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From humble beginnings in a house basement, owners Pat McGuire and Rick Masrud have built Scenic Concepts Inc. into one of the largest companies in the nation to specialize in taking and selling aerial farm photos.

In fact, McGuire, 45, and Masrud, 48, believe it is the largest company of its kind in the United States. Since starting in 1978, the company has expanded its market to 34 states.

Scenic Concepts operates from the Scenic Center building at 115 Fifth Ave. S. in downtown La Crosse. Masrud and McGuire own the building, which was occupied by the J.C. Penney Co. department store until Valley View Mall opened in 1980. They also rent out office and retail space in the building.

Scenic Concepts has 12 pilots, 90 sales people and about 20 support people, Masrud said. Of those, three pilots, 15 sales people and the 20 support people work from the downtown office. The rest are scattered throughout the states the business covers.

The company owns some of its airplanes and leases the rest.

"We're in all the heavily populated states, all the way from New York to California, with a focus on the Midwest," Masrud said. The company doesn't send aerial photo-graphers to sparsely populated states, such as Nevada or Arizona, because there are fewer buildings to take pictures of there.

"In the future, we'll increase our pene-tration in the states we're already in," rather than go into more states, Masrud said. "That's where the expansion is coming from." Scenic Concepts has been in 34 states for the past five years.

McGuire and Masrud both graduated from Aquinas High School and have been friends since they were teens - their families had known each other for a long time. Their first business venture was painting houses when Masrud was in college and McGuire was attending Aquinas.

Before they started Scenic Concepts, McGuire was a salesman for Collins Outdoor Advertising and Masrud was a salesman for Low Motors.

"We were looking for another business to get into and decided to try this," Masrud said. "At the time, I had a hobby farm and wanted to have a picture of it. Pat would do the photography, and I would sell" the aerial photos to farm families. "We would work until midnight building frames in my dad's basement," where the business was based, Masrud said.

"Photography was a hobby for me," McGuire said. "I had enjoyed taking pictures since high school," and took a photography class at Western Wisconsin Technical College.

"We tried it and it worked," Masrud said. "We've been expanding ever since." Today, both men work full time at the downtown office. McGuire was an aerial photographer for only the first year of the business.

Scenic Concepts' customer base has changed over the years as the number of farms declined. When the business began, farms accounted for almost all of its sales. Today, farms represent about 65 percent of sales, and rural homes and businesses account for the rest.

When the company's pilots are taking pictures in a given area, they look for well-maintained properties whose owners might like to have an aerial photo. Each pilot will photograph about 200 places a day, Masrud said.

About 90 percent of the pictures are taken during the summer and fall. Most of the pilots work for Scenic Concepts for six months a year. Three pilots take pictures during the winter, when snow cover creates a different appearance.

Pilots take the pictures themselves with a hand-held camera.

The film is sent to the La Crosse office, where 16-inch-by-20-inch prints are made and put into red oak frames that are assembled there.

The framed pictures are delivered to the area's salesman, who calls on about 30 people a day. The salesman shows the framed print to the property owner and offers to sell it on the spot.

The number of people who buy the framed pictures ranges from about one in three to one in six, depending on the area, McGuire said. The salesmen don't use high-pressure tactics, he said.

Customers also can buy photo Christmas cards and photo business cards from Scenic Concepts.

"We also offer computer enhancement," Masrud said, displaying an original picture and an alternate version that showed changes made by computer. For the second picture, the paint color on a building had been changed and a strip of corn that had been harvested was put back in place to make it appear the field was untouched. "We can also close doors on buildings" through computer enhancement, Masrud said.

Scenic Concepts depends on good weather - its pilots don't take pictures when skies are overcast.

"I enjoy dealing with people," McGuire said. "We've overcome a lot of things like weather. It's nice to work with people and overcome challenges like that."

"It's something different every day," Masrud said of the business. "There's always something unique or a little different every day."

Steve Cahalan can be reached at (608) 791-8229 or scahalan@@lacrossetribune.com.

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