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A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing
from Atlanta City Mag October, 1999

Modesty is one of the key components of chivalry, but according to many a cynic in this impending millennial age, "chivalry is dead". Those very cynics would be stewing in their own juices if they knew that chivalry is alive and well and residing in the executive suite at the world headquarters of Wolf Camera and Video, located in Alpharetta, Georgia. Founder and President Chuck Wolf is the modern day embodiment of that very chivalrous spirit. As his fame in the metro area has grown, Wolf stays the course and leads a simple life. "I work out on my treadmill three days a week with my trainer at Eclipse in Atlanta. I take in a leisurely game of golf and I like to vacation on Hilton Head," Wolf says proudly. Over the years, the Wolf name has become more synonymous with "Peachtree", " Ted Turner and The Braves", "Home Depot and Bernie Marcus". It is impossible to miss the Wolf name. Wolf is plastered on billboards; his voice emanates from the radio; his name is coupled with traffic reports and his web camera sits in WNNX radio's studio capturing The Morning X doing their schtick; and Chuck Wolf's face is on our television. In the thick of it all, Wolf stays down to earth and remains rooted in the same vision he possessed 25 years ago and that is doing what he does best. Apparently, his vision has paid off. Wolf has been providing the Atlanta community with an excellent product consisting of convenient, high quality photography stores in massive quanitities throughout the area. But, success didn't come to this humble, chivalrous Wolf at the stroke of midnight a quarter century ago.

Sitting in the Wolf's Den
Instead of saving the planet and roaming with bison half way across the country, this CEO sticks with a normal life of work and family. While this may sound like an average male living in Alpharetta, Wolf possesses a work ethic that sets him a part from the rest of the pack. " Chuck has always been a hard worker. He is detail oriented and has been committed to work from day one," recalls advertising guru Joel Babbitt , one of Chuck Wolf's closest confidants.

Babbitt is also one half of the original advertising team of Babbitt and Reiman, who created and launched Wolf's successful advertising campaign in the 1970's. Joel Babbit and then-partner Joey Reiman spawned memorable radio and television spots including the infamous "Wolf Hall of Fame", "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" and The Wolfpack member campaign. Babbitt and Reiman's campaign is by far the longest of its kind in Atlanta radio history and it is their work that has catapulted Wolf from mere obsurity to "The Bill Gates of Atlanta Photography". It is also well known that this long running campaign stars Chuck Wolf himself pitching the product he loves most-his photography stores. Wolf downplays his fame by employing the Wolf modesty and stating for the record that, "I'm not an actor, I'm simply a camera salesman." He handles his notoriety with finesse. "People come up to me and say, 'Hey I love you in those commercials', but the truth is, that is not what I'm about. I just sell photo equipment," he reiterates.

That simple camera salesman has come a long way in 25 years of business. Wolf has built an empire which now has a national presence from coast to coast. How has he done the unthinkable? Many experts feel that the secret to Wolf's success is two-fold. First, is the aggressive marketing plan using the Wolf name. In addition to the successful radio and television spots, Wolf dominates and saturates print, billboards and sponsorships. "Yes, we think the play on words with the Wolf name has been helpful in our marketing," explains vice president of marketing, Wayne Freedman. "I mean, you cannot have very much fun with names like Jones or Smith. For us, the Wolfpack image sticks with the public." Second, the old business credo of "location, location, location" is and has been the key ingredient in the Wolf business plan. Wolf camera is strategically placed in high density, high visibility shopping strip malls in almost every neighborhood in the metro area. It seems that everywhere you see a Wolf, you see a Waffle House. According to Photo Industry Reporter, Wolf feels that, "The more location you have, the quicker you must stick with geographically planned and controlled growth." His son Alex Wolf, Director of Real Estate, oversees the paperwork and business transactions in every acquired unit. Not exactly the easiest task for a 29 year old who just saw his father's company double in size since he joined.

> >Nevertheless, it is Chuck Wolf's innocent face pitching to us how his stores' photofinishing is superior to the drug chains' inferior product. But, Wolf's classic suburban looks with that distinguished full head of salt and pepper hair doesn't exactly resonate with the public's visual memory, like the Wolfman and Amy who sell cheap furniture. In fact, with glasses on, one might think it is 11 Alive's Bill Liss selling cameras and video equipment. Furthermore, Wolf's performance on radio and television isn't exactly like Tom Parks, Angie Stevens and Mr. Toyota of Atlanta Toyota fame. Nor is it the monotone performance of Tom Shane of the Shane Company pushing his line of jewelry and trips to Antwerp, Belgium. Instead, it is the real Chuck Wolf telling you like it is in his direct manner. That "what you see is what you get approach" somehow pounds the metro area's psyche. What does son Alex think of Dad's performances on television and radio? "He's pretty cute, I guess," deadpans Alex. "He's lovable to the public and has an honest face."

In the early days of the ad campaign, the shooting schedules were long and rough. It took a number of years for Wolf to build confidence in front of the camera. "Today, we have cut the time in half on our shoots," says Wolf. Does this mean a future in Hollywood? Well, don't count it. The only exposure Wolf is getting on the left coast comes in the form of his infamous ads playing in markets where he does business such as San Jose and San Francisco Bay.

Nevertheless, Wolf finds true comfort in his state of the art corporate facility in the once-bucolic Alpharetta. For many in the company, it is hard to believe that they now have elbow room compared to the previous locations. 25 years ago, corporate headquarters was the 14th street store. While Wolf has an emotional attachment to that original location, he has learned to put the past behind him and breathe a bit easier in the late '90's. Yes, there is more salt than pepper in the hair, but Wolf is fit and lean. He is more relaxed now than in 1974 when "he did it all". Today, he confides that he has given more responsiblity to those directly under him including VP's Bill Fletcher, Sheldon Zimmerman, Mark Thurman, Wayne Freedman and Chuck Strassburger. "25 years ago, I probably did everything and even at 15 years ago, I did even more. Not that I didn't trust people, but it was hard to let go," confesses Wolf. " Some of the things I should have let go a long time ago-let people better than I handle it." Others in the company still feel that Wolf is still hungry and takes on quite a bit, even with his full plate. Wolf's business regimen still consists of his ability to visit each store and greet his dedicated employees and customers. "As you would expect with the growth we have experienced, he is still very hands on. He frequently takes market trips to go visit associates and look at stores and remains very involved with operations. I think it is amazing that with over 700 stores, he still knows what each store is selling," says Laura Hooley, Wolf's Public Relations Coordinator. Wayne Freedman adds that, "since we have grown so big, it has been a bit tougher for Chuck to visit every store. Chuck makes every effort to get out there and speak with every employee." "My Dad's energy is amazing. It is hard for me to keep up with him. He really does his best to get out there and see everyone and I cannot believe his commitment to that," says Alex.

In those heady and lean days on 14th street, Wolf's somewhat workaholic spirit consumed him, but many people including his son contend that his love of work did not lead to the breakup of his first marriage. "I think there were inherent problems between my mom and dad. Their divorce would have happened without the business," explains Alex. Wolf has two children, Alex and Tracy (now in their twenties) from his first marriage and two from the second- Madeline, a toddler and Olivia, an infant. Wolf is now married to Miss Harnell, who worked for him at the old "Chantilly location" in Atlanta. The new Mrs. Wolf is 34. Chuck's son is 29. Asked about the slight age difference between him and his new mom, Alex says, "She is a great friend and person who has completely changed my Dad. In his personal life, Wolf is finally at peace-which may contribute to his kinder, gentler demeanor of today. While he has put the lean days of 14th street in the history books and still displays a soft-key approach, Wolf remains fiercely competitive and is always ready to put down his paws into new markets, ready to stomp.

In terms of growth and market saturation, Wolf has dug his claws into the nation's photography store business, which has seen itself in ruins in the late 1980's and early '90's. "There has been a tremendous consolidation in this business and we have been aware of that, so we compete by staying one step ahead in the game," comments Wayne Freedman. Wolf has grown tremendously over the years, and today there are 700 locations in 30 states, making Wolf the second largest photo retailer in the country behind Beltsville, Maryland-based Ritz Camera. Ironically, Ritz was founded by Wolf's uncle, Eddie and Wolf himself worked for him over 30 years ago. Today, Wolf's cousin, David Ritz runs the chain and according to The Atlanta Business Chronicle, the relationship is less than amicable. The Business Chronicle went on to write that, "According to industry insiders, the family members once had a gentlemen's agreement to stay out of each other's territories, but both sides have violated the deal in recent years." They continue to state that, "VP Wayne Freedman said that, 'there was no such agreement.'" While the animosities do not run as deep as say, Ted vrs. Rupert, Wolf neatly avoids the conflict and concentrates on the task at hand-which is growing and competing in the marketplace. Alex adds that, "we used to have Thanksgiving with them, but since we took over Fox photo and doubled our size, we became competitors. It is the same kind of competition like Starbucks vrs. Caribou. So, yeah, the communication between us is not there anymore."

Not only does the competition come in the form of Ritz, but it also comes from the WalMarts, K-Marts, Publixes, Best Buys and Targets of the community. "Anything with a 'mart' in its name is fair game in terms of competition," Wolf concedes. Freedman drives the same point home and emphatically states that, "many people think Ritz is our main rivalry and that just isn't true. These supermarket and drug chains are a big part of the market and have major advertising circulars."

Charles R. Wolf honed his entrepreneurial skills in his childhood home of Callister, Oklahoma. While he never held an interest in photography as a child, he felt committed to preserving memories. That commitment followed him through his college years at The University of Oklahoma where he earned his bachelors in business administration. Soon after, he joined the Army Reserves where he developed his personal strict business discipline. "The hallmark of Chuck Wolf is discipline and a great work ethic. You can see that in his staff and employees," explains a fond Joel Babbitt.

If there is anyone who knows about Chuck Wolf's work ethic, it is Babbitt, a friend and business associate of Wolf's for over a quarter century. That friendship was evident at Babbitt's wedding to CNN Producer Kimberly Arp two years ago. Wolf served as best man in that lavish ceremony attended by some of Atlanta's inner circle. Like Wolf, Babbitt remarried. "My relationship with Joel goes back over 20 years and he was my first agent and I consider him a true best friend. I must have rehired and fired him five times," jokes Wolf. Today, Babbitt acts as a consultant to Wolf as Wayne Freedman carries on the reigns of the Babbitt and Reiman image. Babbitt now has his own advertising agency as well as his ex-partner Reiman, who runs The Bright House ad agency.

Even with his busy schedule, Wolf finds time in volunteer work. The Bremen Jewish Home, The Atlanta Jewish Federation and The American Jewish Committee are just a few of the organizations that Wolf participates in. "I like to do anything I can to give back to the community," Wolf notes. "Actually, this town is extremely lucky to have Chuck Wolf," asserts Babbitt.

There is another set of members in this community who benefit from Chuck Wolf-the children. For over five years, Wolf has been promoting his Kids 'n Kodak camera program. With the help of participating stores and Kodak, a 12 exposure roll disposable camera is given to area students who are encouraged to develop their photo skills. Even field trips to stores to see how film is processed is part of the curriculum. This is just another way to build a customer base.

Even as the Wolfpack card lines many an Atlantan's wallet or purse and Wolf holds on to his solid radio and television appearances, he must look to the future. "Digital photography is where our next area of growth is. Being able to put pictures on CD or disc and sending them off to relatives is something we are very much into and excited about," says Freeman. Where does Wolf see himself in 25 years? "Alive," he quips. "In 25 years, I see the young people who are working for me today, running this company. It is a long way out and it is hard to predict the massive technological and market changes," continues Wolf. "Although I can see that in five years, I see tremendous growth and opportunity."

Does the future of Wolf include a bigger role for his son Alex? He shies away and says, "Well that is the big question. I'm not sure about it at this point." Unlike his father's dead-on focus, Alex took a more liberal curriculum through his teens and twenties. After graduating from Westminster, he attended the University of Arizona for two years-only to drop out and live and breathe the Athens, Georgia music scene. He joined a band and traveled with them up and down the east coast and attended a few classes at The University of Georgia. Not exactly the curriculum Dad would have expected. "I really felt that school wasn't for me at the time, but since then I have learned so much more. I absorb and read more material today than I did back then," he says. Today, the father-son relationship is excellent. "When my parents were together, I didn't see much of them. Now, I get to see Dad quite a bit-especially in board meetings," he says. "I do get to see him firsthand and no, I still cannot call him Chuck in those meetings." They even spend a lot of time together outside of the office. Their outings to baseball games and the mall can be quite an experience. "We go to Braves games or Lenox and people come up to my dad and ask him to sign their Wolfpack card and I say to myself, 'Why?'. I mean it's just Chuck Wolf, my dad. Maybe people want a mogul autograph collection, but it is still wierd to me," laughs Alex.

If Alex did take over the reigns of the company, would he be the new Wolf spokesperson? "No!", he pipes up. "I just cannot see putting myself in front of the cameras. Plus, I really couldn't handle strangers coming up to me and asking for autographs." While we can look to several more years of Chuck Wolf taunting the drug and supermarket chains, the original campaign may have to change one day. For now, the company's ad campaign is healthy as well as its balance sheet. Wolf was ranked second on the Atlanta Business Chronicle's 1999 list of the fastest-growing private companies in the metro area. In 1998, the company's revenue was $400 million.

Morale at company headquarters is positive and robust. "We are truly a family," Alex says. What more could a CEO want? Still, Chuck Wolf doesn't rest on his laurels. After all, he wants wants to live up to his company's motto, "Our expertise is free!"

(C)1999 Robert J. Nebel

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