In his last few months as President and CEO of ALA, Dick Upton reflects on his tenure at ALA plus the  challenges the lighting industry has faced — and overcome.

If it weren’t for a chance meeting with a man who was involved with the National Chamber of Commerce, Dick Upton might have become a lawyer or been elected to a public office. Instead, he became intrigued by how much his friend enjoyed his career. Upton put aside his thoughts of entering law school and decided to explore what the National Chamber of Commerce had to offer — and he happily stayed involved in that realm for the next 34 years until an opportunity to work with the lighting industry beckoned.

In 1994, a new leadership team headed by Upton was appointed at the American Lighting Association (ALA). There were quite a few challenges to overcome, such as a decline in membership and attendance at the annual conference. Less members and attendees meant less revenue available for some of the changes needed to reinvigorate the organization and the industry.

Previously, there were more layers to the ALA – including four distinct boards with separate budgets and agendas – and reaching a consensus on a given topic or action could take a very long time. “The ALA was not in constant session back then,” Upton notes, adding that meetings only occurred during the two Dallas Markets and the yearly convention.

“We needed to build a cohesive body to rally and lead the industry. People don’t realize that running an organization is no different from running a business. The ALA is a business operation just like any other company,” he states. And fortunately, Upton’s tenure at the Chamber of Commerce – where he earned the multi-year certification program of Certified Chamber Executive (CCE), the highest level a chamber executive can achieve – allowed him to immediately roll up his sleeves and get to work with his team members Eric Jacobson and Larry Lauck.

“Once you know what has to be done, you do it,” Upton explains. “We put together a very modern, organized structure with a singular budget and action agenda. We weren’t amateurs; we had experience.”

What Upton appreciated most in this new field was the unflagging support of the residential lighting industry. “I think the most important thing that happened [while we were starting out] was that nobody said, ‘We don’t do it that way, Dick.’ I had the input of the entire membership.”

Upton is fervent believer of not only organized meetings, but timed agendas. “I remember the first meeting we had, I was warned that the past ALA meetings had lasted for three hours or more,” he recalls. When that initial jam-packed meeting ended – and every topic on the agenda had been discussed at length – it was one hour and 40 minutes later. 

Upton says he made some converts that day to the practice of timed agendas.

When the lighting industry began facing challenges brought on by legislation and governmental affairs, Upton and his team were ready. “It was familiar ground,” he states. “I had worked in Washington with elected officials and so had Eric. In this case, it was just a matter of a different topic for us.”

Indeed, when a tariff affecting crystal chandeliers imported from Europe was proposed as part of the “Banana Wars,” Upton and Jacobson were able to quickly stop it. “That was the beginning of our government affairs efforts,” Upton remarks. “I remember Senator Pryor asking me about a meeting I hadn’t heard about. He told me, ‘If you don’t have a seat at the table, then you’re most likely on the menu.’ And naturally what takes place at that ‘table’ is people taking care of their constituency. I made sure that from then on that we would continue to have a seat at the table whenever [proposed regulation affecting] lighting or ceiling fans was being discussed.”

Sure enough, the ensuing years had plenty of governmental involvement to watch — from ceiling fan sales potentially being affected in Maryland to Title 24 legislation in California, the nationwide changes regarding incandescent light bulbs, and the current discussion to establish energy standards for ceiling fans. “To get legislation changed is a horribly difficult thing to do,” Upton affirms. “It’s far easier to be proactive, like we are now, than try to clean up after it has taken effect.”

Such careful monitoring of proposed legislative issues takes up a lot of time and Upton had been pulling double-duty monitoring government affairs in addition to his role as President and CEO. For that reason, once Upton relinquishes the President/CEO chair to Jacobson in January, newly appointed Michael Weems will handle that responsibility as ALA’s VP/Government Affairs. A Beltway insider, Weems comes to the ALA fresh from eight years working in the office of Texas Congressman Joe Barton.

“There are very few lighting companies that can afford to have someone devoted to monitoring governmental affairs and our manufacturer members look to the ALA to provide that guidance and to carry the ball,” Upton states.

What he appreciates most from his 21-year tenure at ALA are the people who make up the residential lighting industry, and Upton feels confident that Jacobson is up to the task.

“Eric impressed me the moment I interviewed him for my team. I needed a strong partner to run with me [in heading up the ALA] and I had been considering candidates who were older and with more experience. In that interview, I was impressed by how dynamic he was and how his smile never left his face. He is clearly going to be on the ball as President by thinking strategically and leading the organization, and I think the ALA will become even stronger in the future. The ALA team is a friendly crowd; they like the membership and enjoy being with them. This a very loyal group of rock solid professionals and I am darn proud of them. I am pleased as punch about the difference this organization has made to the industry and the awareness it has generated about lighting overall through our consumer outreach. Lighting is a family industry; I feel the members’ enthusiasm and their encouragement and it’s absolutely delightful. That’s a real blessing.”

Upton will serve as a consultant to the President and Chairman of the Board for the next year and will be the first non-lighting industry veteran to be inducted into the Hall of Fame during this month’s annual conference in Nashville.