The largest lighting retailer in Australia – Beacon Lighting – also has a lighting & ceiling fan manufacturing arm under the name Beacon International, which has entered the U.S. market. EnLIGHTenment Magazine’s Linda Longo chats with Glen Robinson about the family-run business his father founded.
Linda Longo: Your father, Ian, started his career in the lighting industry when working in one of Beacon Lighting’s stores back in 1969. How did the company evolve into a multi-store business and manufacturer?
Glen Robinson: Yes, that is correct. He worked in a single store in Melbourne that was very much a small retail operation focused on buying from wholesalers and manufacturers in the market and reselling to the end-user. Back then it was mostly a five-day-a-week business [plus was open] on Saturday morning.
In 1975, Ian purchased that single store and started to build the business through a combination of company-owned and franchise-owned stores. Over many years the business developed a very strong position in product innovation and development. Originally most of the development was done from European countries, then [production was moved] to Taiwan and finally to China.
Product development has come a long way over the years, with a very strong team based in China of 40+ people. This has allowed us to bring some very exciting ceiling fans and lighting to market with much better quality control and design. We now design and develop over 500 new products each year. About 10 years ago, we [decided] to sell all of these new products to other markets, and that’s when we started Beacon International.
LL: You and your brother and sisters literally grew up in the business and are active members of the executive team. What are some of the life and business lessons that you all have learned from your dad?
GR: We all began working at very young ages, starting out in the storeroom before the age of 10. But even more than that experience, we would talk about the business over dinner each night. [Our father] gave us a good understanding of the intricacies of the business. He has always been happy to impart his knowledge, which I understand can be a struggle for some business owners when trying to pass their information down to the next generation. Ian taught us to be honest, treat people fairly, and that there always needs to be two winners in any negotiation. Plus he [showed us by example] how to have an open, inclusive business culture.
LL: Just how big is Beacon International overall?
GR: We have approximately 150 people in the Store Support and Distribution divisions of the business and approximately 800 team members in the 108 retail stores within Australia. There are also approximately 40 people in the five Commercial Sales Offices, which are focused on project and commercial lighting in the Australian market. The International business – which covers wholesale and e-commerce – [is comprised of] 12 people spread across the U.S., China, and Europe. The International business leverages the support off the main group for product development, marketing, and finance etc., therefore the team can be quite lean in these early stages. In total we have just over 1,000 Beacon team members.
LL: How soon can North American customers receive shipments of their products after ordering? Is there a distribution center here?
GR: In North America, we are building the SKU range and currently stock approximately 30 to 40 SKUs of ceiling fans in a warehouse in Los Angeles. We are mostly selling on e-commerce channels and to some retailers. We only started the U.S. operation in January 2017, but we have a good amount of stock in LA to service our customers. As we learn which items are selling well in the market, we are able to easily ramp up production sometimes on the back of the Australian stock requirements to speed up delivery to the USA.
LL: Beacon Lighting has long been Australia’s largest lighting retailer. Are there plans to continue to add more stores in Australia and other countries?
GR: We only operate retail stores in Australia. We currently have 108 and we add approximately 6 to 8 new stores each year. We have a plan to get to 150 stores in Australia. We do sell our products to more than 25 countries through wholesale and e-commerce channels, but we do not have brick and mortar stores there.
LL: The Beacon brand is relatively new to the U.S. market, and I know you exhibited in a temporary space at the Dallas Market last year. Will we see the Beacon brand at any trade shows in 2018?
GR: At this point in time we are focusing on building the range and getting the distribution models more effective and working with a few key accounts. The U.S. is a big market and we have some terrific products, but we want to make sure we get the distribution strategy right in these early years of growth.
LL: Over the years, what have customers
consistently said about your company and your products?
GR: They love that the range keeps on developing and that every couple of months there are new products to review. We also put a lot of effort into the lifestyle photography we take of our products; our customers are able to use that great photography in their own marketing.
[There isn’t a typical customer.] Each one is different and has their own way that they want to work with us. Some purchase in their own brand, others prefer to use our LUCCI brand, some customers buy from stock in our warehouse in China, and others buy direct from the factory in full container loads. [I think they appreciate that] we are a very flexible business focused on product innovation and customer service.
LL: What did you feel was missing in the U.S. market that Beacon Lighting offers?
GR: I think our products have a lighter, more modern edge to them. We believe the U.S. market is moving in this direction and that the trend will continue to grow. We have also designed and patented the FANAWAY ceiling fan, which has been a huge seller in many markets around the world and we believe the U.S. will be another big market for this fan. What makes the FANAWAY unique is that it has retractable blades and looks like a lighting fixture when not in use.
We build businesses over a longer term. Setting up new businesses is never easy, but we take it one step at a time and don’t get too far ahead of ourselves. We have been pleased with the sales success [in e-commerce and through major accounts] so far in North America.
LL: What are you most excited about in the
GR: I guess the biggest thing about the U.S. market is the scale. We are accustomed to the Australian market, which is fairly small in comparison. The North American market is also very diverse, so while there will always be your top-selling lines, there are others that you wouldn’t have expected to perform as well as they have in some markets. That is exciting for us — developing particular lines for the different customers within the market.