to me. We are still family owned and headquartered in downtown Cleveland. Been that way for 119 years. Let me know if I can be of help to you.—Mark”

The narrative of Mark Leonard’s rise to a leadership position at Dodd, beginning
at the bottom, is a classic. He began as a part-timer in high school who wasn’t
even a photo enthusiast but who slowly became interested in the fun and gadgetry of photography.

“I worked there during the summers and on school holidays,” he recalled, “and I earned a reputation as a good salesman who was self-motivated and low maintenance.”

Leonard became a store manager in 1984, and he saw that position as an opportunity to learn new technology and new things at Dodd. “For me one of the great attractions of this dynamic industry is that the technology and products are in a constant state of flux and you’re always learning something new and exciting.” Eventually he transferred to the Mentor, Ohio, store, became general manager in 1987 and was promoted to vice president in 1991. He was elevated to president of the company in 2003. “My personal story parallels the growth of the company itself; it’s an organic process that provides all of us with the opportunity to do what we want to do.”

Leonard has only kind words for Joe Carreras, the 100% owner and financial backer of the Dodd Camera enterprise who is a savvy investor with roots in auto parts manufacturing. “Joe’s practical understanding of the financial world and how this business works is crucial to our success,” said Leonard, “but he’s not a micromanager. He is our financial adviser and the man behind the successful expansion that has allowed us to acquire the Click Camera stores (recently rebranded as Dodd). He chooses to trust us not only because we are profitable and continue to move in the right direction, but because we share the same philosophy: Let’s invest in tech before hiring people; let’s reinvest profits to upgrade and enhance our operations; let every store be a self-sustaining subdivision that will sink or swim on its own merit.

“Basically, I am a seeker of answers to problems,” noted Leonard. “If a market is no longer viable, we may move a store to a more productive location or renovate it with contemporary colors. This year all coworkers on the floor will be wearing our new Dodd Camera corporate shirt so people will be able to tell customers from staff. We’re refreshing some stores by renovating them with new fixtures and using a brighter, more up-to-date color scheme. We’ve already redone three Cleveland stores this year. Renovation doesn’t cost a lot the way we do it, using local sources for showcases, repurposing shelving from IKEA and using local contractors, including some of our coworkers who are handy and eager to help. It can cost as little as $7,500 to $10,000 to renovate a tired old store, and the results pay off. We had a very good year in 2009 when others were struggling, and we’re doing even better in 2010.

 

“We have a clear brand identity,” observed Leonard. “We’re a trusted name that has been part of Cleveland forever. Customers know we understand the products we sell, and they’re aware that we carry a wider variety of products than almost anyone else.”

 

“We’ve always been a hardware-oriented company,” continued Leonard, and we’re used to working on low margins. Other stores that traditionally relied on photofinishing are squeamish about working on only 15%, but not us. We don’t have a large, burdensome and costly front office to contend with, and photofinishing was never a huge part of our business, so a drop in this area wouldn’t be devastating. Nevertheless, we have a reputation for excellent quality photofinishing and we turn out 4x6s and 5x7s at competitive prices using a Fuji Frontier lab.

“The lab manager in our Pepper Pike store is a real printing fanatic, and that store prints canvas wraps, large-format prints, greeting cards and collages, as well as does photo restoration. It garners more than twice as much photofinishing as our other stores—there’s that entrepreneurial spirit again.

“We’re also expanding our photo gifting and other nontraditional printout options in all Dodd stores because it’s a lucrative niche business. Selling a coffee mug for $15 is better than selling a print for 19 cents.

“The pain felt by camera store owners across the country is real,” said Leonard sympathetically, “and some vendors make it challenging because of their underlying ‘direct to end user’ business model. Major camera companies don’t have as much loyalty to photo specialty retailers anymore. However, instead of complaining and having a defeatist attitude, retailers ought to start a proactive dialog and ask the manufacturers, ‘What’s your goal?’ Things are not like they used to be when camera retailers were in charge, and these guys don’t know how to defer to someone else’s insight. It’s not enough to be the boss of a second or third generation business. That’s why we take a collective approach based on guidance and interaction rather than relying on the ideas of one supreme leader.

“Just as photographers in WPPI need to find a niche that lets them expand and manifest their natural talent, we need to find people who can lead effectively to keep us moving forward. During 2008 and 2009 we cut back a lot of bodies, but we maintained our structure because of key people like Paul Orzel, our operations coordinator and my right-hand guy who was recently promoted to vice president. When you have effective, proactive people, you don’t need too many behind the scenes to run your business effectively.”

While touring the downtown Cleveland store, we found Chris Korllos, the manager of the E. 30th Street store and regional manager for the six Dayton stores, in his cluttered office at the back of the store. He’s a tall guy but dwarfed by an ancient old wooden studio camera with a shiny brass lens that passes for his office decoration. On the back wall hangs a diploma from the famed Leica School, marking him as a genuine photo enthusiast.

“I’ve been with Dodd for 29 years,” Korllos observed matter-of-factly. “I can remember selling the Canon AE-1 when it was new. I love my job because technology is always changing and it’s never boring; it’s always interesting and challenging. I majored in industrial design at Kent State, took some photography courses, did some freelancing jobs, and saw it as a possible vocation, but then I found Dodd Camera and realized it was a very cool place. Even more important, I found it a place that encourages entrepreneurial license as a pathway to success, an operation that empowers salespeople to take ownership, and an enterprise based primarily on customer service. A good example was when we finally changed the name of the Click stores in Dayton to Dodd. The employees embraced the new name wholeheartedly and with amazing enthusiasm, because it represented a positive vibe, a can-do attitude, and the freedom to adopt a new identity.

“Yes, we put the customer first,” Korllos continued, “but how do they perceive this? Our goal is to give the customer an experience. That’s why we restructured to add more floor space to the 30th Street store, and it’s why we showcase cameras in depth, with everything on display. We put it all out in front of customers to give them an exciting experience. We have a spring show and a winter show in this store; they’re like mini PMA shows with crowds standing shoulder to shoulder, motivated by TV advertising and manufacturer participation. The radial pattern of this store puts staff and customers in visual proximity—a physical embodiment of relationship marketing. We run 20-minute tech sessions and have a well-developed education program, with Dodd’s Photo Classes ranging from Digital 101 to a Green Screen workshop, to classes on specific DSLR brands and models. I also love to sell and trade used equipment; we’ve got one showcase devoted to it, and it’s a reliable and profitable revenue stream.”

Not surprisingly, when we visited the Pepper Pike store in an upscale Cleveland suburb, the Westlake store in another affluent community, and the soon-to-be-open North Olmstead store—a commodious retail space close to a major shopping mall across the street from H.H. Gregg, a big-box store—the same spirit of enthusiasm and empowerment prevailed.

Yes, each and every Dodd coworker we spoke with has clearly internalized a positive, productive forward-looking attitude, and the truism that it’s great people who make a great company couldn’t be more obvious. But it also comes from the top. Perhaps Mark Leonard will forgive us for concluding that he is a remarkable man who is, in large measure, responsible not only for instilling Dodd’s nimble, flexible, adaptive and successful corporate culture but also for its ongoing success. Being laid back, remarkably egoless, insightful, detail-oriented, realistic and compassionate all at the same time is a rare combination, indeed, and he’s definitely one of the main reasons that Dodd Camera is being honored as PIR’s 2010 Dealer of the Year.

 

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