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All in the Family

Jon Liss, CLA alumnus and entrepreneur
December 12, 2014

Jon Liss

Jon Liss
Jon Liss
The company:
National Camera

The mission:
Provide high quality and
fair service to compete
with chain retailers

Jon Liss probably would not sell you a camera in exchange for your Harley. Still, it might not hurt to ask him; the tradition of trading cameras for antique guns, jewelry, and other assorted items was integral to his company when it was first getting off the ground.

The company, National Camera Exchange, actually dates back nearly a century to Liss’s grandfather, who started a business in downtown Minneapolis that sold most everything, including cameras. If a customer didn’t have cash, his grandfather would also take most anything in exchange, which could mean that an antique pirate gun or a pair of tires sometimes ended up as the price for a vintage Brownie.

As the company evolved to concentrate only on cameras, Jon Liss’s father took it over and continued the trading tradition. Liss remembers the remarkable acquisitions-as-trade that showed up in the family’s backyard in his growing-up years: the German Shepherd, the fiberglass canoe, the Golden Retriever, and yes, the Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

“The more well-rounded your
education is, the better you can
work with people, can talk about
more subjects, and, bottom line,
you can enjoy life more.”

Liss had no plans to be part of the business when he graduated from the University of Minnesota; he’d been a history major and figured he might become a teacher. His decision to enter the Navy after receiving his draft notice in 1968 delayed his decision, but in 1972, he began working for his father in the Golden Valley store just east of where the newest store now stands on Highway 55. In 1978, he bought National Camera from his father.

Liss concedes that taking over a family business—rather than starting your own from scratch—is a mixed blessing. Having a built-in mentor is terrific, even though disagreements are inherent to any father-son working relationship.

“I never took a business course in my life,” he says. “I wanted to go back to school for business. My father said, ‘Don’t even bother. I’ll teach you everything you need to know.’ And he did. He was a heck of a businessman. He could make friends in a nano-second. He also taught me about being fair to people. He had this expression, ‘I want to sleep at night.’ I remember one sales rep from Chicago who bragged about how he had gotten an old lady to cough up an expensive Leica camera for virtually nothing. My father wouldn’t talk to him again.”

Ultimately, Liss guided the company through years that were not kind to camera stores. There were as many as 30 of them in the Twin Cities in the 1970s, the number dwindling dramatically as big-chain stores began to slash prices on small appliances, electronics, and cameras. Liss says the family trading tradition helped him thrive.

“No one else in town could do it like we did, and the chains didn’t do it at all,” he says. “So when people walked in with their older camera, we immediately had an edge. We understood that we couldn’t sell with higher prices, no matter how much service we gave them. But if we offered a competitive price and good service, we could thrive.”

Today, National Camera has five locations, some 180 employees, and the same fundamental commitment to both fair trade and service. Many of Liss’s employees have been with him for decades, and he’s clear about the people he wants working for him.

“I want really well-rounded people in here,” he says. “I want them to think outside the box as much as possible.”

Spoken by a successful entrepreneur who never took a business course, these words seem suspiciously like a plug for liberal arts learning. Liss doesn’t hesitate to endorse the importance of a liberal, well-rounded education.

“If someone asked me whether to go into liberal arts, I’d say, ‘Go in a minute,’” he says. “The more well-rounded your education is, the better you can work with people, can talk about more subjects, and, bottom line, you can enjoy life more, in my opinion.”

What he says:

“I want the person on the floor to be able to talk about many things. If your focus has been too narrow, if you’ve only concentrated on one area, you can’t do that. You have to think outside the box. That’s really important.”

“When we look at resumes, we see where they went to school, what they know about photography. But when I talk to them, I will also ask them what they do for fun when they are not working. Have they done any traveling? What activities are they interested in? What do they like to read? I want people who can see a bigger picture of the world around them, not just those who know cameras.”