When Peter Dawson took over Leigh Photography, an Everett Drive-based photo studio that had been doing business since 1945, he knew he had some work to do to turn the company around. What he didn’t know was that he was about to face a technological upheaval that threatened to destroy the company completely.

Today Dawson’s company is called Leigh Imaging, and it has successfully made the transition from the analog age to the digital age. It employs about 10 people, and has branched out into making signs as well as taking photos. But making the transition wasn’t easy.

Dawson will be on a panel of business owners at the Princeton Chamber of Commerce Independent Business Summit on Thursday, May 11, from 7:30 to 10:45 a.m. at the College of New Jersey. Also speaking at the event will be Michele Siekerka, CEO of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association and Tamara Jacobs, founder of Tamara Jacobs Communications. In addition to Dawson, the panel will include Cody and Sage Disch of Ace & Everett, Jessica Durrie of Small World Coffee, and J. Scott Needham, president of Princeton Air.

Leigh Imaging was founded by Fran Leigh in Trenton in 1945 and made a name for itself in corporate photography. Its first clients were De Laval Turbine in Trenton and the Lawrenceville School, the former of which no longer exists, and the latter of which is still a client.

Dawson joined the company in 1982 right out of college. He had studied photography the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York and had just landed a coveted job as a technical sales representative. However, Dawson had to return home from Albany before starting the gig because he ran out of money to support himself while waiting a hiring freeze at Kodak-Eastman to end. His father, a well-off investor, declined to help him out financially, so he returned to his hometown of Princeton to look for work. He got the job at Leigh by knocking on the door asking if there was a position available. They hired him to fill in for someone going on vacation and kept him around permanently. At the time, the company was located in West Trenton, but moved a year later to its current location in Princeton Junction.

As Dawson rose through the ranks at Leigh, the founder was stepping aside to let his nephew, Trip Sanders, run the company. Unfortunately, Sanders died of cancer, and Leigh had to come out of retirement to keep the company afloat.

By that time, Dawson was managing day-to-day operations there. “I did what needed to be done to pay the bills,” Dawson says. Around 1999 or 2000, Leigh saw a way to go back into retirement and leave the company in good hands. Dawson agreed to buy the company on a “handshake” deal that was later formalized in a contract.

The transaction involved no cash. “I didn’t put a dime into it other than sweat equity,” Dawson says. “I became the owner and continued to pay Fran Leigh consulting fees.” Dawson also took on the company’s debt, which he paid down through profits while taking a smaller salary.

“Fran Leigh was the most remarkable man you could ever meet,” Dawson says. “He was an absolute gentleman and someone who was a true mentor to me.”

Dawson took over the company at a time when film was on the way out. In its heyday, Leigh Photography employed about 30 people, many of whom were processing black and white or color images. A large area of the company office was taken up with photo labs. But Dawson saw that film was on the decline, bit the bullet, and started to make the switch.

“It was just shy of $150,000 for our first digital camera along with all the stuff that made it work,” Dawson says. “I wasn’t able to tell my wife because I knew she would be furious with me. But I knew it was the right thing to do.”

As the company went digital, it no longer had need for the photo processing equipment or all the technicians. Today the staff is smaller, though it is able to do more work than before thanks to improvements in technology. In place of the silver process photo equipment, Dawson installed giant flatbed printers that could make signs as big as 5 feet by 10 feet.

Today Leigh’s clients include large corporations and ad agencies in the Route 1 corridor. Leigh Imaging does a lot of architectural photography as well as in-studio photos of products for catalogs and brochures.

Dawson says he has achieved success not by being smarter than competitors, but by adapting and being tenacious. “We’ve been able to stay whole in a big way, whereas I know that there are other photography companies that were competitors of ours that are long since gone because the environment changed so dramatically,” he says. “It’s been a fun business to be in and we have remarkable customers.”

He also says that doing charity work has helped him in business. He has served on the board of Eden Autism Services, the D&R Greenway, the Rotary Club, and other community organizations. “All of that community involvement becomes a lifestyle that I’m just passionate about. I love helping people out,” he says.

It turns out that helping others is good for business too, because people tend to do business with people they know and trust. And working with people on community projects builds those relationships. “Helping people that may be less fortunate, or championing a cause does bay dividends back as a business.”

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