“I’ve been in athletics all my life, and I’ve never seen a little sports card with a 7-year-old on it,” he says. “And it got me thinking about what is lacking in the youth sports photography industry.”
That thought led to many more, until Burgner came up with an entire business plan for a youth sports photography company. That same year, he and co-founder Carl Hansson bought a lab and started making sports cards and other memorabilia for youth sports, and The Sports Section was born.
The Sports Section started slowly but has been growing rapidly since 1990. Revenue increased from $17.5 million in 2001 to $25 million in 2005, and the company employs approximately 1,200 people who work in more than 200 franchises throughout the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
Smart Business spoke with Burgner about how to perfect an idea and maintain a company’s original vision while it grows at a rapid pace.
With franchises opening every year, how do you ensure that customer service is not compromised?
About 10 years ago, we made a company decision that we are basically turning into a full-service company rather than a manufacturing or selling company. We have a pretty good size staff in the office that will not let any of our franchises fail.
They go out and find business for them, they create leads, they fix their cameras and they show them how to better take pictures. Only a small portion of our staff actually sells franchises. All the rest are service-oriented.
We have a 24/7 hotline that anyone around the world can call and we can answer a problem for them. That decision was one of the best decisions we have ever made. That is why we’re growing so fast.
We also have what we call Sports Section University about six times a year, where our people can come in and learn how to take better pictures, how to get into school markets, how to make presentations, how to have good product selection on their envelopes, how to sell and how to market. We have conventions twice a year and regional seminars about 20 times a year.
If there is anything that a Sports Section franchise wants to know about how to make money, they can call us, and we have the answers.
With employees spread across several countries, do you have trouble keeping your vision from becoming diluted?
Never. Our people are so dedicated. The only trouble we would have is other businesses coming in and wanting us to sell their product or line of business.
We made a decision long ago that this is our niche, and it has just materialized into perfection. This is the big reason that people buy this franchise rather than go out and start on their own.
It is very tough. It took us seven years to basically figure out how to work this franchise. I wish we could have done it earlier, but there was no template there was nobody else doing what we were doing. We only sold an average of three franchises a year for those first seven years because we did not know exactly what we were doing.
When 1990 hit, we began selling 30 franchises a year, and we have never stopped.
Jumping from three franchises a year to 30 is huge. What challenges accompany such rapid growth?
The challenge is producing more programs, keeping interest with more product selection and keeping prices down so that it stays affordable for the customers. We have overcome these challenges. That is why we keep growing.
We will sell 48 franchises this year up almost 15 from what we did last year. And it is because we have perfected and we keep continually perfecting what we are doing. We could sell 50 to 100 franchises a year if we wanted to and still stay on top of it.
But we are going to limit it to 40 or 50 a year so that we do not lose the vision of keeping our existing franchises happy.
What are your growth goals for the future?
We have quite a few territories open in the United States, and we would like to fill them all up by the year 2010. We would also like to add at least four more foreign countries. We are already the dominating youth sports photography company in the world. There is nobody else bigger than us. So that goal is already accomplished.
We also want to cover all aspects of youth photography. About 80 percent of our business is youth sports photography. We are getting into schools now, which we haven’t before. We are also getting into young adults.
We are really broadening our base and not limiting our franchises to just youth sports.
HOW TO REACH: The Sports Section, (678) 740-0800 or www.sports-section.com