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Member spotlight: Victor O'Neill Studios

Updated: Sep 13, 2021

Victor O’Neill Studios (more commonly known at VOS) is a family-owned school-portrait studio based in McLean, Va. The operation was started by Coy and Sheila Harris in 1972; Coy was a highly successful Herff Jones yearbook rep who, at the request of customers, started a school portrait company.

The company is named after a former NYC studio named Victor O’Neill Studios which serviced colleges and universities in the D.C. region, says Mike Harris, owner. Harris is the son of the founders, joining the business right out of college. Like his father, Mike was also a Herff Jones yearbook rep, where he focused his efforts for about 15 years before shifting his focus to the photography business. “What I liked about the photography business was I had more control,” he said. “I eventually sold my (yearbook) business.”

The Herff Jones connection was strong. Both Harris and his father were inducted into the Herff Jones Hall of Fame, which recognizes top sales reps. For years, VOS relied on Herff Jones’ photo labs for producing school packages; today, VOS works with on local professional labs

“The photography business began to really take off, in terms of growth, so I had to make a decision (to focus on photography),” says Harris. VOS services more than 300 schools, photographing 160,000 underclass and 27,000 senior portraits. The company has nine full-time photographers, dozens of temporary photographers and assistants, and 10 full-time office staff.

Hard-working roots

Harris traces the company’s success to the foundation laid by his father, Coy. One of eight children growing up on a North Carolina farm, Coy learned the value of hard work and serving customers. “He never forgot his roots and just worked really hard,” says Mike Harris. Another strong influence on the business was another Herff Jones connection, a leading rep named Tom Young. After retiring from Herff Jones, Young came to work with VOS, showing Harris sales techniques to land big accounts.

“It's tough as a small company, competing to get that big account,” says Harris. “I’m a pretty good sales guy but I had never seen anything like (Young’s sales techniques). He did not hear ‘no.’ He just continued to probing and probing until he found something to convince the custom to give us a shot for a year.“

Harris adds other “spectacular” staff members have contributed to the success of VOS. “We've hired some truly spectacular people who love working for the company and build incredible relationships with the schools.”

Adaptation is key

In addition to customer service, VOS has had to adapt to changing marketplace.

“COVID changed the way we go to market,” says Harris. “Take seniors, for example. We would spend thousands of dollars on beautiful marketing pieces with their appointment times. Then we would mail reminder postcards. Now we don’t do that anymore.

“Now the schools will email a link home to the senior; the seniors will go online and they will schedule their own appointment that's convenient for them. We found, when the senior or the senior parents schedule their own appointment, they're more inclined to keep their appointment. I thought we had to send some really cool marketing pieces home and we would have to schedule everyone, but this wasn't the right way. We save a lot of money and people keep their appointments.”

Harris notes, under the prior process, about two-thirds of appointments would show up. Now picture day is fully booked and well-attended.

“It's more pleasurable for photographers and the seniors are getting a better experience,” says Harris. “They're not sitting in chairs with 12 other seniors waiting to go to a station. They're in and out faster and they're getting better images.”

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