Ray and Grace Harmon
By the time Ray Harmon turned 30, he had served in the combat engineers under George Patton, returned to St. Charles to marry his high school sweetheart, graduated from Washington University, become an elder in his Presbyterian Church, completed J. C. Penney management training, sold Nashes, and worked for the Defense Department and GE Credit.
If that sounds frenetic, Harmon settled down in 1955 when he purchased the Identi-Foto franchise for Washington, D.C. There, he worked 15-hour days promoting infant photography to hospitals in the region. On weekends, with help from wife and life-partner Grace, he caught up on bookkeeping.
Serious purpose and vision displaced freneticism, and the Harmons built the nations leading infant photography company. Revenue at HASCO International Inc., parent of First Foto Inc., should top $100 million this year. The company employs 1,600 worldwide, 405 in the St. Louis region.
Harmon is the companys chairman; Grace Harmon is the employee relations manager.
Asked the secret to his success, Harmon says, I married well, and hes smiling, but not joking.
Also focus, he continues, not allowing yourself to be sidetracked. If you do, it takes energy and resources from your goal. You cannot afford to allow that to happen.
First Foto was born in 1965, an amalgam of Harmons East Coast operation and the Chicago and St. Louis franchises. In 1977, Harmon moved First Fotos headquarters from Alexandria, Va., to St. Charles.
First Foto merged with California-based Photo Engineering Corporation in 1981. Since then, HASCO International (an acronym: Harmon, Arnold and Schrier, founders of the combined companies) has made 20 acquisitions, ranging from local operations to major competitors like Hospital Portrait Service (serving 413 hospitals) in 1985, and Cradle Pictures (360 hospitals) in 1988.
To paraphrase the fabled Senator Everett Dirksen: A few hundred hospitals here, a few hundred hospitals there...pretty soon, youre talking about real market share.
HASCO International now serves 2,750 hospitals in 50 states, photographing roughly 78 percent of all American babies. HASCO takes all the baby pictures in Canadian hospitals, and most of them in Australia.
International, indeed; theres more.
When the Harmons visit Paris this year (theyre in Italy as this is written), theyll visit the operation they set up there 20 years ago, and sold to Frances largest film processor.
Harmon says, We love the people, the food, the antiquity of the city.
For people possessed of international holdings and preternatural tastes (They love Parisians?!?), the Harmons hearts are in St. Charles. He says he needs to give back something to the community that has given us so much.
Harmons commitment to community runs deeper than quid pro quo. His father taught religion and philosophy at Lindenwood University, and his sister taught math there for 29 years. Now Harmon chairs Lindenwoods board of trustees.
Education is the answer to most of our social problems, he says. Lindenwood is doing a tremendous job educating the whole person, giving students a liberal arts background that teaches them how to live, not just how to earn a living.
He also chairs the Greater St. Charles Convention & Visitors Commission. Harmon: We have a wonderful city, with a lot to offer visitors and tremendous potential. Lewis & Clark started here, Daniel Boone settled here, the historic trails west from here. Tourism is a growth industry.
He has served on the citys economic development commission, the YMCA board, and is an active member of the RCGA St. Charles County advisory committee and the RCGA board of directors. He was honored as the 1997 St. Charles Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year.
Grace is the chambers president for 1999. She is also a member and past chair of the SSM St. Joseph Health Center & SSM St. Joseph Hospital West Foundation board, and with Ray, a major supporter of the hospitals. (Moreover, HASCO in the last 10 years has contributed $140 million back to the hospitals it serves.)
I see a lot of hospitals and most of them are good, Harmon says, but SSM St. Joseph provides exceptional care. Citing $8 million a year in uncompensated care the two hospitals provide, he adds, Im especially impressed with their commitment to the community.
Meanwhile, when some people might start to ease up, Harmon says hes diversifying a bit, beginning to accumulate a commercial real estate portfolio: 500,000 square feet in the St. Louis region, and a 365-acre development with a signature golf course in Austin, Texas.
I really enjoy what I do, Harmon says. Im still excited to get up in the morning and go to work.