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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 30, 2010

Pictures Plus worth ups, downs

By Robbie Dingeman

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

A custom-framed Tom Thordarson art piece, left, hangs in the Pictures Plus store in Pearl Highlands.

Photos by BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Number of employees: 116 workers

How long in business: 24 years

Describe your business:"Our core business has been, still is picture framing. We are a manufacturer and retailer of custom framing."

Core strategy: "The key is creating value for our customer ó the quality, the service, the price ó so that they want to come back and purchase more from us."

Work philosophy: "I think being passionate and leading by example are really important. To me, it starts with me as the owner or leader."

Business survival tip:"Create a peer network around you. Be very aware of the times, trends, surroundings and changing environment . Being very aware of what's happening is very important and kind of dictates what you do."

Family:Kent Untermann and wife, Lori, started the business together; they have 20-year-old Alexa, in college; and son Luke, 18, a senior in high school.

Fun fact: "Converting from solid koa to veneer frames allows the company to get 24,000 koa frames from one tree as opposed to 600, "so we can get 40 times more frames from the same resource," Untermann said.

Big change or next big thing? This summer, Pictures Plus will double the size of its Kahala Mall store, with a much bigger emphasis on a new line of custom cabinets and other furniture.

Find information on all locations at www.picturesplus.com

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Kent Untermann, 48, is the busy owner, leader and founder of Pictures Plus.

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Pictures Plus got started 24 years ago when owners Kent and Lori Untermann sold a containerload of framed art at the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet.

The 7,000 pieces cost them $30,000 $15,000 they had and another $15,000 borrowed from family and friends. In seven weeks, they sold it all and figured they were on to something.

"That was awesome. It was very frantic and it was a very good feeling. It was a ton of hard work," Untermann said.

Since then, the former University of Hawai'i tight end has seen the business boom and shrink. It's evolved from selling only framed art to specializing in custom frames, and continues to develop various other lines to adapt to the changing times.

"We always worked hard and everything worked very well for the first 14 years," Untermann said. "We were very fortunate."

In 2000 they expanded from four to seven stores, with negative results. "We tried to do everything too fast," he said, "We overexpanded and had our first unprofitable year."

The company closed two stores and started finding a new equilibrium, "and then 9/11 hit and our business fell off the face of the earth."

Untermann is proud that the business has survived through sometimes challenging times with the help of his wife and many dedicated employees. "Competition has gotten a lot tougher."

He figures the average number of frames cut and joined per week at about 3,000, with the total number of custom frames produced since the company's inception at more than 1 million. And that adds up to something like 12 million feet of moulding.

Untermann, 48, said the company had $14 million in sales in 2009 compared with $16 million in 2008. "We were barely profitable last year," he said.

"We have lower prices than the vast majority of the Mainland and our turnaround time is way faster than industry average. We are one of the few businesses in Hawai'i that actually provide a service for less and faster than the Mainland competition."

He said the company buys direct and builds frames in Kapolei. He decided against an earlier plan to expand to the Mainland.

Untermann goodnaturedly protests that his sports background gets too much attention. But he did get recruited by the Dallas Cowboys and was heading toward a pro ball career until a hamstring injury at camp stopped him.

He got invited to return the following year but decided to change direction. "I was 22 and I have no regrets. I made a conscious decision at the time. Football is very hard on your body. I wanted to be able to run around with my kids."

But he said the sports background helped him survive some of the body blows of the business world.

Untermann said the first sales came from a containerload of cheap plastic framed art that included flowers, sports cars and religious images. They cost $6 for a 16-by-20-inch piece.

They branched out to a first store behind Cutter Ford, while remaining at the swap meet, but eventually converted to all retail stores.

"Lori would work with our daughter Alexa on her back in a carrier framing pictures. Lori worked until the day she gave birth and was back on the job after one day's rest," he said.

Kent credits his "lovely wife of 23 years" with balancing his dreamer-entrepreneur personality.

"While I was in college I thought I would own a chain of fitness centers, but the opportunity knocked in art and framing."

Looking back he feels the company has brought a service to the Islands. "We've been able to allow more people to enjoy the art and the woods from the Islands by making them more affordable."

And he's proud that for every dollar spent at his Hawai'i-based company, more than 80 cents gets put back into the local economy compared with national retailers who average less than 15 cents.

In the past few years, Pictures Plus survived a major flood at Kahala Mall, a tanking economy and being pushed out of the large Ward Gateway store to a smaller location across the street at Ward Warehouse.

He said the company closed two of three stores on the Big Island during the past two years. "We had about 145 employees at our peak."

The move to diversify into cabinets and customer furniture seems to be gaining momentum over the past year, he said. "We do a lot of custom beveled mirrors. We're also now doing custom cabinets and custom entertainment centers."

He plans to double the size of the Kahala Mall store in July or August.

"Businesses that survive have their eyes wide open," Untermann said.

And he believes that skills picked up from his jobs from delivering newspapers or running a lemonade stand through the offensive line at the University of Hawai'i helped shape him.

"To be successful in sports you have to be very disciplined. You deal with a lot of adversity in addition to getting knocked down," he said.