White House Custom Colour

Co-owner Michael Hanline has guided his photo-processing company over the challenging transition to digital photography.
White House Custom Colour

If White House Custom Colour had been a car 10 years ago, it would have ended up on the side of the road spinning its wheels. “We were only doing about $1 million in business a year, and we simply were not able to make money anymore on film-based products,” says Michael Hanline, co-owner of the Eagan-based full-service professional photographic and press printer for professional photographers.

Concluding that the only way for the business to grow was to take a leap of faith, Hanline and his business partner, Webb White, scrapped everything in late 1999 and reinvented the company as a digital photography printer. “We woke up very early to the fact that the digital production processes lent themselves to a much smaller percentage of material and labor consumption, thereby giving us the margins we needed to survive and prosper over time,” Hanline says.

By early 2002, White House Custom Colour had gone from 100 percent film to 100 percent digital. The company’s repositioning vision had proven to be correct. “In 2000, there were 1,700 to 1,800 professional finishing labs around the country that focused on our niche of the industry, which is finishing for professional portrait and wedding photographers,” Hanline says. “They either made the switch or have gone out of business.” Today, he adds, there are maybe 150 to 200.

“We decimated the competition in the North-Central United States because digital technology and the Internet made us a national player,” Hanline says. “We have customers in all 50 states and all the provinces of Canada. Our nearest direct competitors now are a company in Fargo and a company or two in Waterloo, Iowa.”

A quick look at the industry pricing structure explains why so many film-based competitors went belly up. In 1999, the industry was wholesaling 8-by-10s for $4 to $5 a print and taking two to three weeks to deliver them. After going digital in 1999, White House Custom Colour offered next-day delivery of the same prints for $1.80. “Many of our competitors were $5 to $20 million-dollar companies that had invested heavily in their film infrastructure and wanted to protect that $4 to $5 price,” Hanline says.

As digital processing gained traction industry wide, Hanline’s staff guided numerous customers through the transition, showing them how they could cut their finishing costs by half or more by investing around $10,000 in a digital camera and digital workstation. “By the time our competitors had begrudgingly followed our lead, we had built up significant momentum which continues to this day,” Hanline asserts.

Hanline joined White House Custom Colour in 1996 as an equal partner with White, who founded the company in 1978. Though White continues to share ownership responsibilities, he has turned over daily operational responsibilities to Hanline. These days, White devotes most of his attention to the Photographer’s Guild, the St. Paul photography studio he owns.

Last year, White House Custom Colour opened a facility in Texas to hold down the built-in cost of freight. The Texas hub can deliver prints to customers in the Southern and Southeastern U.S. faster and cheaper. The company also has opened a third location in Fresno, California, in October, in time for the busy autumn season.

“Where we beat our competition hands down, day in and day out, is the attention we give to our clients when they have a problem,” Hanline says. “As soon as they call us or send us an e-mail, we’re on it. We also provide a significant amount of photographic education through various organizations that teach our customers how to be better photographers and better businesspeople. We simply believe in building strong client relationships over time.”