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A sign outside of Lifetouch's Chattanooga location on Preservation Drive in Bonny Oaks Industrial Park can be seen in this April 1, 2019 photo. / Staff photo by Kim Sebring

Lifetouch, which bought the Chattanooga-based portrait photography company Olan Mills eight years ago, will shutter its last facility in the Scenic City early next year and cut 152 jobs.

Aside from a few Lifetouch portrait studios in the area, the closure puts a wrap on Chattanooga operations tied to the Olan Mills company, which for many years was likely the city's most recognizable business.

Jacke Hurley, a Lifetouch worker at its Preservation Drive facility in Chattanooga, said she has worked for that company for six years and, before that, was an Olan Mills employee.

"I was hoping this would be my last job," said Hurley, 68, adding that she hates to see the disappearance of what's essentially the last Chattanooga vestige of Olan Mills Inc.

California-based Shutterfly, which specializes in photo books, personalized photo cards and stationery, bought Lifetouch in 2018. Shutterfly spokeswoman Sondra Harding confirmed Friday that the Lifetouch manufacturing facility on Preservation Drive will permanently close.

TIMELINE

* 1932 - Olan and Mary Mills begin photography business in Selma, Ala.

* 1943 - General offices moved from Alabama to Chattanooga

* 1971 - Olan Mills II appointed company chairman

* 1993 - Company up to 15,000 workers

* 2011 - Olan Mills Inc. sold to Lifetouch

* 2012 - Lifetouch announces closing of former Olan Mills production facilities in Chattanooga

* 2020 - Lifetouch to shut down its last Chattanooga manufacturing facility

Source: Company, news archives

 

 

"That means Lifetouch won't have any manufacturing operations in either Chattanooga or Southeast Tennessee," she said. Lifetouch had bought the Preservation Drive facility from Olan Mills in 1999.

Lifetouch still offers photography services in schools, preschools, churches and studios across North America, and none of that is affected by the manufacturing facility closure, Harding said.

According to the state, the Preservation Drive closure will start in mid-December and continue until the end of February 2020.

some text Staff file photo / Chattanooga's Olan Mills Inc. office is shown in this 2012 file photo. The photo portrait company likely was once the city's most recognizable business.

John Key, membership coordinator for the Oklahoma City-based Photographic Society of America, said a lot of people now basically make portraits with their cell phones.

"It's inexpensive and easy to do on your own," he said. "You can put any background you want with Photoshop."

Advances in technology disrupted what had been Olan Mills' business model, Key said.

When the Olan Mills company was bought by Lifetouch in 2011, it had 4,000 employees nationwide and more than 400 in Chattanooga, though it had become smaller in prior years as it faced competition and the digital photography age.

Some 30 years ago, it was estimated in an Associated Press story that all the film used each year by Olan Mills would have stretched end to end from Chattanooga to Phoenix.

In 2011, Olan Mills Inc. sold about 20 acres of its longtime headquarters off Amnicola Highway to Chattanooga State Community College. In 2014, Chattanooga Coca-Cola Bottling Co. agreed to expand distribution facilities to what had been an Olan Mills facility off Highway 153.

The Olan Mills company was started in 1932 by real estate salesman Olan Mills Sr. and his wife, Mary. In the early years, the senior Mills was the photographer while his wife did artwork on the finished prints, according to the company.

Olan Mills II, who became the company's chairman in the early 1970s, recalled in a 1990 interview with the AP that his father, who died in 1978, was "a charismatic, entrepreneurial leader."

"His greatest joy was being with a group of people," he said.

Olan Mills II said in 2011 upon the sale to Lifetouch that combining those two businesses was a logical step.

"Our companies share a culture of quality and service in environments that place a high value on our employees," he said.

But in 2012, Lifetouch unveiled plans to shut down the two Olan Mills production facilities in the city and cut 383 jobs.

Lifetouch said then it would keep open its Preservation Drive facility in Chattanooga, where it then employed up to 350 people at peak times. This past February, Lifetouch said it expected to close that facility.

In June of this year, publicly held Shutterfly agreed to be acquired in an all-cash deal by private equity firm Apollo Global Management.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

some text Lifetouch's 6104 Preservation Dr. location in Chattanooga, Tenn. can be seen in this Google photo.
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