Words - Personality Stories - Bending with the wind (1993)

 

Bending with the wind (1993)
 

It is often claimed that small is beautiful in professional photography. It may also be true to say that there is economy in scale when the client base is growing apace, but what do you do, when economic and creative circumstances throw down the gauntlet, whatever size you are? John Chillingworth met Tony Short FBIPP, internationally recognised as a doyen of industrial photography, to discuss the latest move in his family's long and successful history.

At Heathrow, the 'tannoy' booms the last call for passengers on the British Airways flight to Johannesburg. The massive jumbo opens its doors and swallows a legion, or two of Africa-bound businessmen, diplomats and holidaymakers.

Amongst them, un-noticed by any but an air hostess, who betrays a flicker of recognition as a father and son pass by, humping lead lined bags filled with film. With their major equipment and lead-lined film boxes safely stored in the hold, they settle themselves for the kind of international flight they have made on many times before.

Tony Short and eldest son, Nicholas (23) are leaving the fog and frost of the Midlands for another overseas assignment. Meanwhile, the team back home put the finishing touches to their new base in Wellesbourne, south Warwickshire, close to the Fosse Way.

The way it was
A year ago, Tony Short, Managing Director of Logans, one of Birmingham's oldest established photographic enterprises, would have been doing much the same thing, but with the responsibility of providing 19,500 a year rent for 3,500 square feet of office, laboratory and studio space that included a 45ft scoop for car photography and 20,000 joules of Strobe equipment. Their in-house laboratory, bristling with Agfa Labcheck technology, processed up to 300 rolls of film at a time and produced colour transparencies and prints to an impeccable standard.

With 18 more years of a 24 year lease to go and a corporate landlord whose avarice was matched only by a lack of common sense, Logan Photography, established by Tony's father in partnership with the great Logan, back in the '40's, faced another commercial challenge. For Tony Short, a third generation professional photographer, pragmatic rationalisation, rather than anger, or despair was the order of the day.

Tony Short, with fellow directors Tony Round and Peter Morgan, sat down and engaged in a thorough review of their business. The bulk of their commissions originated with clients in the UK, Europe, USA, Africa, and the Far East. The companies all used creative industrial and architectural photography on a regular basis. They knew the big clients were still there. There was still a requirement for architectural and corporate photography on the grand creative scale Logans had supplied for many years.

Turnover was steady, but what had receded was demand for the workmanlike video productions they enjoyed producing for a wide range of clients, as well as the studio advertising commissions that had virtually dried up, largely due to the galloping recession in demand.

Their review presented them with some hard decisions to make. How long would the recession last? What was the ideal shape for the company, bearing in mind the changes in demand and the evolution of requirements amongst the blue chip companies they served? If they attempted to meet escalating rent costs, they would have to shed staff and that was something they had never done in the past.

The questions grew, so they set about picking them off, one by one. By making the hard decisions fast, they raised their sights and went for change. Logans was a well-financed company. With the means to effect fundamental adjustments they set about implementing them.

Tony knew he was only as good as the people around him, so the 'people problem' was resolved first. Tony Round, whose responsibilities were for laboratory production, agreed to retire. The rest of the team, including son Nicholas, already proving his worth a year out of college, was all loyal and hard-working. Whatever was to be resolved, it had to provide employment for all who wished to stay.

With his wife and family living in a delightful situation on the edge of a 'picture' village, Tony wanted to see more of them, not less, so a move back into the centre of Birmingham was out of the question. Their neighbours, living in the converted barn next to the Short family's 'retired' farmhouse, providentially decided to move and the seeds of an idea were sewn.

After months of local government wrangling and arm twisting, Tony obtained permission for the barn's conversion to commercial premises. Then things move quickly; plans were commissioned and the studio lease was assigned. Building conversion began, as Tony and Peter continued to orbit the globe with the measured pace of twin metronomes and after nine months of meticulous preparations, the move was made and Tony Short Associates opened for business.

Married for 24 years, Tony Short had long ago resolved the age-old observation from his supportive wife, Glen, "I married you for love, not for lunch" and so, it seemed, a new era had begun.

Learning from experience
I found Tony Short, a friend of many years, confidently smiling across his desk as I negotiated the magnificent original beams of the barn roof, to sit down and ask him, "If your move was expedient, how do you feel about ditching the Logan name after so many successful years?"

The answer was not unexpected. The Short family have a long standing record of achievement in professional photography. Grandfather was trained by the great Sutcliffe of Whitby, his father, a leading light in the Institute of British Photographers and President in 1953, whilst there is every indication that Tony's son will follow him; not just because it is a job, an easy option, but because he has a talent in the long tradition of the family.

"We had no problem in deciding to set aside the Logan name. Every client knows that it is the people taking the pictures that matter", said Tony, "so, Logan Photography is now a shell company, resting after seventy years of successful operation".

As the conversation developed, it was clear that we were talking about problems that many photographic enterprises must have faced in recent times, I pressed Tony to expand on the philosophy that lead him and his colleagues adopted, to meet the demands of the times.

"We may be exceptional", he said, "because we have operated with financial advice of high quality and integrity for as long as I can remember. With firm ideas of my own about running the business, I have always ensured that we use up to the minute equipment - and always buy it. Operating by courtesy of the bank, places most businesses at a distinct psychological disadvantage, so to retain our reserves, as a matter of policy we only work on assignments that give us a sensible profit margin and helps dictate the kind of companies we deal with".

"Renting the studio space in Kings Norton, was the only time we allowed ourselves to be beholden to outside agencies and, never again! Tony spoke with great feeling and declared, "we will never rent property again".

So, taking into account the unpredictable length of the recession, calculating the cost of moving out of Birmingham and servicing the client base effectively, the solution had something if a fairy-tale quality, but it is rooted in hard-nosed economic fact. The elegant barn is approached through imposing double gates.

The extensive parking space has a decorative fountain feature at its centre. Inside the converted barn, the bustle of professional activity is immediately apparent.

"When clients from major 'blue chip' companies come here" purred Tony, "I want them to be impressed by our professionalism, not by opulence or pretension". Any photographer who has experienced the draft of recession, has even more reason than us to seek sensible solutions to operating economically. We are saving on rent and commercial overheads, we have invested in a set-up that suits us to perfection".

In the case of Tony Short Associates, perfection means making the company's capital work for them. Using exclusively Agfa film paper and chemistry makes them the second largest professional user in the Midlands. Long ago, there was a conscious decision to handle all manipulations of the film in the camera - not in processing. They only service their own work. To do so, they have a new Collenta and a Kreonite processor, as well as new plumbing and chemical recovery equipment. There is adequate equipment storage, briefing rooms, viewing rooms and a practical sized smaller studio, everything that makes for efficiency in an operation that lives, largely, by its expertise in location photography.

"I have seen major organisations in the profession, fall like great oaks in the economic storm", said the smiling photographer across the desk. "I believe in bending with the wind. Change in demand is something none of us can resist, so if I were to advise others in the profession, I am sure my advice would be, they must not be panicked by events. Think ahead, identify clearly their strengths and adjust their sights it meet the challenge, head on. Alternatively they could pack up and go fishing. Have you got a rod with you?
There's some lively trout in our river, just across the field!"


Copyright John Chillingworth