Mankato’s Family of Photography and Signage Experts
It’s almost impossible to describe all the products and services SPX offers. The short answer is they are signage and photography experts. Whether it is making prints from your own photos, getting photos taken in their portrait studio, sports posters, graphic wall murals, basketball wraps, vinyl banners or a framed work of art, the answer is always the same. They are in the business of preserving and displaying memories.
Brian Fowler, owner of SPX, became interested in photography in high school at Granada-Huntley. He bought his first camera and a couple lenses for $275. “My Dad thought I was crazy”, says Fowler. He originally went to Rochester Community College to be a conservation officer but quickly learned he wanted to go in a different direction. After school he applied to work at a six-hour photo lab in Fairmont. “I really wanted the job and they were offering to pay $4.50 an hour. With a large group of applicants, I felt I needed to prove my worth. I said I’ll work for $2 an hour for two weeks and at the end of those two weeks, if you’re not happy with how I perform, we can shake hands and part ways. They hired me after the two weeks, and paid me $5 an hour”, says Fowler, whose reputation for hard work precedes him wherever he goes.
In 1982 Fowler followed his wife, Karen, to Mankato where he and two others opened Quality 1-Hr Foto. “We had to educate people on the one-hour photo process and let them know we weren’t sacrificing quality. We expanded the businesses to offer pretty much anything photo related,” says Fowler. You probably know SPX by more familiar names. Quality 1-Hour Foto and SPX
Sports and Design are owned by Fowler and are all part of SPX. Located in the Midwest Plaza at 1235 Caledonia Street in Mankato, the business has always processed film and printed photos. A full-service frame shop makes the business a one-stop shop for customers looking to display photographs and artwork. There you will also find their portrait studio. Providing traditional family and senior portraits, along with business headshots and on-location photo sessions. The studio also hosts a number of seasonal photo sessions each year, like photos with Santa Claus or live bunnies before Easter.
As digital photography came in and film processing was on the way out, the business evolved and SPX Sports and Design was formed. “Keeping an eye on consumer needs, we kept redefining our company to change with the times and keep up with current trends,” says Fowler. The addition to the business focuses on sport and event photography. If it can be photographed, there is a good chance that the SPX crew has done just that. Whether it was photographing the President of the United States when he came to Mankato, the Stanley Cup, Vikings training camp or being embedded in the MSU Army ROTC during training at Camp Ripley, they have captured it all. There’s also a fair chance you’ve seen them photographing events ranging from youth to college athletics, to personal and corporate events. The graphic design portion of the business creates custom designs for a variety of clients from personal families, to schools and businesses. The signage and graphics side of the SPX business has taken the family all across the country. Installing their unique graphics in businesses, school and athletic facilities from California and Colorado, to Nebraska and Wisconsin, and all over Minnesota. Their projects range from huge murals like the walls seen in Myers Fieldhouse on the campus of Minnesota State University, Mankato, or graphics for Maverick Hockey. The Hall of Champions at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, or graphics for the Greater Mankato Growth offices. Brian recalls one particular weekend where part of the team covered a college regional basketball tournament in Colorado, while he and a crew of photographers stayed in Mankato to photograph and provide graphics for the NCAA DII track and field championships as their official photographers, while also covering the WCHA conference tournament versus the University of Minnesota. Remembering lots of adrenaline and little sleep. “We were capturing memories,” says Fowler.
“One of the biggest rewards is seeing the smile on a client’s face. In the days of film, people would come in excited to get their photos. They’d open them right there in the store and look through them. There are more photos taken now than ever before but less prints being made. It’s one of the challenges we face today as a business. We are a society of instant gratification. It goes on social media or on our phone but seldom gets printed”, says Fowler. Now SPX offers a wide range of products to print photos on. They have the capability to print on everything from photo paper, glass, canvas, metal and everything in between. Their projects can be seen all over southern Minnesota and beyond.
Family has always played a large role in Fowler’s business, now more so than ever. Every member of his immediate family works with him full-time. Fowler’s wife, Karen (Customer Service), daughters Bridget Larson (Director of Photography), Beth Rohrich (Operations Manager), and Jessie Van Asten (Senior Graphic Designer), have all found their niche at SPX. “They each found their own way in our business and became experts in their own respective areas.” Something that makes Fowler immensely proud. He considers everyone who works for him family. Even those who are not related by blood.
These days, Fowler has stepped back and let his daughters take leadership of the company. Although you won’t see him taking many days off. In fact, the only time most of his employees see him take a break is when one of his four grandkids comes to visit him at the office. That is when work, for him, comes to a halt, because family comes first. “I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an eight-hour day. I’m always going to be involved to whatever extent they want me there. I can’t ever see retiring. As long as my health allows, I’ll do whatever they ask of me. I’m having too much fun,” Fowler says. “I’ve always said I’m doing my job right if I can walk out the door, or get hit by a bus and the business continues to run as if I was still there. It’s a lot harder to operate a business today than it was when I started. The margins are tighter, the labor force isn’t what it once was, and government is more involved, which costs businesses more money. The girls have done a great job embracing new technologies and change,” says Fowler. Jessie echoes that sentiment by saying, “graphic design and the programs we use are changing faster than ever. You have to be constantly learning to keep up and stay ahead of current trends. My next project is always my favorite. Each one creates a unique and challenging opportunity.” That is especially true in the photography, graphic design and printing industries. The daughters have taken the reigns from their father and are taking SPX into the future. In the last two years, the family business has reinvested $150,000 back into the company to purchase new state of the art equipment and remodel their office to become more efficient, more eco-friendly and provide more services in house. They also just launched a new website that makes it easy for customers to submit their own photos and order sports photos from the luxury of their homes.
“We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the support of our community. We do work all over the U.S. but this is home. Through strategic planning to grow the business, we felt it was very important to support the community that supports us. Thus, we are sponsors of nearly every youth athletic organization in our community and we give back to our local high schools. We are also members of Greater Mankato Growth and the money we invest into our GMG membership is money well spent due to the resources they provide for businesses such as ours”, says Fowler, who is deeply involved in the greater Mankato community. Serving on the Greater Mankato Growth board of directors and GreenSeam board of governors are just a couple of the ways Fowler gives back to the community that has given so much to his family. A giving spirit the Fowler’s instilled in their daughters who are all involved in their community. So much so, that Beth Rohrich was recently awarded volunteer of the year by Visit Mankato for her selfless efforts.
You might wonder if it is difficult to work with family every day. Not for the SPX family. “My sisters are my best friends. I wouldn’t have it any other way,” says Beth. The Fowler family even takes a vacation together every year. All of them. “From a family standpoint, it’s vital to have that time together, and it’s a testament to the remaining employees, that we can leave for a week and the company still continues to operate on a high level. Those extended family members do a great job of being flexible in an industry whose schedules are volatile to put it mildly. Weather can change my photographers’ schedules at the drop of a hat”, says Bridget. There are some advantages to working with people you’ve known your whole life, Beth recalls. “Sometimes, on installs, I know what tool Brian needs before he does. It’s almost like the relationship between a surgeon and his assistant. There’s something unique about working with family. We don’t need to talk to each other to know what the other person needs. We know each other so well that we can step up and help each other out when another’s kid isn’t sleeping or they are on the road. The others pitch in to make things happen for them. The same goes for all of our employees. It’s what family does.”
Employees at SPX each have an area of expertise but are expected to pitch in wherever their talents allow. The small business of 14 employees boasts an impressive 161 years of combined experience. The only thing about a typical day at SPX is that it is atypical. One day an employee might be photographing a sporting event, or framing photos and the next they might be installing wall graphics or setting scaffolding for a large project. No two days are alike. “I am excited for work every day because of our employees and amazing clients. They are the reason I do what I do every day. Seeing employees have unbelievable opportunities such as installing graphics for the WCHA Final Faceoff, setting up for the Mankato Marathon, photographing the Minnesota Air Spectacular or a business banquet are what make work not feel like work for us. Also, the relationships we have built with our clients are like no other. I remember being on an install in Colorado with my dad and the volleyball coach invited us to her house for a home-cooked meal and some time with her family, instead of having to eat take-out in a small hotel room. These are the things that keep us going”, says Beth over the hum of running printers and the aroma of ink in an office she shares with her father and sister, Bridget.
SPX doesn’t have the word “can’t” in their vocabulary. The slogan “Imagine the Possibilities” is displayed on the wall in the front lobby of their storefront. When a client asks if they can do or make something, the answer is almost always “yes”. A client came to them and asked if they could make a four-foot tall replica hockey puck to help them gain funding support from the state for the civic center in Mankato. SPX said absolutely. They find a way to get things done, even if that means inventing something to make it happen. This was the case for Fowler when he was asked if he could custom wrap a basketball with graphics. He got to work, invented and built a machine to help him complete the job in his Eagle Lake shop where most of the SPX custom projects come to life. Now they wrap over 150 sports balls a year. “If there’s a need, I’m going to figure out how to fulfill that need,” says Fowler, who uses everything from printers and laminators to welders and saws to complete his dizzying array of daily projects. “It has never seemed like work to me. I’ve always been excited to come in every day. I never know what is going to happen from day to day.”
SPX has a loyal base of customers both near and far because they also believe in treating their clients like family. Fowler says, “Customer service is so easy, because I truly believe our clients are family. You’re going to have good customer service if you treat them like family. They become our friends and we are involved in each other’s lives. I believe you can take two things with you. Your integrity and your memories. Those are the things that matter to us.” For the crew at SPX, memories and family are more than slogans. They are a way of life.
Photo by AJ Dahm