As a 21-year-old finance major and Zeta Beta Tau brother at the University of Arizona, Pikesville High School graduate Ryan Millman spent a lot of long nights in the library. But he wasn't studying — he was using the university's high-speed Internet connection to start his first business, taking pictures at fraternity and sorority parties, uploading them to the Web and selling the prints.
Millman has come a long way since 1999. He now oversees a suite of four photo-related companies, with two buildings in Baltimore County that smell faintly of bleach, rattle with the noise of book-stitching machines and churn out everything from T-shirts and photo books to canvas prints for major commercial retailers, including Walmart, Sam's Club and CVS.
The businesses, which he runs with two fellow Pikesville High graduates, employ 180 full-time workers. During the holiday season this year, the number of employees jumped to almost 300 to accommodate demand for holiday orders such as cards and photo books.
"I was the kid in the back of class writing business models instead of paying attention in school," said Millman, 35, who dropped out of college six credits shy of a degree. "I wanted to go into business for myself. I was pretty determined."
Today, Millman's companies are one of the fastest-growing in Baltimore County, said Stan Jacobs, the county's chief financial officer for economic development.
"It's pretty unusual to see a company add 100 people in two or three years," he said. "That's a pretty quick pace."
GreekYearbook, Millman's original venture, which he moved back to Maryland in 2002, now has a network of more than 200 photographers working with fraternities and sororities on about 600 college campuses in the United States and Canada.
Nations Photo Lab, launched in 2004 when Millman decided it would save money to bring GreekYearbook's printing in-house, has been one of the country's fastest growing photo labs for more than five years, he said. Aimed primarily at professional photographers, it added almost 15,000 new customers in the last 30 days alone, he said.
In 2010, Millman bought a majority stake in a company that invented technology for wrapping photos around wood and founded Artsy Couture, which develops new, photo-related products for individuals and retailers. That division, which sells items such as canvas prints and personalized baby blocks, tripled in sales this year and is now the fastest-growing part of Millman Multimedia, the umbrella name for his businesses.
And in 2011, he started Greek Streak, which creates T-shirts and other apparel for fraternities and sororities, in response to queries from GreekYearbook customers.
Millman, whose Nations Photo-produced cellphone case sports a picture of his 2-year-old daughter, said the growth has been fueled by a combination of new customers, new products and cost-crunching.
"Every time we launched a product, our revenue grew tremendously," he said. "We gave our customers another opportunity to purchase from us instead of our competitors."
In some ways, Millman got lucky, starting an e-commerce business during the upheaval caused by the shift from traditional film to digital files. In the last five years, the 870 online photo printing businesses in the United States averaged an annual growth rate of about 15 percent, generating $2.2 billion in revenue in 2013, according to a December IBISWorld report. The industry is expected to continue growing for the next five years at roughly the same rate.
"We jumped in right at a time when everybody else was closing because of the transition from print to digital," said Jonathan Weinstock, 35, Millman's longtime friend, a University of Maryland alumnus and Tau Epsilon Phi member who is now executive vice president of Nations Photo Lab. "We just did digital so that was huge for us. The timing was perfect."
While demand for traditional photo prints now accounts for less than half of revenue in the online printing industry and is expected to decline, it is growing for pricier products like photo books, canvas prints and greeting cards, the IBISworld report said.
"It is a growing industry and certainly an operator with diverse operations that can capture different ways consumers want to print online photos — that would play well for them into the future," said IBISworld analyst Jesse Chiang.
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Despite the challenges in a photo printing industry, Millman said the fragmented nature of the business means there's room to grow .
"Industrywide that's a systemic problem — the need to print is not there. But when you're a multibillion dollar industry and you're a good marketer, there [are] enough dollars out there," Millman said.
The companies emphasize customer service, conducting follow-up phone calls with each first-time client. In the main building in Hunt Valley, which has foot massagers and armchairs in the break room, a brightly colored mural urges employees, many of them drawn from local institutions such as Maryland Institute College of Art, to "Keep Calm and Answer On."
Millman already is scouting for more Baltimore County real estate to accommodate future growth. In 2015, he said he expects to open a facility in the Midwest or on the West Coast, in part to save on shipping costs.
Harvis Kramer, Millman Multimedia's chief operating officer, would run the new facility. Now 33, he joined the company in 2002 after reconnecting with Millman when, as president of his University of Maryland fraternity, Sigma Alpha Mu, he emailed GreekYearbook in a panic asking them to yank "embarrassing" photos the company had put online.
"My dad didn't want me to join a fraternity," he said, "so it's funny to see how it led to all of this."