John Mueller, the founder of MJThomas Studio, got his start with long-standing portrait firm Whit’s Studio in Colorado Springs, Colo., in the late 1980s before striking out on his own. He didn't let his lack of formal photography training hold him and his team back.
“I had applied for the job, although I didn’t have a lot of skills,” said Mueller, who had taken some college-level photography classes. “I applied for a position on the western slope of Colorado; they filled that but they had an opening in Albuquerque.”
After moving to Albuquerque, he worked for Whit’s Studio as a photographer for three years before moving into management. Soon after, Mueller asked for a transfer to Grand Junction, Colo. Soon after, Whit’s Studio was acquired and Mueller took the opportunity to start MJ Thomas Studio. (The name is derived from “Mueller, John Thomas.)
He used his connections to build with existing schools - at first, a pool of 50 - when he launched. That was 30 years ago and the company is still going strong with about 700 schools and 95 employees. The Grand Junction-based business is a vertically integrated operation with offices in Denver and Albuquerque. The company services Kansas, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and Wyoming.
On-going success a team effort
Mueller is quick to point out that the company’s long-standing employees contributed to the success of MJ Thomas.
“The first guy hired is still with me, right,” he explains. “We’ve got 15 people here nearly 20 years.”
One of those key employees in the early days was Mueller’s wife, Anne, who had a master’s degree in computer education. Her experience was key in establishing computer systems and working with data. She passed away in 2018.
“She was with me every step and was an integral part of the MJ Thomas success,” he said.
Savvy business decisions
Mueller notes the studio keeps current but doesn’t necessarily need to be bleeding edge. “I stayed with film as long as I could,” he said. “I waited to get a digital lab and now we have eight Frontiers. The cost of building a digital lab kept going down.”
Two-thirds of the studio’s business is in K-12, with the remainder in sports photography. The company also provides yearbooks but outsources that production. MJThomas did try to print them in-house but the binding process was too onerous.
A substantial portion of MJ Thomas’ client base is far-flung rural communities. Considering the number of states covered by the studio, many of the shoots are four to five hours away, including traveling through mountains.
These small communities, however, often have a relatively high buy rate, making the trips worthwhile.
“The buy percentage in small towns is a little bit better,” said Mueller. “We might have 300-kid elementary in small-town America that does $5-6,000, and then you have a 300-kid elementary in Denver that does $4,000. It offsets itself, but there are problems with driving a lot. But we've always done it.”
MJ Thomas' commitment to tradition includes providing class composites, such as a 30x36 wall panel, featuring advisors, administrators, and the entire senior class. Mueller calls these loss leaders but they are a valuable part of the school traditions, especially in rural communities.