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SPOA Member Spotlight: Wagner Portrait Group

Updated: Nov 27, 2022

Penny Wagner, Heidi Wagner, Chip Wagner

Midwest-based volume photography company Wagner Portrait Group continues to grow, well into its second generation of ownership. Founded by Hal Wagner in 1972, the company has always adapted to changing times. At one point, Wagner traveled around the region servicing accounts. He had a sales and marketing background and started in the business to be his own boss. Whatever needed to be done to keep clients happy, he did. “He bought a school bus, gutted the inside, and made it a portrait studio, complete with top-to-bottom shag carpeting,” said Penny Wagner, Hal’s daughter and vice president of marketing, in an interview with the St. Louis Business Journal. “At the time portraits were very coveted, so the whole community would show up — grandma and grandpa would come through the bus too.”

Wagner has four children with his wife, Mary Ellen Wagner, of which three (Penny, Heidi and Chip) ended up joining the business. The other, Wendy Wagner Brase, works as a teacher at the Rockwood School District. Hal Wagner is now retired, and it’s that successful transition that has kept the company growing.

“My proudest professional accolade is that we have made a full generational transition,” says Chip Wagner. “And we've grown the business immensely. The failure rate of a first to the second-generation family business is 66%.”

Like most school portrait companies of that era, the business was a family affair, with the home serving as a portrait studio. The siblings recall sorting envelopes in the family living room in the evening. The business moved into a separate office space by the late 1970s.

Each of the siblings has a different story of joining the business; Penny Wagner joined first, after completing her MBA, and Heidi Wagner joined soon after college graduation. About five years later, Chip Wagner joined after completing his degree. None of them expected to come into the business but saw the opportunity. Each of them started at Wagner Portrait, behind the camera, to learn the business from every angle. “Every morning, we were out on the frontlines photographing,” says Heidi Wagner. “I would travel for three-four days to the different territories and do photography.”

On-going innovation

The Wagner siblings contend the ongoing success of the Wagner Portrait Group is continuous improvement and innovation.

“We talk a lot about how, instead of our competition being other portrait companies, our biggest competition is Amazon,, and all of those customer experiences,” says Penny Wagner. “We’re lucky parents want to buy our products; we’re not out there trying to create a need. But we’re also competing with other online experiences. In the U.S., saying it takes five weeks for parents to get school pictures is not acceptable when a parent can buy something online and have it the next day. That’s our competition.

“We are constantly looking for technologies and tools that are going to make that experience better and make more sense to a customer,” she adds. Wagner Portrait Group has invested in customer-service technologies, for example, which monitor customer communications and alert management and appropriate team members when an immediate response is needed. “The parents’ expectation now is the immediate fulfillment of a need. We're trying to use all these technologies; that plays into why we don't have evergreen vendor relationships. We might need to switch up vendors if they don't keep up with the type of innovation that we are using.”

“We are not afraid of change,” adds Chip Wagner.

Sales and marketing pedigree

The Wagner siblings have defined roles within the organization and work well together. Part of that cohesion is building the organization with the pedigree established by Hal Wagner: Realizing what the nature of the company really is. “The pedigree of Wagner Portraits, even back then and to this day, is we're sales and marketing organization with high customer service,” says Chip Wagner. “ ‘Photo’ is our widget. If you opened the hood of this organization and pulled out all the guts, you could park it inside a real-estate firm, a manufacturing firm, or another industry because the fundamentals are there.”

At one time, the business had several remote studios but later realigned them into one main location, which serves as a sales and support hub for three states.

Heidi Wagner points out, when Wagner Portrait Group moved to just one location, it was to bring the company into alignment with its core competencies. “When we did that realignment, we were discussing our goals for the company,” she said. “We don’t want to be manufacturers. That’s not what we are good at. We’re good at sales, marketing, and customer service. “

“It goes back to our core competency,” adds Chip Wagner. “The three of us all have business backgrounds and business degrees. We don't think about how fast the photos need to come in and out of the lab. We also don’t put all our eggs in one basket, so we use a variety of eCommerce and print vendors based on what's best for our organization and on what their strengths are.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that the Wagners are not focused on the volume photography industry. Rather, the siblings are “students of the industry” and are continuously studying it, according to Chip Wagner. That means being active in industry groups, including SPOA.

The Wagners say there is plenty of room for organic growth in their markets.

“Growth is organically through true market penetration,” says Chip Wagner. “There are 600 schools in Missouri and we have about a 40% market share, which means there's 60% we don't have. And I want to know why we don't have them.”

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