Robert Ste-Marie wasn’t always going to own a volume photography studio; his sights were higher. Way higher. As in “outer space” higher.
Early in his career, following his graduation from McGill University with a mechanical engineering degree, Ste-Marie worked on NASA’s environmental spacecraft TERRA and RADARSAT 1 & 2 radar imaging satellites for 16 years.
Through a series of acquisitions over a decade, Quebec-based Green Apple Studios has a family of five brands running the province. The studio photographs 550,000 students in Quebec and has a smaller presence in neighboring Ontario.
Ste-Marie started 36Pix as a wholesale lab, with a mix of Canadian and U.S. customers, before pivoting to photography.
"We started from scratch, starting in the preschool, and then went to elementary, high school, etc.," he said. "Some of the brands we ended up acquiring, we were doing their wholesale work. We grew the business from literally zero in 2004 to 550,000, with acquisitions and organic growth."
Ste-Marie wasn't content with just starting a business, though.
"I love innovation," he says. "It's in my DNA. We never looked at the competition; we did what we thought was right. We were the first to come out with a portrait book, for example."
It was that desire to innovate that led Ste-Marie and his team to develop the technology that 36Pix is known best for: Background removal. This was a feature that was at first developed for internal use but soon became a booming service.
"In 2005-2006, so we started tinkering with our own algorithm for background removal," recalls Ste-Marie. "We did it for ourselves and a few remaining wholesale customers.
"One day, somebody came into my office and said, 'Hey, why don't we do that for other people?'" said Ste-Marie. Compared to today's process, the process was "archaic," he said but it did lead to some background-removal business with bigger studios.
"I think we had to do 50,000 images in a month," he said. "It was all being held together with tape and wire at that point but we got it done."
Today, Ste-Marie says 36Pix now can handle 600,000 background removals in a single day
Around that time, it becomes less confusing to customers to make 36Pix the technology provider brand and launch Green Apple Studio as the portrait business.
As a new board member of SPOA, Ste-Marie is looking forward to being involved in advocating for the school portrait industry in Canada. Like the United States, there are numerous issues regarding rebates and privacy, just to name too. Having an association as the voice of the industry is crucial, he says.