The name “Upstate Images” is new in the school portrait industry but the name of its leader - David Locke - is not. Like many who start in the school portrait industry, David Locke always loved photography. In 1985, as a high-school student, he began working at the local Sears Portrait Studio. Later, as a student at the University of Maryland, he worked at various studios and photographed weddings on the side. After leaving college in 1992, he started his own mall-based photo studio in upstate New York. His brother, Rob, later joined him.
“We started together with school and proms and sports and had retail studios senior portraits,” says David Locke. “Oakdale Images, in the Oakdale Mall, was very unique and inventive. Then we bought a local competitor called Sunset Photo, which had schools and sports already. We combined our own schools and sports with that business and then we went and did schools and sports all over the state of New York. We ran the company from 1992 to 2007 and then sold our company to Lifetouch.
“I had a seven-year non-compete contract after selling,” he said. “I worked for them for a year. My brother Rob continued on running the business as a territory manager for them, moved up, got transferred, and even moved to North Carolina with them.”
After a year, David Locke found, like a lot of entrepreneurs, he wasn’t cut out for working for a large company. He left Lifetouch after that year and pursued other interests. Locke raised his children, worked in photography, and became a flight instructor. But now that his children are older, he got the itch to start another business.
David was still considering his options around Christmas, 2020 when some of his former colleagues got in touch with him. That big company that had acquired Oakdale Images years ago was making big changes. Many of them were needing help, including some who had just found out their position was eliminated and others who had been placed on furlough just before the holidays. Despite the pandemic, David wanted to help and had been looking for a sign. This seemed to be it. So he decided to start a school portrait company from scratch and help some of his old staff by offering them jobs with his new startup and helping save their holidays and mortgages.
Despite his years of experience in the school-portrait industry, Dave still needed a lot of help to start up a new venture. David Locke had been out of the industry for over a decade, so his knowledge needed updating. Fortunately, his network and industry resources provided by SPOA, including vendor lists, best practices, and equipment recommendations, helped pave the way for the successful startup. This is where the story really begins.
With so many of his previous employees now looking for work, he hired everyone he could. Quickly, David had more employees than he had positions for. But Locke's heart was big and he didn't care, he simply wanted to take care of those that had always been committed to him for years prior to the sale. They had built their business on people over profit and he wasn't going to change that philosophy.
Dave’s first move was hiring his brother. Locke and his brother, Rob, divided the company roles based on their experience. Rob Locke is the company president and heads up the sales team from his North Carolina office. David Locke is the owner, CFO and is in charge of photography, his first love. “The photography is the fun part but the other stuff has to be done,” says David Locke, who has a business degree from Maryland.
So far, the business has been booming. But starting Upstate Images from scratch wasn’t easy, David said, but their management team had years of experience to draw on when determining products, services, and workflow options. The studio partnered with Richmond Color Lab and uses digital proofs. Upstate Images is also an affiliate with Inter-State Studio & Publishing Co. for underclass work. Upstate Images also does its own production of assembling sports composites and other labor-intensive work.
“We were up to 50-60 employees at the highest point by mid-fall school season,” said David. “We probably have 15 or 20 full-timers at this point. We've worked really hard to put together a product mix of spring portraits, high school seniors, sports, fall portraits, and Mazibook church directories so that we're pretty busy all year long.”
Just when everything was coming together
“As I said, I hired on as many employees as I could - many of my old employees and a few others - and built the business up, I was simply trying to help and I saw an opportunity,” said Dave Locke.
With all of his business experience and background, David knew the legal world with sales representatives. For example, Locke says, "If Upstate Images brought in a former employee that worked in sales, this rep would not call on former clients. We went out of our way to make sure they did not solicit their former schools."
David says, despite the extensive efforts to comply with these covenants, Upstate Images still caught the eye of Lifetouch’s lawyers. Shutterfly Lifetouch LLC has named Robert Locke in a suit alleging the former employee has violated his non-solicitation agreement, even though Rob is working more than 600 miles away from his Lifetouch territory. And that is not the only suit, they are stacking up.
David and the team, however, feel great about how they have run the business and the opportunities it has provided for so many past employees who were on the brink of personal financial disaster. All companies have stories about how they are formed and their road to success. Like many companies, legal challenges by large competitors are never fun and can challenge the company at its core, but the Upstate Images team believes, that not only have they done what was right the whole time, but their customers will also support them.
The fun part
For David Locke, building the company is “the fun part.” That’s why he’s optimistic that, after the pandemic is behind them, Upstate Images has built a solid team of industry veterans who grow the business rapidly, yet effectively. David notes the company has even turned down business from schools because the studio has reached staff capacity.
“I’ve loved it,” says David. “Starting in February last year, I probably worked 18 hours a day researching vendors, figuring out and buying equipment, testing cameras, and training people. That’s the fun part: Building the systems and training the photographers and finding other people that love doing pictures. It is invigorating to see how happy our customers are, our employees are and the impact we are making in our community.”
And the studio is off to a great start, they are winning awards in the industry for their quality of work and are excited to be attending SPOA's International Conference on School Photography & Yearbooks this June in Houston, Texas. With all of the success they are having, they plan to use this conference as a key ingredient for their training on how to scale to the next level and visit with all of the other industry suppliers that will be exhibiting so that they can have all the best resources at their fingertips. With all of David Locke's passion for photography, he is very excited to see his team enter many of the categories for the National School Photographic Competition and expects they will have a good number of images winning or placing as national finalists.