by Skip Cohen
Tomorrow is my 44th anniversary in the photographic industry and normally I wouldn't run a post like this, but as I look back over the years, I get pretty sappy. Yeah, technically I'm getting to be an old fart, but you're only as old as you think or act and according to Sheila, I've still go some work to do to fully mature! LOL
My post last week reminded me it's the journey NOT the destination that's important. Well, it continues to be an amazing journey. Almost three years ago I met the crew at Resource Magazine for the first time. Looking for executives in the photographic industry to profile, I was asked to write about my background and how I got started in photography. I ran across the original draft a few days ago and figured it would be fun to share as a blog post.
I've used a quote from Tennyson a few times over the years..."I am a part of all that I have met." That's what makes all of us who we are - all the people who have touched our lives contribute to how we see the world. So, to all of you, right down to the photographer who emailed me a question a few minutes ago, thank you for being part of an amazing industry and my continued journey.
Happy Sunday everybody - make it a great day and hug your family...they're at the core of making you who you are.
It’s 1970 and I’m trying to find a job. Time Magazine has a picture of a college grad in cap and gown pumping gas! There are no jobs and I’ve just completed 2 ½ years of being every parent’s worst nightmare as a college student. I spent more time perfecting my pinball game than opening a book. I’d be on suspension, afraid of getting booted. I’d buckle down, get the grades then start the cycle all over again. I wasn’t stupid, just lazy, unmotivated and unable to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up – On second thought, I just didn’t want to grow up!
Finally, they suspended me and I needed to figure out what to do. I had a girlfriend from Boston and decided it was time to leave the nest. Say good-bye to Ohio and hello to New England. Found a job at Polaroid at $2.89/hour washing bottles in their research lab. It was the most money I’d ever made and it paid the rent on my basement apartment in Boston’s Back Bay, which I shared with a few other tenants, 100,000 cockroaches! I remember a quote from an article in the Boston Globe that year: “The cockroaches were in Boston before man and they’ll be here long after man is extinct!”
(That's me in 1970 with the shot from my ID badge, even signed by Jim Shea, then head of Polaroid security. If you think the haircut is bad, you should have seen the platform shoes!)
So, one day in 1972 I was making emulsions in the lab, having graduated from bottle washer. I had always had an interest in photography, even worked in the hometown newspaper’s darkroom in high school, but where oh where was the connection to what would later be called imaging?
Polaroid hadn’t come out with the SX-70 yet, so it was all peel-apart film, but it was free and it was fun to use. I was 21, married and actually had some pretty decent images on Polaroid film. But my REAL camera was a hand-me-down Agfa 35mm and then later I upgraded to a Konica. They were both rangefinders and we all did the same thing – shot roll after roll of slides! After all, it was good enough for my Dad when we were growing up, so it would be good enough for my family too.
My first SLR showed up in my camera bag when I dropped the Konica in the ocean while on vacation. It was a terrific little Minolta. I bought a 70-210mm Vivitar lens and all of a sudden I thought of myself a little closer to looking like a pro.
Back at Polaroid, I had gone as far as I could without a degree and hanging out in research. The lab coat, pocket protector and slide rule just weren’t in my future. For years I had gone on interview after interview within Polaroid in an effort to get out of R&D. Polaroid had over 20,000 employees then, so there were lots of jobs on the posting board every day. I’d gone back to school nights at Boston University, working on finishing my education. Marriage and a child on the way definitely forces you to think more about a career. Maturity had reared its ugly head and I had settled down – I had a purpose, my family and a company I was growing to love.
By the mid-70’s SX-70 technology was introduced and in comes the first pivotal turning point in my career. I had actually made it out of research and taken a job as a staffer in production…oops, I missed seeing the signs of a lay-off! There’s not a lot for a staffer to do when people are getting laid off. I actually wound up giving myself my own lay-off notice one day and having once been hourly, had rights to bump back in to the ranks – enter Customer Service.
SX-70 was in full swing and 300% defective on those first few thousand units. The result was total chaos in customer service and my introduction to some incredibly talented people, all following the lead of Jon Wolbarst, a VP and Polaroid’s consumer advocate! He was an inspiration, totally dedicated to the role of being the corporation’s conscience.
It was an incredible education, talking to one angry customer after another. The job led to relocation to Chicago as Camera Repair Supervisor in one of Polaroid’s largest repair facilities. My responsibilities were growing. I was getting experience as a supervisor with a crew of 20 people or so to manage. I had my first mortgage on a townhouse condominium and I got my first gray hairs dealing with absenteeism, budgets, audits, inventory management and plenty of customers needing service.
Here’s where my greatest management lesson came into play, “Own your own shit!” If I’ve offended anybody at this point with my use of profanity, get over it. There is few more appropriate expressions!
I had a crisis one weekend on the Kentucky Driver’s License program using Polaroid equipment. The mistake was entirely my fault and I could either bury the problem or just man-up and own it. So, I published a memo to the world about the problem, my mistake and then went into detail how I would make sure it would never happen again.
My approach to the problem, in a company where so many managers never took responsibility, got me instant stardom. I had actually stepped up and said, “Hey I screwed up, but here’s how I fixed it!” It was a new concept in corporate culture!
Not sure how it all happened, but somewhere traveling down the Polaroid path, I was promoted to regional services manager, which eventually led to a staff position and took me back to New England. That change became the most incredible experience of my career – Customer Service Manager for Polaroid’s overseas subsidiaries.
I travelled all over Europe and the Pacific for 2 ½ years meeting with all of the Polaroid Customer Service staff. It was an amazing experience, but couldn’t have been tougher on my family – I was home for three weeks and out for two. Remember, this is before cell phones and the Internet. We were allowed to do one call home a week – usually kept to 3-5 minutes. There was no Internet, nobody to call for help if you got stuck, but the intensity of the travel definitely forced you to grow up and take responsibility for your decisions.
The overseas job took me to another pivotal point, when one day the VP of the division asked me to join his staff on the marketing/sales side of Polaroid’s US domestic market. “I don’t know anything about selling stuff!” I exclaimed. I’ll never forget his response, “Are you kidding me? You’ve been selling me your screwball ideas for years!”
I was with the company for 15 years at this point, but didn’t realize this new assignment would become my last job at Polaroid and another critical stepping stone. I was the photo-specialty dealer manager with a hundred and twenty million dollars of Polaroid’s business. I had responsibility for all of the U.S. camera stores. In the entire industry there were only three of us at the time. Ricoh, Kodak and Polaroid all had channel mangers, with somebody assigned to camera stores.
Marketing, sales, travel throughout the US, even a couple of Super Bowl trips all became part of this “navy-gets-the-gravy” assignment. Polaroid was back on top and along with the benefits came box seats for entertaining accounts at Boston Garden, Red Sox tickets and a national network of sales people looking for great marketing programs to help sell more Polaroid products.
*Ding* It’s another of life’s lessons… I got credit for some pretty amazing marketing programs, but not one was honestly that original. All the answers are out there if you just talk to your target audience. I’d walk into a retail store and ask the buyer, “After you tell me I’m out of mind, what would it take for you to double your Polaroid sales next year?”
The suggestions would come pouring out so fast, I’d have a hard time writing them all down.
Next, I’d ask the Polaroid sales rep the same kind of question, “If we doubled your sales quota for next year, what would it take for you to not only make quota, but beat it by 25%?”
Again, all the answers were there – they needed money they could spend on dealer contests. They needed great POP (Point of Purchase) material. They needed extended dating terms to help the retailers bring in the inventory and most important of all, they needed local and national advertising to help create pull rather than push. All I did was listen!
I absolutely loved Polaroid, but a phone call in 1987 changed my life and elevated my love for photography forever.
“Skip, my name is Mark Chappell, with Egon Zehnder and I’m wondering if you know of anybody who might be interested in being president of a small camera company.”
I thought it was my brother-in-law pulling a practical joke. I used a few of my favorite four letter words, told him I was too busy to screw around and went to hang up as Mark screamed, “No, this isn’t a joke!” The next morning we had breakfast and three months later I took over as President of Hasselblad USA, but that’s another story…
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