Monday, May 18, 2009

In Memoriam: Walter Plessner: 1918 – 2009

It is with great sadness that we learned of the passing of Walter Plessner at the age of 91 on Friday, May 15th. Renowned as a photo industry pioneer as a parter in The Three Lions Photo Agency and founder of Plessner International, Plessner created a rich and memorable legacy during his lifetime. 

A Holocaust survivor, Plessner fled his native Hamburg, Germany in 1939 to Guatemala, where he lived and worked on a farm and then for the U.S. Army as a civilian employee. In 1945 he immigrated to Los Angeles where he earned his insurance brokers license while also taking business classes at UCLA. He began his career in the finance industry processing credit applications in the Latin American department at Bank of America’s San Francisco office. A contemporary of Otto Bettmann, founder of the Bettmann Archive, Plessner was invited by other fellow refugees who were also drawn to the growing media business in New York City and came to New York to join Three Lions Photo Agency.

Plessner and his partners immediately seized upon their personal and professional networks in Europe, Latin America and Asia to rapidly expand their distribution of images beyond the US setting the course for Plessner’s future career moves. As his partners neared retirement, they decided to sell the Three Lions agency to 4x5 (now known as SuperStock), but Plessner had more plans in store. He launched a new agency, Plessner International, and set about to build upon his worldwide network of contacts to distribute images from partners and photographers in the US and Europe opening up new markets in China, Japan and the Middle East. Not content to merely conduct business via phone and fax, Plessner traveled extensively to meet face to face with clients, agents and photographers to close business and forge new relationships logging thousands of frequent flyer miles annually. Plessner was also a prominent member of the international photo business community serving as an active member in PACA, ASPP and BAPLA.

A voracious reader of international business, technology and financial news, Plessner took great pride in spotting global trends and business opportunities well before his contemporaries. Though well into his 70’s, a time when most executives would have been content to sit on the sidelines, seeing the vast potential for distribution of digital images, Plessner played a key role in licensing the first set of collections that became the early foundation for Bill Gates’ Corbis Corporation all digital archive.

While finally shutting the doors of his Midtown agency in 2004, Plessner, “Herr Dokktor” was still receiving partners at his home in Great Neck, NY always grateful to hear the latest industry news and offer advice gained during his expansive career. In May 2007 he lost his wife June and during the last years of his life took great pride in his grandson Marc watching him blossom into a bright student and talented pianist. He is survived by his daughter Renee Plessner, an attorney with Mound Cotton Wollan & Greengrass, and son-in-law, Jeff Fishman

The funeral for Walter Plessner, will be held on Wednesday, May 20 at 11:30 a.m. at Temple Beth-El of Great Neck (in the Rudin Chapel), 5 Old Mill Road, Great Neck, NY 11023, Tel. 516-487-0900.

In lieu of flowers, donations in memory of Walter Plessner can be made to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum or the American Macular Degeneration Foundation.

On a personal note, I had the good fortune to meet Walter in 1984 as a twenty-something rookie with my first job in the photo industry. In spite of (and probably because of) his sometimes indecipherable German accent, I intuitively sensed that this kindly, but difficult to understand, older gentleman had an incredible story to tell if I only took time to listen . Listen I did and I learned much from the stories he shared across the lightbox and the lunch counter.

First off, he opened his vast trove of industry information and contacts. If I wanted to gain some intelligence about competitors in our industry, all I had to do was call Plessner and I’d get the skinny. Of course, I knew if I told some inside information to Plessner, it was a fair trade to assume that too would be shared with his other contacts. My colleagues and I would good naturedly joke, “if you wanted to spread some information quickly, don’t pick up the tell-a-phone, just “tell-a-Plessner. “

In the days before Google, if I wanted to learn about trends and opportunities in international markets, a quick call to my friend Walter would yield a detailed discourse on relevant market stats and, of course, Plessner’s unique and always thoughtful analysis. Over the years, I probably amassed several file drawers full of Plessner’s frequent clippings he would send from The Financial Times, Harvard Business Review, The Economist, New Republic, Herald Tribune, etc. His seemingly unquenchable thirst for knowledge was inspiring. He infused in me a sense of the possible; that opportunity is always out there: you just need to find it.

But his generous spirit went well beyond the mechanics of business. His greatest strength was in identifying, building and nurturing relationships. He coached me that the professional accomplishments for which he was most proud came not as a result of his raw intellect or effort, but were generated due to the quality of the relationships he developed during his lifetime. To demonstrate this fact, when I had the privilege of working in Europe and Asia for several years, unbeknownst to me, Walter would make an advance call to his extensive network of contacts, ensuring that a warm contact greeted me at every city where I did business. During my first trip to Japan in 1998, after checking in at my hotel, a note was delivered to my room from Plessner, informing me that he too was in Tokyo (!!!) and I should he ready to meet him for breakfast in the lobby at 8AM so he could make personal introductions to his trusted contacts .

His most important lesson was Walter’s constant reminder to stay grounded and humbled by the greatest asset in our life: love of family and friends. It was love and gratitude for family and friends that fueled his incredibly generous spirit. Every time we ended a call or a meeting, Walter would always take the opportunity to remind me of what was most important to him imploring me, almost demanding me: “Be careful” and “Take care of your family. This is the most important thing.” Above all family and friends were most important to Walter and I am forever grateful for his sharing this essential piece of his wisdom.

Colleague, Friend and Mentor. Herr Dokktor, thank you. You will be missed.