Updated: Apr 23
In small-town St. Augustine, Fla., a third-generation school portrait company is preparing for the future. Never a company to settle for the status quo, Leonard’s Photography continues to innovate with a combination of grit and self-determination that is envious. The company has a 36,000-square-foot production facility, with approximately 250 employees, and studio locations scattered around the state.
Like a lot of school portrait companies, Leonard’s is a family business beginning with a heritage of hard work and hustle. Their story starts like many with a family that had a vision and took the all-mighty risk of being an entrepreneur.
“My grandfather, Hal Tucker, moved down to St. Augustine, Fla., with my dad in 1925 because the economy was good,” says Leonard Tucker, Jr., the current president. “This was a tourist-oriented place. You could go around and take pictures of the tourists downtown and sell them a little picture. He would occasionally take pictures of local school groups but never really expanded past that. He passed away before I was even born. My father, who had grown up learning the photographic process under him and been in the Navy, had become a photographer also.” And this is where their legacy began.
Leonard Tucker, Sr., returned to St. Augustine followed World War II and followed in his father’s footsteps as a local photographer. Soon, he was approached by a local school board to take pictures and soon discovered it was a good business while maintaining his other photography work. “That transpired until 1951,” said Tucker. “This seems like a good business. I need to go out and start selling.”
Tucker. Sr. traveled around the great state of Florida and started to earn the trust of schools and districts all across the state. His commitment to customer service and quality photography became evident with the number of schools signing up to be Leonard’s customers. Through that hard work and commitment came creative thinking. He soon continued his expansion through partnerships. One example was the partnership with another studio, Bryn-Alan Studios, which concentrated primarily on seniors and high schools. (At the time, Leonard’s was primarily serving elementary and middle schools). That partnership continued through the 1990s, at which point Leonard’s really began expanding in the senior high school market for themselves.
His creative and innovative thinking continued as he successfully entered a new line of business for Leonard’s is military portraits, beginning with the Naval Training Center in Orlando, Fla. The company photographed boot-camp enlistees; eventually, that government contract business expanded to other branches, like the Marine Corps., the Navy, and the Air Force. It was innovative thinking and partnerships like this that helped this small family business become the company they are today.
Leonard’s has a long history of innovation, making the transition from analog to digital with determined doggedness. Even today their lab uses many verticals to provide the highest grade of print for their customers. From silver-halide production to digital presses, Leonard’s is equipping itself to be a leader in the industry. They continue to not only innovate in their printed products and services but have established themselves as a leader in many other areas.
Back when digital cameras were first introduced, the family decided to go all-in and partner with Canon technology and became one of the first companies in the southeast to lead with digital technology. This was a sure sign of commitment to new technology and a vision of what is to come by the leadership of the family.
The company sees another transition in the future, Tucker concedes, adding the company will probably be completely off silver-halide printing within three years. Adaptation and self-reliance have been key to Leonard’s longevity, especially since St. Augustine is not a major metropolitan city. Service techs are a long-distance way.
Leonard’s also produces elementary, middle, and high school yearbooks with its own printing presses and bindery capabilities. Tucker expects the company will enjoy greater synergy and opportunities as digital technology continues to improve. This service has continued to grow as schools are valuing pictures and yearbooks now more than ever.
In recent years, through the efforts of Tucker’s daughter, Claudia Dencer, Executive Vice President, Leonard’s has continued to expand. Dencer started with the company as a photographer soon after finishing at the University of Florida and immediately fell in love with the family business. About that time, the company was expanding its high-school senior business.
“It was really exciting to get into the high-school market,” says Dencer. “Obviously, there's been a huge evolution there in terms of photography and what the kids expect.” “It is so important to give the seniors a unique experience that showcases their story and celebrates the momentous occasion.”
She added one way Leonard’s adds value to relationships with schools is to partner with them for the on-site branded displays, like school pride and culture displays. The company works hand in hand with the school administration to enhance the visuals at school buildings, which can very often be older structures with dated decor. These relationships are vital to growth, she said.
“High school sports are huge,” she said. “Athletic directors are really looking to offer a ‘college look’ for inspiration. It’s been really exciting to build partnerships with schools on more than school photography.”
The company does sport team pictures and additional sports action photos. Leonard’s also works with the students themselves to improve their own photography.
“We created an educational platform so we could teach the students how to photograph because they are the ones on the campus who are able to go to all these different events. We send some of our master photographers to one-on-one classes with these kids to make sure they're really grasping the photography and they're capturing what the yearbook is expecting them to capture.”
Adapting to COVID
As with most U.S. school portrait companies, COVID-19 impacted Leonard’s. Although Florida and Georgia were not locked down as much as other states, the company management still kept current on the latest developments and planned accordingly.
“We felt it very important to open our studios when our studios should traditionally be opened in the summer,” said Dencer. Leonard’s developed protocols for keeping students, photographers, and staff safe, while maintaining a high level of service. The task was enormous because every school district was different, but the company’s strong relationships within the communities helped develop the processes.
“The protocols we came up with really held up,” she said. “And we were able to have a very successful summer and fall with our seniors and underclass in our studios.”
“We’re very lucky to be in a state that didn't have a complete lockdown,” said Tucker. “We were also able to qualify under essential services because of the military contracts.”
Leonard’s has adopted contactless portrait photography, so the exposure between photographer and subject was minimal. The in-school sessions were not without challenges, however, since parents and other picture-day volunteers weren’t available due to COVID-19. Fewer picture-day helpers made for heavier reliance on the school staff and teachers.
“The teachers and staff have been very understanding and willing to help,” she said.
To adapt to students who are remote learners, Leonard’s can accommodate those students at one of the company’s five locations statewide. Leonard’s also provided some impromptu setups, including outdoors, to support schools with different protocols.
In addition to these adaptations to ensure their companies continued success, Leonard’s, through Claudia Dencer, joined with ten other industry leaders during the pandemic to form a trade association dedicated to the health and vitality of school photography and yearbooks. They are one of the founders that had the vision and leadership to stand up and support the protection of our industry when no one else would.
Winning business competition
Leonard’s small-business approach was an advantage in the COVID-19 crisis, says Tucker.
“We aren't as large a company as some of the other regional players,” he adds, noting the fast-moving digital photography space means developing their own new products and services.
“It’s been a roller coaster of a year but we've come out on top,” says Dencer. “Our staff has been amazing. The schools and all of the school districts have also been great to work with. The protocols we put in place are definitely things that benefited us and our customers. We're blessed to be in Florida and Georgia where we don't have a lot of school closures and, those that we do have, we can just shift that client into a different part of the schedule and make it work.”
Dencer says it’s that willingness to work with clients that have proved to be a winning formula for Leonard’s.
“This has always been a relationship industry,” she explains. “That's just the unique part of this business. The challenge of doing sales is forming that relationship. “That’s been a challenge on a different scope due to the virtual aspect of COVID. But our service and relationship building is what sets us apart as a company from our competition and that is one of the reasons we have continued to be successful.”
The school photography and yearbook industry is filled with other great companies and stories like Leonard’s Photography and in times like these, it is great to know that we live in a country allowing the freedom and innovation of entrepreneurism and stories like theirs.