Nearly 40 years after owners Rick Masrud and Pat McGuire started the business in a house basement, Scenic Concepts Aerial Photography in La Crosse has become the largest company in the nation that specializes in taking and selling aerial farm photos.
“We’re by far the largest,” Masrud said in an interview at Scenic Concepts’ office on the second floor of the Scenic Center office building at 115 S. Fifth Ave. in downtown La Crosse.
“We strive to provide really good quality,” he said, which is a major reason why the company’s sales have continued to grow – to about $6 million a year.
Scenic Concepts’ customer base has changed over the years as the number of farms declined. When the business began in 1978, 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.
Scenic Concepts has about 20 support employees at its La Crosse office. It also employs 10 pilots, including four based in La Crosse. And it has about 80 sales people who are scattered throughout its 34-state market area, working as independent contractors.
When Scenic Concepts’ 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 200 to 300 places a day from a small single-engine airplane, McGuire 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. In 2007, Scenic Concepts switched from cameras that use film to digital cameras.
Scenic Concepts sends 16-inch-by-20-inch color prints to its salesmen, who put them in frames and call 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. And they can buy the digital image and do their own printing.
Scenic Concepts offers computer enhancement, with changes made by computer, Masrud said. For example, the buyer of a photo might want to have a different color on a building, restore a strip of corn that had been harvested, or show the doors on a building as closed rather than open.
In the past few years, Scenic Concepts has seen an increase in the number of people asking for prints of aerial photos that were taken years ago. “We have about 5 million negatives going back to 1980,” when the business began cataloging its photos, Masrud said.
“We’re creating family heirlooms,” he said. “It’s nice to see people contact us wanting to find a 30-year-old picture, and us being able to find it.”
An old aerial photo might show something like elderly people in a garden, who have since passed away, Masrud said. “Stuff like that is priceless” to the family.
Scenic Concepts has come a long way since April Fool’s Day 1978, the day it was incorporated, McGuire said.
“A number of people told us ‘You’re fools and the business won’t last,’ “ McGuire said with a smile. “But we don’t listen very well,” he joked.
McGuire and Masrud both graduated from Aquinas High School and have been friends since they were teens. 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.
When Scenic Concepts began, McGuire would take the photos and Masrud would sell them to farm families. “We would work until midnight building frames in my dad’s basement,” where the business was based, Masrud said.