FOR PEOPLE LIVING in and around Topeka, the name Wolfe’s Camera Shop is synonymous with innovative ways to capture memories. From its early roots of selling camera equipment, through its growth into the video era, and now its surge into high-end photo finishing and integrated consumer experience, Wolfe’s has always prided itself on being ahead of the next technological wave.
But it is the dynamic duo behind the business that truly deserves the credit for its continued success.
Mike Worswick and DeWitt Harkness have been business partners for almost 30 years, but their relationship began much earlier than that. They both attended Topeka High—although not at the same time—and De began dating Mike’s sister in 1966, beginning a friendship that would last for decades.
Although admitted polar opposites, both Mike and De agree that their differences make them more synergistic business partners.
“I think about things for a long time,” Mike says. “De is a man of action.”
The two joked that if Mike had an idea, he couldn’t tell De until he had it pretty well put into place because otherwise De would have it done before they had a chance to really think it through.
Understanding the strengths of the other, both men play specific roles in the business. Having always been involved in the photo industry, Mike runs that side of the business and serves as president of the Photograph Research Organization (PRO), a position that he has held for more than 20 years.
De handles the non-camera side of the business, which at times has included calculators, video, televisions, VCRs, home entertainment and computers. His most recent endeavor has been to implement Wolfe’s into a state of the art photo finishing business. He also handles employee development.
No matter their individual roles, both Mike and De agree that hard work is the key to success. Both men grew up working in their family businesses. At the ripe old age of 13, Mike would ride his bike to one of the Wolfe’s stores after school. De worked in the Harkness Pharmacy at 6th and Burlingame through high school.
After graduating from Washburn University with a business degree, Mike worked in retail and the camera supply industry for a few years until he returned to Topeka in 1974 to join his dad at Wolfe’s.
De also spread his wings a bit after graduating from the School of Business at the University of Kansas, but also came back to his roots, joining Mike in the business in 1980.
Mike and De have always defined Wolfe’s as a store that provides products that need additional explanation to use. Whether it is a high-end graphing calculator—one of its top sellers in their early days—or a camera for everyday use, Wolfe’s has always tried to stay ahead of the technology curve.
“In this business, change is coming with or without you,” Mike says. “If you choose to embrace it, you will be able to stay in business for 92 years.”
Embracing that change has led Wolfe’s to downsize back to its roots and delve into a new industry: photo finishing.
“Even in this digital age, people still want to get their pictures off of their phones and onto jump drives or prints,” De says. “We help them do that.”
Wolfe’s not only provides those services for consumers, but they also offer classes to help people learn how to do it themselves.
“We help provide people with an experience as they design their own masterpieces,” Mike says.
Sometimes staying ahead of the curve and selling products that require more instruction has meant doing some creative marketing.
“We had a lion in the store one time,” Mike laughs. “Uncaged. On a chain.”
“Remember the elephant outside?” De laughs. “Or the calliope? It made so much noise, we made a few enemies that day.”
After working together for 30 years, Mike and De have learned a thing or two about what makes a business partnership successful. They expect the occasional argument. After all, Mike wants to think about things and De wants to take immediate action. But like “brothers” often do, they go in swinging and come out on the other side, not necessarily unscathed, but better for the experience.
“Respect is the key,” Mike says. “You have to be honest and fair.”
After spending the past 30 years helping people bring their memories to life, De is trying his hand at retirement. But, according to Mike, he is always at the store.
“Don’t give him that much credit,” Mike says. “He is still president of the corporation. He still handles the big decisions.”
“When you have done something for 58 years, it is hard to just stop,” De says. “I almost had to be threatened with my life to go be a ski bum for six weeks. That’s the only way I will actually stay gone.”
Mike is also considering his future plans. Right now he spends half his time working for PRO and the other half running the business. But as the primary bean counter, media planner and ad strategist, he isn’t quite ready to hang it up.
“I’m a born meddler,” Mike says. “I am trying to learn to let others do it without me.”
“He is doing a little better with that,” De says. “But that is all I am going to say.”
Mike and De have spent a lifetime helping other people bring their memories to life. And in doing so, have created unforgettable memories of their own.