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January 2004
Ex-investment Banker Lives Entrepreneurial Dream with Charlotte Camera
By Ellison Clary

      Soon after Myriam Breedlove bought Charlotte Camera in June 2001, she was struggling to help a customer purchase photographic lighting equipment on a busy Saturday. She didn’t understand what he needed, so she handed him off to a salesperson.

     “This customer kept saying, ‘But she was helping me, I want to make sure she gets her commission,’” Breedlove remembers.

     “I said, ‘It’s OK, I’m the owner.’ He nearly fell on the floor because I was obviously having trouble selling anything to him. I didn't know what it was he was looking for.”

     Breedlove smiles when she relates this story, because it helps explain how the youthful-looking, former investment banker got into business for herself. With no photo knowledge, she bought Charlotte Camera Brokers, Inc., after diligent research to find the optimum outlet for her entrepreneurial desires.

     With its extensive stock of used as well as new cameras and photographic equipment, the renamed Charlotte Camera fills a niche that Breedlove calls largely unserved in the Carolinas. From its 4,000 square feet in a cozy shopping center at 2400 Park Road, it attracts professional and serious amateur photographers for deals on brands such as Nikon, Canon, Olympus and Pentax.

     “We buy equipment from people either on a trade basis or outright for cash,” says Breedlove. “We have a lot of customers who buy and sell and trade over and over again. They’re those people who always want the latest and greatest equipment, but they don’t have all that cash.”

     Learning as she goes, Breedlove charges her nine-person staff to put a premium on buying quality equipment. A rating system eliminates worn items and keeps the used stock at near-mint condition. Many items remain in original packaging.

     “Every used piece comes with a standard 60-day warranty and we sell an extended service contract on most everything,” Breedlove says.

     “We have cameras for $75 and we have cameras for $7,000, so the range is enormous,” Breedlove says. Savings on used models can vary, she adds, but about 25 percent to 30 percent off the new price is the norm.

     Though other area retailers dabble in used photo equipment, Breedlove notes none offers the selection and knowledgeable, personal service of Charlotte Camera. Selection and expertise is largely lacking at big box stores as well as pawn shops, she says. She cites KEH in Atlanta as a comprehensive national used camera equipment dealer, but one that is almost exclusively a mail-order house with a big Internet presence.

 

A Professional Operation

     While Charlotte Camera sells through a Web site and a toll-free phone line, it also offers advice from a sales staff that knows photography. Several have been with Charlotte Camera for six years or more and learned retailing and merchandising in positions such as grocery store manager for Harris Teeter.

     Sales manager Steve Michael recalls a recent customer who was thinking of buying a large outfit of new equipment. He wanted to move in a new photographic direction.

     “I said, ‘Wait a minute. You can do that with what you already have. Here’s how you do it.’ That’s what happens a lot, and it builds up goodwill,” says the seven-year veteran of Charlotte Camera who lives in Mint Hill.

     “It’s a most professional store,” says Charlottean Ervin Jackson, 78, who’s made amateur photography a lifelong pursuit. A retired executive of the old Ivey’s department stores, Jackson says he visits Charlotte Camera at least once a week.

     “Everything is organized, marked and clean,” Jackson adds, “and the people are very knowledgeable. They’re pros in there,” the former travel photographer adds, “and they can help pros.”

     Richard Israel of Charlotte’s Richard Israel Photography echoes Jackson. He could buy cheaper online from a New York outfit, he says, but he opts to pay a bit more at Charlotte Camera because he knows the firm will service what it sells.

     Israel recalls buying an expensive digital camera last year. He appreciates that Michael helped him get a $500 discount from the manufacturer.

     Michael counts the Charlotte Camera staff as possibly the most knowledgeable in the Eastern United States. An emphasis on training and the sheer variety of products that Charlotte Camera stocks – maybe 300 to 400 camera models a week – keeps the staff sharp, he says.

     “Every living piece of equipment on this floor is most suited for a different person,” Michael says. “The key is to find the right piece for the right person.”

     Photography is rapidly changing from images on film to those created digitally. While Charlotte Camera offers new digital equipment, Michael says, used traditional items remain about 40 percent of its business. Digital hasn’t been around long enough to generate a large used trade.

     “One of the things about used,” he says, “is you control what you’re buying it at so you control what you’re selling it at.” He points to a second-hand Hasselblad camera with a $1,900 tag and a good condition rating. “I remember four years ago it would have been $4,000, and if you bought it new now it would be $5,000.”

     Michael praises Breedlove for injecting energy into the business that started in 1987. “It’s a real good teamwork environment, which I think helps a lot.”

     Breedlove says that comes naturally. “I don’t know photography,” she says. “For me, it’s critical that I surround myself with experts.”

 

Meeting the Challenge

      Now 31, Breedlove earned her master’s of business administration from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management after finishing at Duke University. She worked seven years in investment banking, first for Bank One in Chicago, then for Wachovia Securities in Charlotte.

     “I spent a lot of time advising other people how they should structure their business,” she remembers. “I got to meet so many wonderful business people and I always thought that’s the life I wanted. I wondered,   ‘Am I up to the challenge?’” 

     Entrepreneurship was in her blood. She’s the daughter of Swiss immigrants who came to the United States in 1970 for what they thought was a temporary engineering project and never left. Her father still operates a business in Gaston County, as did his father in the home country.

     Working with business brokers, Breedlove examined ventures from chimney sweeps to carpet installers. She figured she’d have to learn the business, no matter what.

     “I thought ‘I’ve really found a little gem,’” when an adviser introduced her to Charlotte Camera. “It was a relatively unknown company with a great track record and a phenomenal staff, not troubled in any way,” she says. “I saw an opportunity to grow the business.”

     She’s the sole owner and keeps financial details to herself. But she does say annual revenues are between $2 million and $3 million and growing about 5 percent a year.

     “A good business is always going to do well, regardless of the economy,” Breedlove says. “But it’s harder to grow faster when the economy is not strong. I’d probably prefer to grow at 10 percent over the next few years.”

     That’s not unreasonable, she thinks, because of the momentum her sales staff has built, the new customer relationships the business keeps forming, Charlotte Camera’s relatively new Web site and her plans for regional and national advertising.

     Though she was never even a photography hobbyist, Breedlove is happy with her leap into the used camera trade. She’s learned much from her staff and she takes “a ton of pictures,” mostly of 18-month-old son Payton.

     “For those of us who want careers and motherhood,” she grins, “there’s never a convenient time to get into business. If you try to wait for that perfect moment, it’s never going to happen.”

     Breedlove tells others considering a business of their own that being an entrepreneur isn’t glamorous. Her corporate background made it difficult for her to adjust to limits on her company’s financial resources and the necessity for setting priorities.

     “I had always worked in a large bank where, if you need something, you just order it and magically it comes to your desk,” she says. Without support staff, she struggled initially with “knowing that if the copier breaks, there is no service person to call. You have to wear all hats.”

     The used camera business cycle was easier to get used to. There’s a 20 percent sales spike at Christmas, and a Canon digital camera for under $400 was popular this most recent season. Sales jump again in August when students enroll in photo classes.

     Used equipment tends to pour in during January and February, sparked by a need to pay off holiday-inflated credit cards, she says. Introduction of a popular new model, such as the Olympus E-1 digital camera that came out in October, can prompt trade-ins from people who want the latest system.

 

She’d Do It All Again

    Breedlove lives in Matthews with husband Brad, who teaches history and coaches at Sun Valley High School in Union County. She calls Brad “wonderfully supportive.”

     Knowing what she does now, would Breedlove wade into the photography business again? She answers without hesitation. “Absolutely, I would do it in a heartbeat. It’s been a challenge every day but that makes it fun.”

     Through a local chapter of a young entrepreneurs organization, Breedlove learns from shared experiences with other business owners who’re younger than 40. Reminiscent of her investment banking days, she continues advising others.

     “Make sure you’re going to be excited and passionate about it,” she tells those thinking of hanging out a shingle as well as folks already operating a business. “Second, take a good, hard look at your strengths and weaknesses. Make sure you surround yourself with people who are not exactly like you.”

     Taking her own advice, in September Breedlove started a second venture called Southeast Photo Workshops. It’s a school run by two local photographers she met through her work on the board of The Light Factory, a non-profit agency that promotes artistic efforts in photography and film. Joe Ciarlante and Karen Ashworth teach classes in a studio near the camera shop.

     Breedlove had offered photo classes at her store, but people were standoffish because they suspected they’d hear a sales pitch. The neutral location alleviates that concern.

     The school has enrolled more than 100 students so far, Ciarlante says, and they come from as far away as Florida to take classes one night a week or for weekend seminars.

     A long-time customer of Charlotte Camera, Ciarlante says he, too, appreciates what Breedlove is doing with the shop. Making high quality used equipment available commercially has become its specialty, he says, and that’s “unique to the area.”

     When Breedlove took over, Charlotte Camera became a much more professional operation, he adds. “She’s raising the bar.”

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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