Gehl started working at Image Studios as a photo stylist at the age of 25. At the time, much of her day was spent on the studio’s accounts that needed retail photography — photographs of models and products for the Sunday flier.
“As a photo stylist, you do everything from steam clothes to source props to scout locations,” she says.
Gehl reveals she was the only stylist in the studio’s history that has worked with every one of the photographers that has walked through the front door.
“I worked with the original founders when I started. I went on shoots with them and we worked side-by-side,” she adds. “Every one of the photographers is different.”
After a few years as a photo stylist, Gehl had the opportunity to move into a sales role. While she admits she was a little nervous at the time, Gehl was excited for the new challenge and the opportunity to increase her salary. Within her first month, she landed Marvin Windows, one of the biggest jobs in her career.
“That really gave me the skip in my step to go out and get more,” adds Gehl. She worked tirelessly to land new clients. “I learned at a really young age if you want to get ahead in life you have to work harder than the next person,” adds Gehl.
By pouring her heart and soul into her work, Gehl found success. She became a shareholder of Image Studios in 2003. In 2007, Gehl became president.
Gehl spends most of her days in the office while partners and photographers Scott Ehlers and Michael Leschisin are shooting location work. Gehl explains they are often ships in the night — finding time to sit down and discuss business matters is difficult for the busy trio.
“They put a lot of trust and faith in me,” says Gehl. “I feel they see I have my finger on the pulse of what is happening out there. I’m always trying to Donna Gehlfigure out what is the next best move for us.”
Since becoming president, Gehl has shaped the business by the employees she’s hired. She feels some of her greatest contributions to date has been developing relationships with her employees and customers. “I think what I bring here is a really great culture. Everyone appreciates what we are able to do together and the opportunities we have as a business,” says Gehl.
These opportunities include a bit of glamour, including photographing celebrities and dignitaries, from U.S. presidents to the Dalai Lama, to traveling to exotic locations. But there are plenty of ordinary studio shoots.
Image Studios works with a long list of impressive national brands, like Mills Fleet Farm, Kohler, Kraft Foods, Yamaha Outboards, CVS Pharmacy, Meredith Publishing and more. Some businesses have been with Image Studios for decades.
“If I had to say the secret to our success, I’d say relationships,” adds Gehl. “If you were to ask any of our clients, ‘What do you like about working with Image Studios?’ they’d say they do great work and they are really nice people.”
Adding to core services and getting creative
While the studio has experienced great success the last 50 years, their phones stopped ringing along with the rest of the country when the recent recession hit. Gehl explains all profits were reinvested back into the business. Image Studios invested in video equipment and developed a video department to include talented and experienced producers, directors, editors and more.
Four years ago, Image Studios’ video production services accounted for only 5 percent of their total revenue. Today, video production services generate nearly half of the studio’s revenue and it continues to grow. “As a business, we’ve also had a 40 percent growth in overall revenue from just four years ago,” adds Gehl.
While it’s becoming harder to find clients that appreciate quality photography, Gehl explains she has adjusted by finding ways to efficiently shoot photography and video in the same production.
“My sales role is oftentimes meeting with a new client and thinking how we can help you. If you have a photography need and a video need, how can we make it work?” she says.
She still handles the majority of sales and often drives the creative process. This could require getting a project started and pushing it off to her team, writing the script herself or filling a conference room with creative minds and collecting different ideas. Some days, Gehl is creatively exhausted. “When I’m so focused on the business and financials and looking for the next opportunity I have a hard time being creative,” she admits.
“I like to think that what I do as a leader is help everyone here understand we need to raise the bar because that is who we are as a business. We have three simple core values. One is simply being nice, one is doing great work and one is knowing that everything we do could have been done better — it isn’t settling for this or that. We are always looking at what is the next best thing,” says Gehl.
Outside the office
One of the things Gehl is most proud of is the relationships she’s been able to develop within the community. Image Studios does a great deal of pro bono work with organizations like the Boys and Girls Club of the Fox Valley, The Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin Fox Valley, Habitat for Humanity – Greater Fox Cities Area, St. Elizabeth Hospital Foundation, United Way Fox Cities and more. When they call, Gehl welcomes the challenge.
“It’s a win-win,” says Gehl. “My employees have the opportunity to use their creative juices and do something they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do when someone else is directing the project. When we can focus on a social issue, like poverty or mental illness, we are doing more than taking photographs. We can make a difference in the community by building awareness or making people see it differently.”
And of course Gehl is passionate about her business. At the studio’s 50th anniversary party, she’d got choked up when reminiscing.
“It was a great time to reflect on all those years and what it meant — it made all those years of hard work worth it,” adds Gehl. “For me, to know the impact I can have on our employees, giving them a great place to work and fun opportunities along the way was especially rewarding.”
While work often follows Gehl home, she says she isn’t stressed. “I feel like I have a good control over my workload and although I have a hard time delegating I do try,” she adds.
But, what does this go-getter do for fun? Gehl says she enjoys spending time with her husband and daughter. They have a cabin in the northwoods so she likes to go exploring. Arizona is her favorite place to get away.
Leading Image Studios into the future
Today Image Studios operates with a staff of 22, although their business model includes a strong network of contract employees and
freelance specialists. Jobs come in all sizes, ranging from $500 to $50,000 projects.
“It takes a lot of work to keep our office busy,” says Gehl. “It is a lot of little jobs, a lot of project management and a lot of good communication.” Image Studios continues to evolve. They are currently exploring computer animation, or CGI.
“There are great opportunities in the world of 3-D graphics, 3-D renderings and animation. That is the next best thing and it will be a real
challenge how we develop that,” says Gehl.
While making plans to incorporate CGI into the studio’s offerings, Gehl is keeping a close eye as jobs roll in. She suspects Image Studios
will have a busy summer. “I feel like I’ve had my foot on the throttle for a long time — as a business owner you can’t take it off — and I feel like it is now really starting to pay off,” says Gehl. “We are really moving in a good direction.”
With all the milestones this year, Gehl explains she feels like she’s starting a new chapter in her life. While she’s willing to embrace the change that promises to be ahead, she doesn’t have a clear picture of what her future holds.
“I’m at that point where I need to figure out what the next 10 years will look like. While it’s important to me to have a plan, I’m not ready
to throw it out there yet, but I am thinking about it.”
A year of milestones, decades of
hard work: Donna Gehl
if you see Donna Gehl across the room or walking down the street, you’ll likely notice her quiet confidence. If you know her socially or professionally, you’d say she is a strong woman. But those that are closest to Gehl see her fire and admire her determination to be a successful leader.
Gehl is president of Image Studios, a full-service photography and video production studio in Appleton. It has been a milestone year for Gehl — Image Studios celebrated 50 years in business, she turned 50 and her only daughter is getting married this summer.
While that is a lot for any woman to handle, Gehl gracefully embraces each milestone with a focus on what’s ahead.