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SPOA Member Profile: Visual Image Photography

Updated: Oct 31, 2023

Now in its third generation as a photography business, Visual Image Photography (VIP) carries on tradition while keeping its eye on the future. The company is now in the hands of Courtney Lutz, the granddaughter of founder William J. Hayes.

The modest studio in Shorewood, Wisconsin, was a typical retail location, capturing weddings, senior portraits, family portraits, and more. Later, Hayes’ son, Tom, joined the business. Tom Hayes worked in the darkroom throughout his high school years. In 1972, he bought the studio from his father, embarking on a career as an in-demand photographer for the Wisconsin upper crust. After a half-decade of missing family events, due to photographing two or three weddings a weekend, a chance meeting with a former student introduced Tom Hayes to team sports photography.

“Dad ran into a senior that he had taken a photograph of that was from Milwaukee, who had moved to Arizona and was working out of Arizona taking team sports photos,” recalls Courtney Lutz. “So, Dad went to Marquette High School in Milwaukee and asked if he could take the football team photo. They said, ‘Sure.’ Nobody was really doing team photos at this time.

“He took the photo, walked away with more than he would make at an entire wedding,” recalls Lutz. Realizing there wasn’t a lot of competition in the region for team sports pictures, Hayes began going from school to school, coach to coach, booking teams. Soon he expanded into the Chicago area. Ray Behnke, a retired school principal and friend of Hayes, took on the sales duties. Soon after, the studio location was closed and operations moved to Behnke’s house in Cedarburg, Wisconsin. By the late 1980s, the business expanded into school photography. Up until then, printing was outsourced until production was brought in-house to control quality and service times.

Tom Hayes began attending PMA shows in the early 1990s to buy lab equipment, and become involved in both PMA and PSPA.

The Hayes children – Courtney and twins, Miles and Drew – worked in the business growing up: “We’d be putting negatives in glassines or four by sixes in wedding albums or making buttons around the dinner table. We were always in and out of the business. It's a family business.”

Lutz went to college for mass communications and photography, with plans to travel the world as a photojournalist. By 1996, she came back to the lab and began working in various parts of the business.

“I had been in New York City, where I had been working in film and video production,” says Courtney Lutz. “My husband and I got married while we there and then decided we wanted to get back here and start a family.”

Lutz’s husband had a job but she did not.

“I came back without a job and I said, ‘Dad, can I pick up some hours? Do you have anything I can do?’ ’’ she recalls. “It was November before the holidays, so December through January, February, the lab is quiet. We had like three or four employees in the lab at the time and I worked my way in and around the lab. I wasn't really shy about it.”

Lutz says her organizational skills brought structure to the business, and soon she was sitting next to Tom Hayes’ desk, observing and absorbing the business.

“I went to my first PMA in 1996 and that's where I learned and networked the most. I went every year and barely ever missed any of those conferences,” said Lutz. “That’s why I felt so strongly about getting involved with SPOA, because I missed that core. There are other conferences and groups but there is something about the mission of making the school photography industry better.”

Both Miles and Drew were involved in the business as well, attending TCU in Ft. Worth, Texas. Miles has a deep love of photography, obtaining his BFA in photography. He photographed with VIP while a student, then moved full-time into the organization after graduation.

Each family member has a district role: “Courtney is the amazing organizational person that that is so necessary for a company like this,” says Miles. “We’ve been so lucky to have her as our captain.”

“We are such a fortunate family business because my dad and I sat next to each other for probably 18 years sharing an office,” says Lutz. “It was amazing.”

As vice president and director of sales, Drew Hayes is detail oriented. He shares an office with Lutz, and their work styles complement each other.

“I'm kind of the risk taker, and then Drew says ‘Whoa, pull the reins back and let's stop and think about these things.’ He’s detail oriented and doesn’t miss crossing a T and dotting an I,” says Lutz. Chicago-based Miles is a photographer and has taken on some sales duties, reporting to Drew. He also performs as a singer.

Drew is also performer, whose acting skills took him to Los Angeles and Las Vegas. He supplemented his income with managerial positions, skills his siblings say benefit VIP today.

“Drew's had a lot of experience outside of VIP, which has been really helpful,” says Lutz. “We all get along really well. Family is first. Business is part of our family, but we don't we would we have not and won't let business things get in the way of our families.”

VIP has 50 full-time staff members, with nearly 100 seasonal photographers, serving 300 schools and more than 500 youth leagues.

From Left: Miles Hayes, Courtney Lutz, Tom Hayes and Drew Hayes

Adapting to change is also an important skill; in 2016, the year Tom Hayes retired, the company began the march from silver-halide to digital, which has affected staffing levels. And, like most volume photography companies, VIP made major changes to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic. “We had to make some major changes,” says Lutz. “We had talked about trying to go digital or online for years, but how do you get rid of that prepaid envelope? COVID just turned everything upside down, but it allowed us to get rid of all paper order forms, put everything online. It was really scary to go all proof online. We don't do any prepay.”

VIP uses a custom, self-built platform, augmented by some outsource partnerships, like Skylab.

“Because we print our own, it was just easier to build our own platform,” she says. “From the schedule to the images being uploaded to processing them and putting them online to printing them, that is all our own workflow. We're so thankful because it's made us so much more efficient and our sales are up.”

“When COVID happened, we couldn't put teams together anymore,” adds Miles. “Now we photograph every kid individually and then digitally build the teams. That stepped up our game with the digital cutout, now we can build power posters and other products.”

“It’s given us more creativity and flexibility,” says Lutz. “There are so many more options for the customer, which has been great, but now our average orders are up by 30%.”

For the future, she says VIP will continue to monitor industry trends – like the impact of AI – and be ready to adapt.

“It's about being innovative and always watching the trends and trying new things,” says Lutz. “For example, we do amazing senior portraits. We do the traditional school pictures, but we've added some choices for parents over the last several years. With the traditional team and individual sports pictures, we have gotten really great at the creative stuff you might see on Instagram and Facebook. They are really high-end sports photos, almost like senior portraits.

Whatever technology changes may be coming, Hayes says the core VIP values of quality portraits and customer service will carry the company forward. There’s a third value that’s equally important: Kindness. “Maybe it’s a northern Midwest thing, but showing kindness to the coaches, the kids and the mom that calls with concerns, that makes a difference.”

“I was recently on a job,” recalls Lutz. “I wasn't photographing and I just wanted to go. I didn't have to be there. But I wanted to be with these three photographers and check on the school. I was handing out the camera cards to the kids and it reminded me why I love this so much. These kids were these were third, fourth and fifth graders at the school and these kids would come away from the camera with these huge smiles on their faces, talking about what each photographer said to make them smile. You know, it's just kind of fun to hear the reaction of these kids. It's such a huge tradition.”

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