This year B&H celebrates its 50th anniversary, an impressive achievement for any company but especially for one that got its start in the heart of New York City, where companies are cannibalized with astonishing regularity.
Above photograph: The interior of the B&H store on 17th Street before it moved to 34th Street
According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, nearly half of all businesses fail in the first five years. Before the pandemic, the fifteen-year survival rate was only 25.6%.
So what's B&H's secret?
"B&H has always zigged when everybody else is zagging," says long-time B&H employee Jacob Katz.
Beginning with just three employees, in 1973, B&H has become a monolith in the retail world. The company employs more than 2,000 wage earners, has a 70,000-square-foot retail space in the heart of New York City, and four warehouses spanning from Manhattan to New Jersey.
B&H supplies more than 400,000 products to 179 different countries, carrying everything from tripods to televisions, video cameras to binoculars. The brand has seen the invention of cell phones, lived through the last years of the Vietnam War, and the administrations of ten different Presidents. B&H rode the crest of the Internet wave and invested in new technologies without hesitation.
While some companies have failed to see their fiftieth birthdays, (Toys "R" Us, Blockbuster, K Mart, Borders, and Tower Records, to name a few), B&H has stuck it out. It has persevered through everything from the 2008 recession to a global pandemic.
Yet without its employees, B&H would be nothing.
More than 800 of its 2,000 employees have been with the company for more than ten years. (Ten years in itself is more than double the average employee tenure at the average company in the United States.)
So on the eve of B&H's 50th birthday, let's hear from a small handful of employees who have contributed to this company's longevity.
Chuck Capriola, Sales Manager, 25 years
"It was like yesterday that I was hired, you know 25 years goes by at a clip," Chuck Capriola remarked on a recent Monday.
Capriola didn't always have an office job. He cut his teeth, like many B&H long-haulers, on the sales floor. "The store was like a mecca for people. People would travel to it," he says. "They would make a day trip just to come into the store."
Capriola worked his way up from retail floor to the Phones Department where he realized he had the right disposition for cubicle life. At that point in time, the phones were exploding. They could barely keep up with the orders flowing in.
From Phones, Capriola was promoted to the new Live Chat and Email Department. In November 2008, the department consisted of eight people. Today, he manages the team that now comprises more than 50.
Capriola says he's stuck around so long because of the way he's been treated. "I came from a very high-pressure environment. A job I was unhappy at and you know, you never forget that taste in your mouth," he says. At B&H, he found something different. He was immediately struck by the integrity that runs through the company, from the way management treats its employees to how it conducts business.
As an Orthodox Jewish company, B&H observes many holidays that the rest of the country doesn't. This means the company is sometimes shuttered when the rest of the country is going about its business. After being closed for a ten-day-long holiday, Capriola says he'll return to find a thousand emails waiting for him.
"There are people who have been waiting all week to talk to us," Capriola says. In the age of the Internet and instant gratification, he says it's shocking that customers are willing to wait a week to make a purchase. "They could buy anywhere, you know?"
After spending 25 years at B&H, Capriola says he doesn't have any plans for retiring. "I tell my boss, you're taking me out of here in a body bag because I'm not leaving."
Israel Fischer, Human Resources Organizational Development Director, 33 years
One of Israel Fischer's earliest memories working at B&H came soon after he was hired in the Returns Department.
He wanted to go on vacation with his wife so he asked his manager for the time off. The manager told him not to worry, the returns would all be stacked up in boxes, waiting for him when he returned. Fischer laughs as he recounts what the manager said: "Go as long as you want!"
There was very little down time in the 17th Street store, where Fischer ended up serving as Manager for two years. This was back when sales were handwritten and stuff from the warehouse was requested by walkie-talkie. Sam Goldstein, one of B&H's owners, would still frequently walk around the store and occasionally teach us lessons for life.
"We were, thank G-d, always busy and growing," Fischer says.
B&H was growing so quickly that a formal Human Resources Department became necessary.
In 1996, then-COO Jacob Moskowitz recruited Fischer to help with hiring, interviewing, and general communications. Fischer was there to shape what would eventually become the Human Resources Department.
"B&H changed everywhere. Things didn't exist then: we didn't have a website, we didn't have an IS department. You know, everything changed," he says.
Despite all the technological changes and modern business strategies Fischer has seen over the past three decades, he's grateful that the owners', Hershel Schreiber and Sam Goldstein, vision has stayed the same. They set the tone for the company, everything from "how we approach customers, the way we do business with vendors and everybody else," Fischer says. "And most importantly, how we deal with employees."
B&H's efforts have not gone unrewarded. Fischer says he's still astounded whenever he hears customers talk about the company. "To hear these words from people, anywhere on the globe, any age, any gender, whoever they might be. These words: ‘I love B&H,'" Fischer says. "You don't love a company! You love a person, you may love food. To say you love B&H because you bought a camera here? What does that tell you?"
More than anything though, Fischer says he's grateful for the support that B&H has given him, which allowed him and his wife to raise their eight children.
Jacob Katz, Sales, 29 years
Before B&H, Katz was a salesperson for a smaller camera company. One of the things his then-boss tasked him with was calling around to the competition, pretending to be a customer to inquire about their prices. When Katz called B&H, the employee on the other end of the line told Katz he knew that he was calling from another company. Despite this, he patiently helped him, anyway.
Thirty years later, that B&H employee is now Katz's manager, Jay Tabi.
Tabi's patience back in the early '90s left a deep impression on Katz. So when he went to find another job, B&H rose to the top of the list.
"The focus at B&H wasn't about commission," Katz says. "Mr. Schreiber and Mr. Goldstein's idea was you don't always have to sell the most expensive thing."
In fact, B&H employees don't receive any commission on the products they sell. Katz thinks that this is a big reason why employees stick around and customers keep coming back. Katz felt like he finally fit in.
When Jacob Katz started at B&H in 1994, everything was handwritten, paychecks were delivered by hand, and a mail-order catalog was printed every month.
"Customers worshipped us, literally, like we were a religion," Katz says.
The store on 17th Street was a cramped and bustling place with boxes and people stacked on top of each other. There was so little room between the counter and the wall that he says you didn't want to wear nice pants to work for fear they would rip while navigating the tight space.
Three moves later, Katz has seen the advent of computers and undergone several dramatic shifts in the fundamental nature of his job. Yet Katz says the company has essentially remained the same. "To the owners it didn't matter how much profit the company was making, the profit wasn't the most important thing. What was important is that the employees are basically like family," he says.
Jim MacFadden, Senior Marketing and Events Logistics Project Manager, 30 years
"I really meant to work here for about two months max," Jim MacFadden explained during a recent interview.
MacFadden was looking for a gig in between video jobs when he stumbled upon a B&H advertisement in the New York Times. At the time, B&H had just started getting into video. MacFadden's experience making videos for medical training and pharmaceutical companies made him a very attractive candidate.
Little by little, though, the magic of B&H began to work on him. Two months turned into four, which turned to twelve. "I saw every morning when I came to work, there were 30 people waiting to get in, 40 people outside waiting. There was always a line," he says. "We were getting celebrities coming in, mixed in with everyday people. It was just a cool place to go. And I happened to work there."
Even in those early days, B&H stood out.
Before everyone had the Internet in their pocket, you never really knew if you were being taken advantage of while out shopping. MacFadden says at other stores there was always "a tinge of, am I going to get screwed in some way?" But B&H was different.
"There was always truth. The customers saw it and felt it," he says. "The environment felt different. B&H felt safer, it felt more professional."
Despite being a talented writer, salesman, and videographer, MacFadden's true knack was for event coordination. His got his start with the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) show in the early '90s. At that first convention, he says the Events staff just threw some products on a six-foot-long table and hoped for the best―they had no idea what they were doing. Through trial and error, though, they slowly grew to produce multiple functions a year, including the 50th anniversary Bild Expo this September 6 and 7.
MacFadden says it's been fun watching this little "hole in the wall that I interviewed with" become an industry-leading company. Back in the '90s, he couldn't have fathomed the titan that B&H would become.
He says he's been especially grateful for his coworkers. His team is very tightly knit, due to how much time they spend traveling together. "It's cliché," he says. "But you know, it's like your family: you're eating every meal together, every day is together. There's a bond there."
Yossi Fogel, Director of Sales, 23 years
Yossi Fogel has always been "a bit of a geek."
He still carries an Olympus OM5 with him wherever he goes and does all his own research before buying new gear. So when he started working at B&H, he felt like he had finally found his people.
"It's like everybody at the counter knew more than me," he said. "It was incredible."
Yossi Fogel was well into his 30s when he started at B&H as a salesperson. He quickly advanced to digital photography Sales Manager. At the time, Fogel says, digital photography was "just exploding." His department went from nine people behind the counter to 108.
Fogel has seen an incredible amount of change at the company over the years. From managing the Digital Photography Department, he moved on to become the head of Web Content. In 2008, he was asked to come back to Sales, where he has served as the Director of Sales ever since.
"What hasn't changed is the company," he says. "We treat employees with a lot of care. I think that's what the biggest difference at B&H is, no matter who's at the top, or who the leadership is, or who the managers are, the company cares."
The core values that B&H's leadership has instilled in the company is what has kept Fogel around these past 23 years.
An Orthodox Jewish man, Fogel says when his son was about 12 or 13, he asked him a question: If someone offered him $10,000 to eat something that wasn't kosher, would he do it? His son replied that no, in fact he wouldn't do it for a million dollars.
"And I feel like this is what the company is," Fogel said. "You know, if it's not kosher, we're not going to do it."
As we peel back the layers of B&H's fifty years, some fundamental truths are revealed. It's clear that B&H has made a concerted effort to bring integrity and dignity to the work that the company does, something that has not gone unnoticed by its customers.
The sales people at B&H are able to do their jobs well because there's no quota hovering over them, no dollar sign on their foreheads. They are given the flexibility to talk customers out of buying the more expensive option and they're given the time and space to learn about the products that they're selling.
B&H has succeeded in building a trustworthy name for itself, not an easy feat in an era where trust is scarce and hard won. The brand has proven itself to be nimble and adaptable, accurately predicting and navigating changes in the market. Even in the face of great and uncertain times, B&H has remained steadfast.
So on this fiftieth birthday, we celebrate not just the company, but the people who have helped shape it. Happy birthday B&H Photo and congratulations to all of our wonderful employees.