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Flying high through life

Colette Eddy's successful aerial photography business employs nine and last year brought in $1.3-million.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 14, 2002


BON AIR -- When it comes to running a business, Colette Eddy doesn't overlook much.

She hires people to work with her, not for her, and she goes out of her way to make her clients happy.

To ward off bad energy, she uses feng shui at her office.

Eddy, 51, owns Aerial Innovations Inc., a photography company that goes to all heights to get the right shot. Last week, she celebrated a decade and a half in the air.

"Overnight success takes 15 years," she says with a laugh.

Eddy started the business out of a 350-square-foot "bunker" off S Howard Avenue in Hyde Park. A lawyer friend gave her the seed money. Developer Trammell Crow promised to give her business.

The three-person staff sold $2,500 worth of work the first week, but faced one small obstacle: no photographer.

That's when Eddy decided to give it a whirl.

"I knew I had a good eye," she said.

And a strong stomach.

Eddy -- like the photographers who would later join her -- rides shotgun in tiny, rented planes and helicopters that fly at 500 to 2,000 feet. They take pictures while a pilot flies. It's impossible to do both well, she says.

Over the years, Eddy has shot thousands of aerial photos of houses, vacant lots and construction projects across central Florida. The bird's-eye view inspires and invigorates her.

"All of a sudden, your office is a wide expanse of territory," she says. "It's very addictive. The elements change every day."

When she isn't flying, Eddy works in her office at 3703 W Azeele St., a converted yellow and white house with red awnings. She chose it three years ago because it had a comfy feel and good energy. Working windows let in fresh air.

Eddy told employees to personalize their work space and make it fun. One lined the walls with keepsakes from an African adventure.

She decorated the 1945 house with artwork, photographs and elements of feng shui.

In her office, a huge, gold-framed mirror hangs in front of the door to deflect bad energy. Behind her desk, aqua blue pictures signify wealth. A gong relieves stress during the good times and the bad.

Last year, it came in handy.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks nearly grounded the business permanently. Planes couldn't fly for seven weeks and many clients thought twice about ordering aerial work.

"It was the scariest time of my life," says Eddy, who lives on Davis Islands. She clung to the concept of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, "That which does not kill you, will make you stronger."

In the past several months, business has gradually picked up. In 2001, despite the slowdown, her company took in $1.3-million.

Eddy takes pride in fostering a family-like work environment. Employees celebrate birthdays, bring their kids and pets to work and barbecue on the back deck. For the 15-year anniversary, they partied on the Starship. They ended the night dancing to We Are Family.

"I don't think you can have a creative workplace, if you don't allow things," she says, music by Jerry Garcia wafting in the background.

Longtime staffers say Eddy's enthusiasm and likable personality make the job fun and rewarding.

"We've all had a lot of freedom," said Jenny Smith, vice president of sales, who started in 1991. "We all respect each other for who they are."

Girl power has always fueled the company. Of Eddy's nine employees, all but one are female. Her business cards point out that Aerial Innovations is minority owned.

A native of Bloomsburg, Penn., who moved to St. Petersburg in 1978, Eddy never expected to take pictures for a living, much less from the air. She liked to fly, but had no training behind a lens.

Eddy got into the business after she was laid off from a restaurant management job in St. Petersburg. She started in sales, lining up photo shoots for a Fort Lauderdale-based company that was expanding to Tampa.

When the office closed several years later, Eddy decided to go out on her own. Former clients helped her take the leap of faith.

"That push meant everything," she says. "It was a belief that I could do it."

With or without the feng shui.

-- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com.

COLETTE EDDY

AGE: 51

OCCUPATION: Owner, aerial photography firm.

FEE TO SHOOT A HOUSE: $475.

FAMILY: Her nine employees.

NIKON, PENTAX: Her work cameras.

LEICA: Her personal camera.

LEICA: Her Australian sheep dog.

KODAK: Leica's canine predecessor.

HUMAN COMPANION: George Toman. "He's in my life to slow me down. I'm in his life to speed him up."

HEALTH REGIMEN: Daily vitamins and a meat-free diet since 1973.

HOBBIES: Biking, jogging, traveling, cooking. "I don't work weekends unless someone pays us to work weekends."

LATEST TRAVELS: China, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru.

WISH LIST: Cuba.

COMMUNITY GIVEBACK: Donates aerial services to groups, such as the American Lung Association and the Centre for Women, for silent auctions and other fund-raisers.

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