Lifetouch fades out Olan Mills, 383 jobs, from Chattanooga
CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) -- Come October, everybody's shutter will close at Olan Mills' portrait and photography labs on Amnicola Highway and Shallowford Road.
"I'm glad you can't see my eyes too good because we cried all day yesterday (Monday)," Cindy Brown says. "Today, we're just trying to do the best we can, with the work that we have."
The work, whether it be personal portraiture, or church directories, has provided jobs for 383 people.
Brown has worked in virtually every department in her 32 years. Jenny McBryar has been a typist for eleven years.
"My last day is June 29th," she says. "Others will be out sooner, some may stay through the summer."
Competition might be the easiest way to explain it.
"I know that there's people all over this country, not just in this area, but all over the country, have something that I did, hanging on their walls," Brown says.
She considers her retouches, by hand, and through digitalization, art. But that same technology allows amateurs to create their own memorable family photographs with a cell phone camera.
Portraiture photography has become less profitable.
"It was determined that the redundancies that existed in these two facilities could be taken up with the excess capacity in other plants that we have around the country, says Kelvin Miller, Vice President of Communications for Lifetouch, the Minnesota-based competitor who bought the Olan Mills operations in November.
At the time, Olan Mills Jr. was quoted as saying that the sale appeared to offer the best outcome for his employees; the best option for keeping jobs in Chattanooga.
"Lifetouch is open to what we do here," he told the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Olan Mills Jr. has not returned phone calls from Eyewitness News, seeking context and perspective.
"I'm sure there's some folks who hate his guts," Brown says. "They can't help but take it personally."
"We suspected it (the closure)," McBryar says. "But it was brought to fruition yesterday (Monday).
"We don't have an issue with Lifetouch," Brown clarifies. "It's not an emotional decision, or that they don't like us, or anything like that. It's just a business decision."
Dollars and sense. Lifetouch is providing severance packages; the amount dependent upon the job performed, and years of service, Miller says.
But several hundred displaced workers will leave, either not old enough or otherwise unable, to retire.
"It's a sad day," says J. Ed Marston, marketing director for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce. "But part of the reason we are not in worse shape over this is that we have successfully recruited new companies, helping existing companies expand."
The Chamber has pledged to help Lifetouch and Tennessee workforce officials provide outplacement services, including referrals to Chattanooga State and other schools to learn new skills.
But the workers are only part of the heritage fading.
"This has been part of Chattanooga's portrait, for years, "Brown says. "You know, it's survived the Great Depression. The business survived the Depression."
Lifetouch will keep open its school portrait division on Preservation Drive. It bought that division from Olan Mills in 1999. Some 350 people work at that lab during the busy part of the year, Miller says.
"We are a compassionate, employee-owned company," Miller says. "We did not make this decision lightly, but these decisions, sometimes, are necessary."
Portrait photography is about capturing and preserving memories. Brown, and others, will find no shortage of memories when they depart.
"It's has been a wonderful opportunity to do what I love to do, with people I enjoy working with," she says. "And it's enabled be to raise my son, and have a decent life."