Words - Industry - A Family affair (2000)


A Family affair (2000)

Their client list reads like UK wedding photography’s elite. Their reputation is impeccable, but their low profile operation means that unless you know someone who deals with South West Photo Mounts, you don’t know what you are missing! John Chillingworth went to the English Riviera, to learn the reason why and more to the point, “How?”

Hearing whispers of a company that holds the exclusive UK distributorship for Europe’s leading frame makers, Deknudt, and another for the up-market range of Jorgensen Albums from Australia, where do you start your search?

I’ll save you the trouble! Adding to BT’s profits and with a little bit of Internet research, the mysterious name ‘Mifsud’ emerged.

After a brief conversation with Nick Mifsud, the working director of SW Photo Mounts, it was clear that if ever one needs an example of today’s flexibility in the photo industry, you need to look no further than an extended family business that started in Brixham, Devon, in 1954.

The Mifsud name originates in Malta. Frank, already a professional photographer, had travelled to the UK from the ‘George Cross’ island in search of work in 1947. He found it shooting pictures and photo-printing on Skegness Pier.

Having married a local girl and keen to start a family, he soon looked around for a way to improve their income. In 1954, the couple moved to Brixham, where Frank took the plunge and freelanced. He shared the processing facilities of the local photographer in general practice and worked himself hard and long in the holiday seasons. By 1956, he had enough confidence in the future to rent his first shop and, predictably, called it ‘Frank Mifsud Photographic’.

Mifsud not only worked hard in General Practice, he sold cameras, built up his High Street D&P business and expanded to process and print colour films for other shops in the area.

Later, with an adequate supply of sons to help run his enterprises, he looked for ways to expand further. He launched South West Colour Laboratories in 1976 and was soon proud to own the only accredited Prolab in the far West.

A leap forward
In 1982, Mifsud spotting another business opportunity when a West Country distributor for Spicer Hallfield ‘bit the dust’, stepped in, picked up the distributorship and launched South West Photo Mounts.

Like ‘Topsy’, it grew. Spicer Hallfield albums and folders sold well and customers responded to Mifsud’s prompt and friendly customer service. It seems that the business expanded, gaining customers by keeping high stock levels of products they offered and the word of mouth recommendations that followed, rather than by slick marketing techniques.

Number three son, Nick Mifsud, took over day-to-day control of the company, when he left university. In time, the family added other active distributorships including Kodak, Fuji, Polarfoid, Kenro, Colorama, Mario Acerbon, etc.

Always holding stock to ensure fast despatch of orders by their own vans, the company’s core business was, naturally, in the South of England and Wales. Now, their stock level policy and first-class overnight delivery service attracts customers countrywide most of whom, in the past, were exasperated by poor service from local distributors.

However, the success of South West Photo Mounts and its sister company was singed by high drama when, nine years ago, their Brixham premises burned to the ground.
Relocating to the Yalberton Industrial Estate in nearby Paignton, with the support of suppliers, customers and the insurance industry, they were back in business in record time.

Into the ‘big-time’
When he secured the distributorship for two of the most exclusive accessories available to the UK’s leading social photographers, Nick Mifsud was careful to ensure that the company’s fast and friendly service continued to impress.

His success became obvious when, after four years as an active, hardworking distributor, SW Photo Mounts had expanded sales and delivered the exclusive range of Deknudt frames fast and furiously in the South and West. Realising that the company was the only one that actually stocked the products, the Belgium-based company invited South West Photo Mounts to handle their range nationally.

In another ‘coup’ last year the Mifsud’s, recognising the potential of the innovative, high quality range of Jorgensen Albums from Australia, negotiated the exclusive rights to import them.

At the company’s branch in Hampshire, Matthew Chamberlain provides the computer-operated overlay cutting service that makes Jorgensen’s the most versatile (and expensive) albums on the market.

The concept enables individual page layouts to be planned for those ultra-smart wedding albums, so beloved of top-class wedding photographers.

Interestingly, the arrival of the bespoke Australian albums directly compliments the re-discovery, by those highly professional practitioners, of the ‘picture story’; a genre that peaked in picture magazines in the mid-20th century and has baffled photographers ever since.

Now, instead of providing a set of ‘deep-thinking’ images of the kind that helped take journalism into the television age the pictures have a different job to do! Perhaps the idea has reached a fitting finale in the beautifully encapsulated ephemeral ‘special-day-in-the-life-of…’ picture story will grace ‘Middle-England’ coffee tables for years to come.

A rolling enterprise
There are no frills to the Mifsud family enterprises. There is little doubt that photographers, who have accounts with the company, recognise the fact that the voices on the end of the telephone are of sales staff who like dealing with people, rather than being anonymous ‘order takers’.

Natural growth has meant that their Paignton premises, spacious nine years ago, are now bulging at the seams with activity.

Alongside the exclusive lines and their distributorships for major manufacturers of photographic film, paper and chemistry, South West Photo Mounts have their own range of bespoke photo-folders. They also offer in-house hot-foil printing, dry mounting and associated services.

It is an undeniable fact that in this age of corporate take-overs and deteriorating, impersonal services across the spectrum of commerce, the Mifsud family stands out like a beacon.

Incidentally, although South West Colour Labs are moving into the digital era in a big way, Nick Mifsud’s company is currently standing back from distributing digital products, to see what the market does in the medium-term; concentrating instead on silver halide based material and his extensive range of presentation products.

As it stands, if you see an anonymous blue van, with a happy face behind the wheel, drawing up outside a high street photographer’s premises in the South or West on any day of the week, think about it. It’s just possible that the driver is making one of the 400 deliveries per week, which that elusive company on the
English Riviera makes to its satisfied customers!

© Copyright John Chillingworth