White House Custom Colour: Putting Pixels on Paper

Jay Gabler

“Putting a Tootsie Roll Pop in every box was something my dad started doing years ago, as a way to give customers something special,” says Tim Hanline, pointing to the full boxes of suckers sitting at each packaging station in the company’s Eagan, Minnesota headquarters. “Now it’s something they look forward to. One customer told us that she lets her husband open the boxes from us—but only if he gets all his chores done first.”

Tim Hanline’s father is Mike Hanline, who in just 15 years has built WHCC from a St. Paul storefront operation to one of the country’s largest and most admired photo printers. Now printing and shipping from satellite facilities in Texas and California as well as from their Minnesota hub, WHCC last year sold $60 million worth of prints, supplies, and services to the company’s core clientele of professional photographers.

Sitting in his office with his sons and co-owners Tim Hanline and Chris Hanline, Mike Hanline remembered the early days of WHCC.

“White House Custom Colour was founded by Webb White in 1978 or so. I joined in 1996. When I came in, Webb pretty much walked away from the lab and focused on his portrait studio.” White remained a co-owner until the Hanlines bought his share of the company last year; he continues to operate his portrait studio, the Photographer’s Guild, in St. Paul.

“With film technology,” says Mike Hanline, “it was difficult to make money as a low-volume lab. If we wanted to stay in the lab business, we were going to have to do something, so in 1999 we made the decision to go digital.”

The timing couldn’t have been better. “From 1998 to 2000,” remembered Mike Hanline, “professional digital cameras came down in price from $25,000 to $5,000. Our competitors were charging $4.50 for an 8x10 print, and we came in at $1.80. We realized that you only had to touch a digital print three to four times—in the film days, you had to touch a print eight to twelve times. Less labor, less material, less waste.”

By 2002, WHCC gave up processing film altogether. “By that time we’d converted about 75% of our clients to digital,” says Mike Hanline. “Our St. Paul location was a wonderful small building, but when we really started growing, it became a liability. We got out of there in 2004 and moved into a larger space in South St. Paul. We fairly quickly filled that up—in every year from 2004 to 2007, our business came close to doubling.” In 2007, WHCC moved into their current, spacious quarters in the Twin Cities suburb of Eagan.

WHCC opened its Dallas production facility in 2008, and a facility in Fresno in 2009. Opening those facilities made sense: dollar for dollar, Texas customers now give WHCC more business than those in any other state. California is now the company’s third-biggest source of customers, and the loyalty of longtime customers means that Minnesota remains WHCC’s second-biggest state. The Eagan facility now accounts for 60 percent of WHCC’s total production, with 22 percent taking place in Texas and the remaining 18 percent in California.

The Hanlines seemed surprised when asked if they had ever considered relocating their headquarters from the Gopher State. “We’re really a Minnesota company,” says Mike Hanline. “The work ethic here is phenomenal—and in our business, being centrally located is an advantage. We ship thousands of parcels every day. If we have competitors in California, for example, we can get packages to Connecticut faster than they can.”

Though WHCC’s competitors went digital soon after the Hanlines did, WHCC has remained at the forefront of the digital revolution. “We got to digital quicker than our competitors did,” said Mike Hanline. “and we did it better than they did. Our clients were so happy that they helped spread the word about us. We got a jump start on press printing”—photo books and folded greeting cards—“and we definitely did that better than anyone else.”

Chris Hanline has been WHCC’s technology guru since the very beginning of the digital transition—in 1999, when he was only 15 years old. “My dad’s been bringing me around photo labs since before I was tall enough to reach the counters,” he remembered. “I’ve always been interested in technology, and back when I was in high school and the business was small, we couldn’t afford a lot of staff, so I helped out and did some things, and the business just kept growing. I’m not sure exactly when I realized that this could be what I do for a long period of time.”

Tim Hanline, the younger of the two children in the Hanline family, joined the company full-time in January of 2010. Each brother spent some time at college, but left to focus on the fast-growing family business. “All in all,” says Mike Hanline, “working together as a family has been really good. We all bring unique qualities to the table.” The only immediate family member not directly working for WHCC is Mike Hanline’s wife Diana, the boys’ mother.

The clean, efficient Eagan facility is always busy, but never as busy as during the holiday season, which creates a rush of work. “We do 40 percent of our business each year in the fourth quarter,” explained Tim Hanline. Besides housing photo production and shipping facilities, the Eagan headquarters also house the staff of PickPic—an online proofing site owned by WHCC—and the massive WHCC data servers. A video conference room allows the Eagan staff to talk face-to-face with their colleagues in Dallas and Fresno.

The Hanlines are proud of their company’s reputation for excellent customer service, and they are mindful of the fact that since the 1990s, their customer base of professional photographers has changed along with the technology they use.

 “In the old days,” says Chris Hanline, “the average portrait photographer had a brick-and-mortar studio. Odds are he was a man, and his clients would meet him at his studio. Now, the odds are a professional photographer is a woman with a couple of kids and no studio of her own. She meets her clients at Starbucks, and they go pose in the park.

In an increasingly crowded market for professional photography, the Hanlines said that their focus is on training their clients—that is, the photographers—and helping them add value for their clients. Since consumers have so many options for printing their own photos, professional photographers have to be able to offer not only great photos but also top-quality products—from hardcover books to gatefold cards to framed prints.

 “The average consumer today,” observes Mike Hanline, “can take a pretty damn good image that can turn into a nice-looking file on the Internet and can also be turned into a card or print.” The past few years have seen what Mike Hanline describes as an “explosion” of consumer-oriented printing services like those provided by ShutterFly. “What value,” he asks, “can a pro add to the equation? The customer experience becomes critical. Service is very important.” One of the services WHCC offers to pros is premium packaging, where the finished prints are shipped directly from WHCC to photographers’ customers, in unmarked packaging,  so as not to distract consumers from their photographers’ work and identity.

At the end of the day, though, professional photography still comes down to the quality of the image—and, the Hanlines agreed, as printers they can only work with what they’re given. “Garbage in,” said Chris Hanline, “garbage out.”

The Hanlines noted that WHCC invests heavily in client education, and they urge photographers to take advantage of the many different opportunities to hone their skills. “There’s a plethora of education available” from various sources, says Mike Hanline, “and some of it’s very good.” The Hanlines note that big trade shows like Imaging USA and WPPI offer a lot of training options under one roof, but small seminars and workshops can offer more personal, one-on-one customized training. They recommend that before investing in lesser-known programs, photographers do some research.

Chris Hanline agreed that though it’s important for a pro to have good equipment—and to edit photos on a properly calibrated monitor that allows the pro to see consistent, accurate images. The Hanlines don’t make specific recommendations about file and image formats except to say that they tend to prefer level 10 JPEG files, which have a small size for transfer but still print with excellent quality.

“Cameras and lighting,” says Mike Hanline, “are the tools of the trade, but they can be used well or they can be used poorly.”

WHCC’s halls are lined with pristine prints of dramatic images captured by the company’s clients. None of the photos have been taken by the Hanlines themselves. “I think any of us could take a decent picture,” shrugs Chris Hanline, “but that’s not our job. Our job is to give our clients the best prints they can get, anywhere.”

Jay Gabler is associate editor of the Twin Cities Daily Planet and an editor and writer at The Tangential, a creative writing blog. He is based in Uptown Minneapolis and is also the author of Sociology for Dummies (Wiley, 2010) and the Insider’ Guide to the Twin Cities (Globe Pequot Press, 2010).



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