Working with metal is in Richard Brenner's blood, like sawdust in the veins of a furniture maker or ink for a journalist.
That's why the former chief executive of Amarr Garage Doors seized the opportunity to expand his ownership stake in a Lexington company, Image Wizards LLC, that prints high-resolution photography and digital images on aluminum.
Image Wizards was founded in 2003 by Roger Laudy, who sold his share of the company to co-owner Brenner late in 2020 before entering retirement while serving as a consultant. The company, with 10 employees, is based at 105 Rogers Road in Lexington.
Brenner met Laudy in 2015 and had opted to take a half-ownership stake in 2016 with the potential of acquiring all of the company at some point.
"When I first joined the business, my role was to review everything," Brenner said.
"I needed to understand our history, people, process, customers, marketing, finances and vendors. I worked with Roger to make changes where needed."
Among Brenner's ways of putting his ownership stamp on the company is a name and brand change to Vivid Metal Prints.
"Roger built a good company and it has been successful for quite a while," Brenner said.
"We chose the name Vivid because it accurately describes what we make and expresses our desire to elevate and illuminate the artists and communities we serve.
"We want to take it to the next level and help customers elevate their images," he said.
Brenner said he hired Andrew Verga as vice president of marketing to take that element of the company "off my plate." Mirza Izic was hired as general manager to handle the operations and customer service side.
"More and more of my current focus is on new product development, sales to our pro photographer and business segments," Brenner said.
"More important is developing our team to embrace a culture of caring service to our customers and to each other."
Vivid stands out for its use of dye sublimation technology.
Traditional photo processors print liquid ink dots onto a substrate, usually paper, that often results in a loss of resolution.
In contrast, the dye sublimation process Laudy invented "achieves a pure transfer of the original image by using heat and pressure to transform inks into a gaseous state and meld them into the substrate," according to the company.
"We have a great product. It's jaw-dropping," Brenner said. "The issue is that not a lot of people know about it.
"Our goal with the brand change is find new ways to tell more people about our products, this technology, to attract more customers, particularly among professional photographers displaying their imagery in art shows and other events."
Izic said that "you immediately notice this third dimension, like they have more depth, because the dyes are suspended at different levels in the coating."
"What you're seeing is light hitting the back of the aluminum, then reflecting back through all those dyes."
Izic said what separates Vivid from other metal printers "is that we prioritize detail retention and really good communication with the professional photographers and the customers."
"If you make your living with your photography, you want to align yourself with someone who has the same focus that you do with the images.
"For an individual customer, once we get your order, we will reach out with advice and recommendations if we think there is a better direction to take the photo," Izic said.
As a full-service photography company, customers can choose from framing options, shapes and five metal finishes.
"We've had athletic groups order life-size images of their players, prints made into the shape of a guitar body, panoramas, murals. That's the freedom we give customers."
What you can buy
The Vivid products are available to business and individual customers in images starting at 8-inches by 10-inches for about $20, all the way up to 48-inches by 96-inches at a typical cost of $1,100.
The aluminum lends itself to much larger images and murals as long as 150 feet, similar to meshing large-screen high-definition television panels into mammoth electronic flashing billboards.
"The next step is to make even smaller prints available to make our products even more accessible to consumers," Brenner said.
Although Brenner declined to disclose his capital investment, which includes new equipment along with buying Laudy's share of the business, he said "it is a substantial amount of money, seven-figures plus."
Brenner said Vivid has the capacity to produce hundreds of thousands of metal prints a year, with about 98% of orders shipping in seven days or less.
"If you can see a digital image on a screen, we can print it," Brenner said.
"For people who have old photography, they can scan the print and even the grainy black and whites turn out great.
Brenner said photography on aluminum "is the longest-lasting photo medium by far."
"Everything fades with sunlight and time, but a metal print won't show any degradation for 80 to 100 years.
"You can clean it with common household cleansers, which is another selling point in this age of COVID."
Entrepreneur at heart
Brenner is tickled to be known as an entrepreneur at heart.
In a 2005 article in the Winston-Salem Journal, he explained that "entrepreneurship is about trying a lot of different things, seeing what works, having the guts to stick through things when they get pretty tough, and having a lot of cash."
He added that "cash is really, really, really important."
After leaving Amarr, Brenner focused on community investment through nonprofit work and helping guide business start-ups through the local entrepreneurial eco-system.
Yet, he remained on the lookout for a local business to invest in or acquire.
So, it was fortuitous that Brenner joined with Laudy with Image Wizards.
Laudy previously used the coating technology on coffee mugs and mousepads, only to have foreign competitors cut into his business with lower-cost products.
“When Roger first showed me the process and the finished products, I was astounded by the stunningly vivid and true-to-life images," Brenner said.
"I fell in love with the product and knew this business could grow even more. It just needs a little more exposure."
Brenner recognized early on in his investment in Image Wizards that there was a growing level of competition in the aluminum photography business.
Yet, he saw how the company differentiates itself from competitors through the dye sublimation process.
"It's part art and part science," Brenner said.
"Once people see how photographs printed on aluminum can transform their home or their place at work, it tends to make that emotion that great photography can produce even more compelling."
Brenner said that professional photographers, businesses and consumers choose Vivid for its products "because of the purity of the sublimation process and the luminosity of the aluminum substrate," which comes in five different finishes from glossy to matte.
The Vivid process also has the advantage of using aluminum that is made from 94% recycled material; both the print and frame are 100% recyclable.
"We've gained clients from weddings, hospitals, restaurants, corporations, hotels, showrooms who chose our products as a means to inspire their customers, employees or as a signage to attract customers," Brenner said.
Local customers include Forsyth Plastic Surgery, JKS Motorsports, Cone Health, Diamondback Grill — via local photographer Bowman Gray IV — and Jimmy Johns.
Meanwhile, its products are on display in the NBA's Golden State Warriors' new Chase Center in San Francisco.
"We're also gaining business from individuals who appreciate great photography and want to show it off in their home," Brenner said.
Brenner said another factor that lured him to Vivid is the ability to contribute jobs to the community, in particular adults on the autism spectrum in jobs "with the skills that they have."
"We want to elevate everyone connected with our business."
Opportunities and challenges
The brand change tends to send the message of "there's something new, and new helps build awareness and generate interest," said Roger Beahm, executive director of the Center for Retail Innovation at the Wake Forest University School of Business.
"In this case, the new name can help define and clarify what the brand stands for ... it would seem this helps accomplish that objective."
Beahm said there's always the risk "of having the new name be so narrow that it's not very extensible."
"In other words, you may be limited in areas of potential growth beyond what your new brand name might suggest."
Beahm said Vivid's strategy to invest in new and renovated equipment should pay off in expanding its product portfolio.
He said the biggest challenge is to explain in simple terms what makes photography on aluminum so impressive in its finished form.
"Showcasing examples of the finished products to as large an audience as possible will be key, not only to generating awareness, but generating sales," Beahm said.
"For products that provide a visual benefit, a visual demonstration of the attributes — and the resultant benefits — is really the best way to maximize the impact and appeal of a process like this one."