Business was booming in 1997 for Cunningham/Feinknopf Photography.
What started four years earlier as a couple of driven young men with cameras had grown into a full-fledged, professional studio operation attracting high-brow clients including The Limited, Structure, Cigar Aficionado, Huntington National Bank and Details. The business was on track to gross nearly a half-million dollars that year alone.
Then, that June, everything started to fall apart.
“I was in a really horrible car accident,” explains Scott Cunningham, who, with Brad Feinknopf, founded the Short North area business bearing their names. “I was laid up for a year ... I couldn’t walk.”
Suddenly, Feinknopf found himself alone at the helm. It was a position he wasn’t prepared for or eager to assume. After all, the business partnership had been successful since its 1993 founding largely because he and Cunningham complemented each other so well.
“Somebody once said Scott and I were two people going in the same direction down parallel streets,” Feinknopf explains. “We’re pretty much the yin and yang. If Scott sees it as black, I pretty much see it as white. But that was our strength.”
Between Feinknopf’s specialty in architectural photography and corporate portraiture, and Cunningham’s expertise in lifestyle and fashion photography, they could cover almost any need in the market.
They shared a commitment to quality, honesty and service, Feinknopf says, and that held the partnership together through any rough times they’d encountered previously.
“Scott and I never had anything in writing; it was a handshake,” Feinknopf says. “There was undeniable trust. There was agreement on what we were trying to achieve. That’s what made the partnership work.”
“We did butt heads,” Cunningham admits, noting he was the egotistical one in the partnership who often got his way in disagreements simply because he was louder. “I was always kind of overbearing.”
Yet Cunningham’s outspoken personality had its upside, too, Feinknopf adds.
“There were people out there that would’ve taken advantage of me and my generosity and my even-keel personality if it weren’t for Scott,” he says. “But there were also times when Scott’s explosive nature created fires I had to go and take care of; where I had to go placate somebody.”
Clearly, then, these two had overcome obstacles in their partnership before.
“Every partnership goes through evolutions,” Feinknopf says.
This time, however, the business would not survive.
Victims of circumstance
Cunningham and Feinknopf had hardly started coping with the emotional trauma created by Cunningham’s accident when the business ramifications of losing Cunningham’s photography skills even if temporarily created a financial crisis at the studio.
“I went from sharing 50 percent of the burden to 100 percent of the burden,” Feinknopf says. “I was covering the overhead of a two-person studio or at least a studio that expected the income of two people.”
For the first two or three months, payments for photos taken by Cunningham prior to his accident were still coming in, which helped cover the studio’s ongoing expenses. Feinknopf picked up as much extra work as he could handle, knowing full well that his business partner who lay recuperating in a hospital bed set up in the studio’s business office wouldn’t be able to help make ends meet for quite awhile. Still, it wasn’t enough.
“To keep the business afloat, we needed to be doing about 75 percent of what we were doing at the high point,” Feinknopf says, noting the business hit its financial peak the previous year when sales totaled $360,000, but had been poised to bring in an annual gross close to $500,000 before Cunningham’s accident.
“At 66 percent, I was maxed out just from a time standpoint. I wasn’t just doing photography, but all the bookkeeping, too.”
Not only that, but Feinknopf’s personal situation put additional demands on his time.
He and his wife had an infant son at home.
The harsh reality
Feinknopf knew the studio couldn’t survive long-term under the circumstances. Still, he hesitated to tell Cunningham how grave the situation appeared.
“He was so immersed in his recovery at that time, both physically and emotionally,” Feinknopf says. “There were so many things he was dealing with on a very personal level. The day-in, day-out functioning of the business was not something I wanted to burden him with further.”
Problem was, the end was nowhere in sight. After being bed-ridden for more than half a year, Cunningham just “had to get out,” he says, so in early 1998, he moved to France to do his physical therapy.
“I had to spend [another] six to eight weeks convalescing, so I figured, if I had to do it somewhere, it may as well be there,” Cunningham quips.
That was just too much for Feinknopf. He had to clue in his business partner.
“The financial burden of carrying on a business of that magnitude on the income of one photographer and one photographer who had a family it just became too great,” Feinknopf says.
“The thought [of dissolving the partnership] never entered my mind before the accident,” he continues. “At the time of the accident, my thoughts centered around Scott’s well being. Our partnership was like a marriage. If your spouse takes ill, you don’t start thinking about a divorce.”
Yet the desperate financial outlook and high-pressure work situation were forcing Feinknopf’s hand.
“When he called me, it was the hardest phone call he ever made,” Cunningham says. “He had to separate the partnership. Brad’s responsibility to his family and his newborn son were the first priorities in his life as they should be. And he knew I could take care of myself.”
The partnership was officially dissolved June 1, 1998.
Once the decision was made to split up, working out the details didn’t take long.
“Who wanted what and who got what was not as difficult as one might think,” Feinknopf says.
Cunningham did more work with 35mm film, while Feinknopf usually used a larger 4x5 format, so each took the equipment and supplies that corresponded with their respective preferences.
Feinknopf wanted the front studio space; Cunningham wanted to keep the business phone number. Feinknopf took a greater portion of the studio’s equipment; Cunningham assumed less of the business’s debt.
“It was an amicable split due to the circumstances, and that’s the way it was handled,” Feinknopf says.
The two even co-wrote the press release announcing their partnership split and the formation of their individual studios within the same building.
“It really went about as smoothly as it could,” Feinknopf says.
In fact, both now say parting ways may have been a blessing of sorts.
“I think everything worked out for the best,” says Cunningham, who recently moved the majority of his operations to a studio in New York, which was something he and Feinknopf had discussed on and off but never agreed upon doing.
“The split, though not desirable, has done some positive things for both of us,” Feinknopf says. “There’s equipment I’ve bought that helps me do better photography, but I wouldn’t have imposed on Scott to buy it under the partnership because it wouldn’t have assisted him.
Similarly, Feinknopf says, “I felt for a long time that where Scott needed to be was in New York. Would I have been holding him back? I was a safety net. Having the partnership dissolved took away that safety net and it forced Scott to think about what’s best for Scott. Scott now has great freedom to do what he wants, when he wants, how he wants.
“A partnership has benefits, but the freedom allows Scott to be more of who he wants to be at this time.”
Feinknopf says he would consider working with a business partner again but, if he did, it would be on different terms.
“I don’t see myself getting into another arrangement where I was anything but the major shareholder,” he says. “I would not do a 50-50 partnership. For Scott and I, it was a perfect arrangement at the time. But at this point in time, I wouldn’t want to give up 50 percent.”
Another thing he would do differently: Be more open-minded.
“Scott was always the one more open to possibilities. I probably put more parameters on myself,” he says, noting it took some serious prodding by Cunningham to get him to “take the leap and hire our first full-time employee.” It turned out to be the best decision the twosome made, Feinknopf says, because it helped the business grow faster.
“Scott was always ready to jump and I was always pulling on the reins,” he says. “More open-mindedness on my part would’ve helped.”
Cunningham also says he might consider teaming up with another business partner at some point if the circumstances were right.
“I’d have to have the ability to make a serious amount of money quickly with a solid business plan,” he says.
In addition, Cunningham would sit down with any potential business partner and have long conversations upfront about how they’d distribute the income or cover the losses of the business. That’s something he and Feinknopf never did.
“Sometimes Brad was doing more work, sometimes I was doing more and [each of us] wanted to take more money,” he explains. “We never got around to devising a system for that ... how to calculate a bonus or something like that.
“We tried to do it. We talked to our accountants about it, but it was so hard.”
Fortunately, it never posed a serious problem.
“Brad’s probably in the top three most decent, honest human beings I’ve met in my life,” Cunningham says. “I could trust him completely beyond a shadow of a doubt. I knew Brad would always be an honest person and would work toward the good of the business.
“Anyone else, I would get it in writing.”
Nancy Byron (email@example.com) is editor of SBN Columbus.