Clear Focus

By Hannah Wallace February 29, 2008

When the cash registers are ringing, how do 99 out of 100 business owners react? Rejoice, hire, sell more, work day and night to keep things kind of under control, and pray that overheated growth won’t blow up the company before a deep-pocketed buyer takes over.

Not so for famed landscape photographer Clyde Butcher, the founder of Big Cypress Gallery in the Everglades and The Venice Gallery in South Sarasota.

Working nonstop hours to grow a business is “been-there-done-that” for Butcher, 65. Back in the ‘70s, he and his wife, Niki, built a California-based company of 200 employees, which manufactured and sold picture clocks featuring Clyde Butcher color photos. The business, with manufacturing operations in California and Ohio, had their lives in its iron grip.

Hell-bent on keeping control over their lives when they opened their Florida galleries seven years ago, the Butchers took a different approach.

Says Clyde: “We don’t want to be bigger. We want to be better.”

So the Butchers raised prices, committed to keeping all their employees, and put their daughter, Jackie Obendorf, in charge of operations. Obendorf streamlined production and added an Internet component to marketing. She extended the product lineup, adding cheaper open-edition prints to the more expensive limited-edition and big prints (which cost up to $5,000). But she also kept raising prices every year.

The result: Revenues of the Butchers’ corporation, Window of the Eye Inc., have been flat over the past seven years, but profits are up. And the owners are happy about it. Says Obendorf: “We sell less and make more.”

Window of the Eye is unusual in another way, too. Butcher describes his photography, supposedly the company’s main product, as “bait.” What he really wants to sell people on is care for the natural environment in general, and the Everglades in particular.

The Butchers’ stay-small strategy looks oddball amid Florida’s transactional economy, where growth is a fetish. Given what most business schools in this country teach, the Butchers’ business plan amounts to an act of rebellion against established thinking. But it is part of a larger rebellion popping up at thousands of spots throughout the U.S. economy, if you believe Bo Burlingham.

“There’s no law that says you must get big,” says the Massachusetts-based editor-at-large of Inc. magazine. “You can have other goals. [Butcher] is obviously one of those people aware of the fact that he has a choice. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a big or fast-growing company. But that’s a choice, and he does what all businesspeople should do: think first about what kind of business they want.”

A rising number of business owners have already decided they don’t want to go the corporate way. The San Francisco-based Business Alliance of Local Living Economies (BALLE), for instance, made up of entrepreneurs seeking new ways of doing business, has seen its membership triple over the past couple of years.

Using his bully pulpit at Inc. magazine—not exactly a rebel-rousing publication—Burlingham not only defends no-growth as a legitimate way, he actually dedicated a book to the phenomenon. In Small Giants: Companies That Choose To Be Great Instead of Big, he portrays 13 small businesses, ranging from Zingerman’s deli in Ann Arbor to singer Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe record label, and a Boise, Idaho, company that makes signaling equipment for trucks and buses.

Problem is, small companies are overlooked, Burlingham says. Although they only constitute a tiny percentage of the total number of companies, most media and academic attention is focused on multinational corporations.

“Grow or die—that may be true for large, publicly traded companies,” he says. “But there are plenty of businesses out there that aren’t growing, and they aren’t dying. They constitute a larger percentage of the economy, and they are responsible for most of the job generation.”

"People say you should never fall in love with your business,” he says about passion. “I think that’s a lot of hogwash.” These small giants have what Burlinghan describes as “mojo.” It’s not just about cranking out widgets to boost dollar figures. “There was excitement, anticipation, a feeling of movement, a sense of purpose,” he writes in the intro of his book. “That happens, I think, when people find themselves totally in synch with their market, with the world and with each other.”

Butcher’s passion for nature is evident to anyone who has ever met the white-bearded, voluminous, always-on-message artist-activist-entrepreneur, and his company fits that description. And that passion makes him a natural salesman.

His gallery open houses and Everglades swamp walks are really teaching sessions on nature and state energy-savings programs. One of the visitors Clyde subjected to a waste-deep “Muck-About” two years ago was former president Jimmy Carter. “His Secret Service guys were really worried” about the ex-president getting too deep into murky swamp water, Butcher says. “He wasn’t.”

Butcher has also rubbed shoulders with Govs. Charlie Crist and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Florida politicians, Washington lobbyists, grassroots environmentalists, filmmakers, developers, fishermen, outdoors enthusiasts and museum curators. Connecting people and organizations has become a second art form for Clyde Butcher—and a way of generating business.

His keeps his work and passion in the forefront by donating much of his photography in exhibitions to the state, environmental nonprofits and in traveling exhibits such as last fall’s Cuba show at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota. He lets magazines reprint his photos at no charge, and loves to grant interviews.

To be sure, Butcher doesn’t share everything. While he is sometimes called “the next Ansel Adams,” he doesn’t exactly admire the business acumen of his famous predecessor. As a matter of principle, and unlike Adams, whose photos can be reprinted by everyone, Butcher never gives up control over his negatives.

But networking and volunteer activities pay off handsomely. Hundreds of thousands of people now know the “brand,” and a “Clyde Butcher” search on Google yields nearly 100,000 hits.

“Helping other people helps you,” Butcher says. “You can’t buy advertising that works so well, at least for an artist. Unless you have big, big figures, it doesn’t work.”

To be sure, the artist-businessman is backed up by his no-nonsense daughter, a businesswoman with experience in operations and marketing. “He is a good businessman, to an extent,” she says about her dad. “He isn’t a good manager. Since I came in to streamline it, we have been doing great.”

In fact, the Butchers have already transferred ownership of the company to Jackie. Son-in-law Neil Obendorf, forfeiting his part in Venetian Cleaners, his own family’s business, is also a full-time member of the staff. And Jackie is running an increasingly efficient shop.

In the 1990s, she operated her own wholesale design business in Venice, which was “very corporate, more the dog-eat-dog kind of world,” she says. When she had enough, she sold her company in 2000 and asked her parents whether she could join. She quickly left her mark on the family business. First of all, she moved the entire printing and framing operation to the Venice site.

“In the Everglades, your employees control you,” she says. “It was hard to find and keep them.” Most of the currently 12 employees have been there for many years.

Jackie also put a lot of effort into developing and fine-tuning the Web site as a systematic marketing tool. Extending Clyde’s personable approach, Jackie sends out regular e-mails on a first-name basis, alerting thousands of subscribers to events or deadlines for Christmas gift shipping. “What makes my marketing different, it’s very personable, it’s not corporate and cold,” she says. “I want to make people feel like part of the family.”

Meanwhile, Niki’s blog keeps people up to date with Clyde news about photography, projects and events. And then there is, of course, the “shopping cart” section. The Internet has really picked up, accounting for one-third of all sales, Jackie says.

As a side benefit of the urban location, the production site also doubles as a walk-in gallery. Although the store is tucked away in an industrial area, separated from Venice’s charming downtown district by the Intracoastal Waterway and a block of chain link fence-protected commercial lots, dozens of visitors stop by on a typical open house day to browse, talk to Clyde and get his autograph. Few of them leave without making the cash register ring.

The separate Venice location also has its benefits for the internal dynamics of the family business. “It’s scary having a business with your child,” Niki says. “You love your child so much you don’t want that to be ruined by a business relationship. We’ve been fortunate with Jackie. She’s a good communicator. She doesn’t blow up and storm out. We can talk it out. One thing that helps is the distance—we’re in Big Cypress, they’re in Venice.”

Is there a chance Clyde Butcher would give up the Everglades location? No way. Although he is headquartered in the middle of Florida’s biggest swamp, customers come flocking halfway around the globe to soak in the atmosphere of Orchid Isle, the former orchid farm on which the gallery is located, and buy the company’s products.

“We have a guy from Los Angeles who flies his jet to the Everglades just to see us,” Butcher says.

On one day, two couples, one from Miami and one from Naples, each bought a large print at Big Cypress at the same time. “They looked at each other and said, ‘Isn’t this a strange place to have a gallery?’” Butcher recalls. “Well, we’re the No. 1 destination in Collier County, and there’s a geographical reason for it,” he adds with a grin.

Living the Gospel

Clyde Butcher installed $18,000 worth of solar panels on the roof of his Big Cypress Gallery. He says the two-kilowatt system cost him nothing, thanks to a state incentive program available to both residents and businesses that reimbursed all his expenses. “All you have to do is risk the money upfront,” he says. He also changed the spotlights in the exhibition rooms to an advanced Chinese LED system, which reduced the gallery’s lighting energy needs from 8,000 watts to 800 watts. Because it produces almost no heat, the LED system also reduces air conditioning expenses. As for commuting between his first home at Big Cypress and their trailer home in Venice, the Butchers use a VW New Beetle whose diesel-sipping engine can go 50 miles per gallon. “We already know what to do,” he says about using environmental technologies. “All the tools are there.”

Small Giants

How "no-growth" companies survive.

These companies are:

•founded by people with a clear understanding of who they are and what they want, and they have a long-term perspective (of course, there’s nothing new about such attitudes, Burlingham points out. Many family-founded businesses have worked like this for centuries.);

•deeply rooted in, and reflective of, their communities;

•fostering close relationships and personal contact with customers and suppliers;

•treating employees as a first priority, before customers;

•run by people passionate about what their company does.

Technology Snapshot

Camera: a 19th century-style, 12-by-20 inch large-format wood camera enhanced with 21st century film and lenses. Butcher’s use of large-format lenses is so rare today that German lens maker Schneider-Kreuznach named its new XXL line in honor of Clyde Butcher.

Venice darkroom: Six cameras, which date from the 1930s to the 1980s enlarge negatives and make contact prints. The oldest one was a giveaway from the print shop of the Miami Herald, which had bought the camera in 1932 for the—back then—incredible amount of $50,000. The largest one he got for free when a printer in Miami switched to digital. When he went to pick it up, he had to go find a bigger truck and get some help — it turned out the camera weighed 2,000 pounds. A state-of-the-art contrast head in the camera creates an enlarger that allows him to make prints as large as 5 by 9 feet.

Computer software: Butcher is a latecomer to computers, which he didn’t begin to use systematically until 2003. But his learning curve about digital burning and dodging has been so steep he is now teaching photography workshops on how to best use Adobe Photoshop, a graphics program commonly used by photographers.

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