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2011 Hall of Fame: Steve Tiffen, President & CEO of The Tiffen Company

Giving customers what they want

January 2011 By Jeff O'Heir
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Whenever someone asked for his opinion about a new product or just about anything having to do with his filter optics company, Nat Tiffen would always begin his answer with one question and one question only: "What does the customer want?"

Like his father, Steve Tiffen, who became president and CEO of The Tiffen Company in 1987, still asks the same question. The answers he receives from a dedicated and growing group of those customers, whom the company has always referred to as the "engaged image maker," has helped the company survive the rocky transition from film to digital and to cater to new markets that will fuel future growth.

"The greatest lesson he taught me was to find out what customers want and just give it to them," Tiffen said from the company's headquarters in Hauppauge, N.Y. "He also told me to strive to grow and stick with what you know. What we know is the engaged image maker, from the advanced amateur photographer to the professional cinematographer."

Although Steve was the youngest of four siblings, his father, who died in 2006, tapped him to run things because he had a clear vision of how to adapt the company to changing times. "We realized that we needed to move into other products and broaden our base beyond filters."

Joining the company was never an issue for Tiffen. From the beginning, it created an exciting environment. His father, who spent much of his time in the field visiting customers, would take Tiffen to the sets of his favorite boyhood shows like "Bonanza" and "Bewitched." Tiffen remembers Jacques Cousteau calling one night from the deck of the Calypso with a technical question. "He showed me the business in a fun way. He never pushed me," Tiffen said. "I developed a passion."

In the early 1980s, when Tiffen was studying political science at George Washington University, his father began expressing concern about increasing competition, especially from Japan, and the direction the company was headed. "My father was the type of person who never asked for help," he said. "That raised a red flag."

The day he graduated in 1982, Tiffen hopped in his car, drove back to Long Island and, true to his father's legacy, hit the road with his brother Ira for three weeks to find out what customers needed and how to solve their problems. He and Ira, who is no longer with the company, then focused on marketing, sourcing, lead times and product development. They righted the ship and navigated it through the 1980s.

 

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