In the last 50 years, new technologies have sunk a pile of products. The wasteland includes typewriters, turntables, film, portable CD players, cassette tape recorders — and, in some instances, the companies that sold them.
But not every area business that lined their shelves with Dictaphones, slide rules or Super 8 film closed up shop.
Many changed course. Here are three businesses, founded in 1918, 1975 and 1999, that changed course, adding or dropping products and services, and have lived to tell the tale — and even flourished — by guiding an operation through technical sea changes.
Rockbrook Camera, Omaha
In the market for a drone?
A photography supply store might not be your first stop, unless it’s Rockbrook Camera, which sells a selection of video-equipped drones.
Stocking the latest technology is one reason the family-owned company has succeeded for four decades, said its president, Chuck Fortina, who co-owns the firm with brothers Dave and Joe.
Their father, Carl Fortina, founded the store in 1975 in the original Rockbrook Village. At the time, film was king and Rockbrook Camera’s black-and-white darkroom — separate from the store — reeked of sulfur.
In 1991, it built its own store at 2717 S. 108th St., across the street from Rockbrook Village.
Today, Rockbrook Camera, celebrating its 40th anniversary next month, operates three stores — the two others are at 2909 S. 169th Plaza in Omaha and 4333 S. 70th St. in Lincoln.
To be sure, there are still hobbyists and aficionados who enjoy the clack, clack of typewriter keys or the “warm” tones of vinyl records or a roll of film, but when it comes to most businesses, staying current is typically the best way to remain in business.
Why do some small businesses succeed while others downsize or even close up shop when the products or services they offer undergo a technological shift?
There’s no one answer, said Dale Eesley, director of the Center for Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Franchising at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The center assists startups and existing businesses.
Hindsight can be as clear as glass, but a surefire formula that can predict which new technology or brand will catch on doesn’t exist, he said. “You can be too early or too late when it comes to new technology,” he said. “There are plenty of smart people who’ve made horrific decisions.”
For example, the first digital images created by the earliest digital cameras “were terrible,” Rockbrook’s Chuck Fortina said. “These were real chunky images made by big, clunky cameras.”
Viewing those results, some retailers dismissed the new digital technology and clung doggedly to film. But Rockbrook Camera began stocking digital cameras alongside models that used film, Fortina said.
“Film sales were great, but we just knew digital was going to take over,” Fortina said. As those cameras and their images improved, the retailer saw a huge opportunity. ‘‘Instead of thinking this is going to kill our business, we were thinking people are going to have to buy all new gear,” Fortina said of the switch from analog to digital.
“By 2000, film was over,” he said. Companies that didn’t refocus their business found themselves struggling or forced to close their doors.
Today, Rockbrook Camera is constantly scouring the Internet, attending trade shows and quizzing customers and employees in search of new technologies, Fortina said. “We embrace new technology,” he said.
Small businesses can find it challenging to identify the next breakout technology if they don’t have a strategy, Eesley said.
Taking three days off to attend an industry trade show or finding out why your competitor dropped a specific product can cut into a small-business owner’s workweek, but skipping those steps could harm your business down the road, Eesley said. “You have to structure your company so that you can find the time.”
Aksarben Saw & Tool, Springfield
The emergence of less-costly manufacturing processes may require your business to abandon some services, Eesley said. If that occurs, it’s time to explore new revenue streams, he said.
When Stan Buhr founded Aksarben Saw & Tool in Springfield in 1999, he welcomed the hobbyist and the backyard logger or tree trimmer who wanted dull handsaws or circular saws sharpened.
Within a few years, however, big chain retailers began stocking inexpensive saw blades from overseas.
The result was weekend woodworkers who found it cheaper to toss their dull blades and buy new ones than to pay for repairs, said Buhr, whose shop is at 125 Poplar St. in Springfield.
In response, Buhr stopped sharpening handsaws and focused his efforts on attracting more commercial customers.
One strategy? Letting his commercial clients know that he could extend the life of those less-expensive circle saws.
“A lot of the ones you buy off the shelf aren’t round,” he said. “We’ll ‘true’ them up and they’ll last a lot longer.”
He invested in an automated, precision circle saw sharpener, replacing the manual version.
When local contractors began showing up with their new circle saws, they also learned the teeth can be retipped or repaired and put back to work.
“Some of these guys were throwing their dull blades in the back of the truck. That’s expensive,” Buhr said. “When they find out they can be sharpened, they’re at my door.”
Now, Buhr has all the work he and his only employee, stepson Chris Haverkamp, can handle. “I could easily double in size,” he said.
All Makes Office Equipment, Omaha
When Harry Ferer founded All Makes Typewriter Co. in 1918, its inventory included typewriters and a fancy new gadget called the Ediphone, the dictating machine invented by Thomas A. Edison.
Twenty years later, Ferer’s son-in-law, Lazier Kavich, expanded the inventory to include government surplus items and used office furniture.
When Kavich’s son, Larry Kavich — then in his 20s — joined the firm in the mid-1960s, he added new furniture to the lineup, said Amee Zetzman, Larry Kavich’s daughter. “He saw a need for a one-stop store,” she said.
“When people start or expand a business, they have so many other things going on,” Zetzman said. “We can sell you trash cans, interiors and equipment — everything to get up and running.”
Zetzman, the firm’s executive vice president and chief financial officer, and her brother, President and Chief Executive Jeff Kavich, are the company’s fourth-generation owners.
All Makes’ Omaha showroom is located at 2558 Farnam St. It’s in Lincoln at 3330 O St.
Knowing when to step away from new technology can be as important as embracing it, Eesley said.
Case in point: When personal computers and word-processing programs appeared on the market, replacing typewriters, All Makes opted out, but for good reason, Zetzman said. “We stayed away from computers and we stayed away from word processing — the computer market was too competitive.”
The company’s service division repairs the latest high-tech office machines, as well as manual time clocks and typewriters, said Rod Case, who has spent 39 years with the company. Typewriters? “Some people just prefer them,” he said. “Others treat them as collectibles.
“We repair about 10 to 15 manual and electric typewriters a month,” Case said. “In the mid-1980s, we could have that many typewriters in a day.”
Today, in addition to its Omaha and Lincoln stores, All Makes operates in Kearney, Nebraska, and Des Moines, Iowa, and sells new and used office furniture and equipment, including electric typewriters, to clients around the world and in all 50 U.S. states.
Besides attending industry trade shows, the company has teamed up with its manufacturers to stay up to date on the latest technology, Zetzman said.
But just being in the know isn’t enough, she said.
“When you’re confronted by new technology, you need to be flexible and ready to change — whether you’re ready for it or not.”
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