AS THE COUNTY GROWS, SO DO THE WAYS TO CREATE CASH
By Chuck Day, Special Assignments Writer
Haim Ariav (right) and Partner, Chris MacEwan are proud of what they’ve created in Glossy FinishInspiration started percolating inside Haim Ariav’s head in the spring of 2006, as he stood amid parents scrambling to snap photos of their children romping about the athletic fields at Davis Park.
What their cameras might capture was anyone’s guess, but Ariav, a professional photographer with a degree from the Brooks Institute in California, had a pretty good idea.
There’s gotta be a better way to get better pictures, he found himself thinking.
As the kids kept roaming, Ariav kept thinking. In no time at all, he was meshing his years of photography knowledge with the business savvy he had honed, both from building companies from scratch and by fine-tuning more mature enterprises such as SuperStock, a Jacksonville photography house.
In early February, Ariav put his better way to do work.
“It all worked flawlessly, too,” he beams.
Glossy Finish Inc, has been working just about flawlessly ever since. “It’s literally a business in a box,” its founder says, alluding to his custom-designed, 32-foot trailer that serves as the command center of the business.
Well, not quite. It begins with some thinking outside that box.
First, Ariav deploys professional-quality photographers to cover youth sports tournaments–baseball, softball, soccer … you name it–where-legions of families are eager to catch their youngsters’ finest moments.
Armed with digital cameras, the photographers shoot game action and, periodically, hand discs with the photos to runners, who rush them to the trailer adorned with the splashy, can’t-miss Glossy Finish logo.
Inside the trailer are banks of computer screens, sample photos, price lists, a service counter and, in a small cubicle at the trailer’s opposite end, proprietary software that organizes the action photos, game by game, and a color printer.
Wielding the software, Ariav can display the photos quickly on computer screens for families to inspect on-site, then the purchases and pick up within minutes. With prices starting at $16, there’s been lots and lots of purchasing.
An unorthodox way to turn a profit? Yes, indeed. To date, thought, Glossy Finish has been profitable enough that Ariav is now intent on building franchises. It’s a proven idea ready to roll, he believes. Moreover, it’s hardly the only unorthodox business one can discover in St. John’s County.
Consider, for instance, Young Rembrandts. It’s in the picture business, too: teaching elementary-age students to draw in after-school classes conducted in public and private school buildings. Look it up in either the St. Johns County Chambers of Commerce and you’ll find a business address on County Road 210, west of Interstate 95.
“But that’s really only a post office box,” explains Sharon Murawski, a transplanted former human resources director form northeastern Ohio who owns Young Rembrandts along with her husband Wayne and their son.
Don’t snicker about that post office box. It opens onto what is a four-year-old business that brings quality art instruction into St. John’s County elementary schools.
Last year it served 1,600 students between the ages of six and 12. The Murawskis hire professional artists to teach each class and provide materials and a standard curriculum.
“Young Rembrandts teaches fundamental drawing to children, and uses only fry media like colored pencils and colored markers. So there’s no mess,” Murawski says.
“We help the younger children work on fine motor skills and spatial relationships, and help all the children develop their drawing talent. We include some portrait drawing, too”
Her staff of 27 professionals includes retired teachers “who still want to teach, but not every day,” Murawski also says.
“One of our instructors recently retired from Orange Park High School. It’s a great part-time opportunity and, since we provide the lesson plans, the teachers can spend all their time with the students, which is what they enjoy most.
“We’re fussy about the quality of teachers and check backgrounds ,” she adds, “because quality is what makes our program successful.
As they would for any after-school activity, student’s parents pay for the classes, which also includes an art history course. The per-student cost is $10.50 per week. Classes are scheduled in six- to eight-week sessions that begin in September and continue throughout the school year.
Young Rembrandts returns a good 20 percent of its revenues to the participating schools. In 2006-07 that amounted to approximately $20,000, Murawski said.
Upon retiring from careers in the industrial manufacturing world, she and her husband “were looking for what to do next,” Murawski explains. “Young Rembrandts is a franchise business created in Chicago, and we fell in love with it immediately when the business broker mentioned it, almost by accident.”
It also represented an opportunity to move to the First Coast, which the couple did sight unseen. It was a giant leap of faith, she notes, and one that has been rewarded.
Young Rembrandts has also conducted summer classes at Jacksonville Golf & Country Club and, this year, is expanding into the Clay and Nassau County school districts.
COME FLY WITH ME
Bjorn Ottesen and his colleagues are teachers, too. But they do their teaching in the skies, instructing students of all ages how to fly.
As Ottesen spoke, for example, he was also saying goodbye to a 16-year-old aspiring pilot taking lessons at the Florida Aviation Career Training, Inc.
“We also have had a few students in their 70’s,” Ottesen notes. In truth, he continues, it’s relatively easy to learn to fly, “much like driving, and you don’t have to worry about people next to you who aren’t paying attention.”
Admittedly, however, “it seems easier looking back once you’ve learned to fly than it seems when you’re just learning,” he allows.
A fixture at the St. Augustine and St. Johns County Airport since 1968, the flight school has been owned and operated by Ottesen since October 1993. While the company also offers sightseeing, its focus is training, Business is all but booming, says the Norwegian native.
“Pilots are in high demand today, and flight instructors themselves are even harder to find and keep,” Ottesen says, “because as soon as a pilot is trained, they get snatched up, most often by a commuter airline.”
For a little more than $100, Florida Aviation will provide an initial lesson.
“And one lesson is probably all it takes to get hooked,” advises Ben Brandt, on of the school’s instructors. As Michigan native, he came to Florida to learn to fly and, apart from a brief return north, stayed for good. “It’s just great being in the skies,” he adds.
Obtaining a private pilot’s certification requires far more time—and dollars, too. There is also exhaustive background checking that includes being fingerprinted by the St. Johns County sheriff’s office. It’s all part of the aftermath of 9/11, Ottensen says.
About half of Florida Aviation’s students are from Europe and many of those are from Germany—so much so that the school’s website features a German-language version.
“It’s much cheaper to learn to fly here,” Ottensen says, “by a good 50 percent, especially with the exchange rates being what they are. And out weather is much better, too.”
Northeast Florida is a ideal locale for both Young Rembrandts and Glossy Finish, too—if for different reasons,
There’s been a gradual cutback in arts teaching in the state’s public schools, Murawski explains, due in large part to the mandates of FCAT testing. It’s easier to test proficiency objectively in more technical subjects than art, she says. While a lamentable consequence, it also has provided and opportunity for entrepreneurial ideas like hers.
“We’re complementing what the schools do, not competing,” Muawski stresses. “And the younger children especially love it,” she adds, even if they have a hard time with pronunciations. One first-grader, for instance, was overheard inquiring about “young rug rats.”
It’s important to teach art skills early on, Murawski adds, because, by the time students reach third grade, they’re inclined to say “I can’t. But this past year a six-year old proudly told me, ‘Miss Sharon, my brain just told me this was fun!'”
Young Rembrandts is also looking into providing services to senior citizens and Alzheimer’s patients, to help them maintain fine motor skills.
Along with the weather, Florida’s ever-increasing population should help Glossy Finish grow and reach its potential, Ariav says.
“For instance, I heard a baseball umpire say he had worked games for 38 consecutive months,” he says. That suggests to Ariav that he has the critical economies of scale to expand dramatically, primarily by establishing franchises.
Predominantly a weekend service now, “I’m looking to begin booking the truck Monday through Thursday,” he continues. The youth sports marker could be just a stalking horse. “Corporate events represent a big opportunity,” he notes.
“Any kind of event that draws big numbers is ideal. We’re an impulse buy, and an appealing one,” Ariav says with glee. “Johnny just hit a home run to win his game. Is that worth a $16 or $18 photo to the family?”
It sure is, which is why Ariav thinks he has hit a home run of his own. Tournament officials are happy to help promote Glossy Finish with PA announcements, for instance. And its photographers have “official” T-shirts, hats and badges, just like they do at major college and professional sports games.
Ariav is also more than willing to share a portion of this proceeds with even organizers, and finding quality photographers is not hard at all, he says.
Indeed, Glossy Finish’s founder sounds so convincing that, as he winds up his message, one is inclined to expect to hear an age-old expression: “Get the picture?”