After 25 years of reporting on the residential sector of the lighting business, I have a good understanding of the relationship between manufacturers’ reps and lighting showrooms. In part, it involves educating the sales staff about the latest products so that they can relay those benefits to consumers, plus offering merchandising tools that help showrooms raise their bottom lines. There are other important responsibilities, of course, but I want to focus on the education/selling process specifically.
Since I attend Lightfair, LEDucation, Strategies in Light, and The LED Show, I am aware of the contract/commercial side of the business from the product perspective – after all, there is some cross-over between the sectors, and even more so since LEDs have become more prevalent. For this issue’s focus on sales reps, I wanted to increase my knowledge by tagging along with commercial lighting reps as they made the rounds with a new product from California-based Optec LED Lighting.
Jeff Gatzow, Vice President of California-based lighting manufacturer Optec, and the sales reps from the Wisconsin-based agency Spectrum Lighting & Controls – which covers the state of Wisconsin, the upper peninsula of Michigan, and northern Illinois from its offices in Waukesha, Madison, and Green Bay – put together a varied experience for me by holding meetings at three leading companies in the Milwaukee area: Ring & DuChateau Consulting Engineers, whose 80-person staff offers mechanical and electrical systems design along with planning, studies, and commissioning in sectors that include healthcare and education; the 44-person electrical contractor firm of Uihlein Electric, which also provides technology solutions and building automation support; and Quad/Graphics, the second-largest print and integrated media solutions provider which employs 22,500 people worldwide in 60+ facilities.
First, I wanted to know what “we” were demonstrating. Optec LED Lighting has been a leader in exterior LED signage/electronic message centers for 30 years (under the name Optec Displays), so when LEDs started undergoing rapid development for commercial lighting purposes, it was already ahead of the curve when it came to developing and utilizing LED components. The manufacturer currently offers a full line of interior high bays, area lights, plus architectural exterior fixtures and wall packs.
The fixtures we showcased on our road trip are the new OLA1 Area Light Series and the OLHB2 Linear Highbays (both featured at the company’s booth at Lightfair in Chicago). “We’re offering high performance, long-life, a 10-year warranty and some distinctive features, such as control options, choices in color temperatures, and some bells and whistles,” Gatzow told me. “Architects and contractors want to work with reputable brands because they don’t want to be on the hook for products [in their projects] that aren’t well-serviced.”
Optec’s 30 years of experience in the LED electronic signage business has led to products that have good thermals. “Think of electronic signs that are on 24/7 in harsh environments and sit in the heat as well as [give off] heat,” Gatzow said, adding, “The signage/display industry is inherently more service-oriented by its nature because of electrical, thermal, and optical concerns. Because of our three decades of experience, we know how to design, engineer, and value-engineer a product.”
Gatzow pointed out that LEDs have changed how “end of life” is determined. Since LEDs degrade evenly over time, “usefulness” has become the new evaluation criteria for light levels. LED-powered fixtures will not have burned-out bulbs to indicate replacement – as it would with HID, incandescent, or fluorescent sources – instead, light loss is often assessed by using a light meter, and a facilities manager might not notice the subtle loss. A good commercial lighting rep will keep an eye on maintenance issues.
What was interesting to me over the course of the day, was how the conversation was vastly different for each customer we called on. Our first stop was at Ring & DuChateau, a renowned engineering firm in the healthcare field with six employees specifically dedicated to lighting. Here, the client was most concerned about the optics of the fixture.
Gatzow pulled out a spec sheet to go over the optics with the client, point by point. “These are first-generation optics that meet IES standards,” Gatzow noted, explaining to me and the client that fine-tuning optics is a continual process, and therefore improvements can be expected.
“[Good fixture design] starts with the optics, and getting it right is tough for many companies. Our goal is to produce good light without glare. We put optics first and foremost.” The optics portion is so important, I learned, that there is a long back-and-forth process between the simulation stage to tooling and then production.
What ensued was a conversation that was more complex than any I’ve been privy to in the residential sector, starting off with an in-depth analysis of optics – complete with a demonstration of the fixture’s illumination quality – before it segued into color temperature choices, the availability of baffle/vision guards, and compliance with IECC codes (the International Energy Conservation Code is adopted in 47 states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, New York City, and Puerto Rico). With many architectural firms handling projects all over the country, the discussion then turned toward providing a cut sheet with far more details than a standard sell sheet, as well as opportunities for customization.
Noted Holly Bloomquist, LC, MEIS, LEED Green Associate, one of the lighting specialists at Ring & DuChateau, “The latest IECC codes [require] lighting to be reduced by 30 percent on-site from about midnight to 6 am. Some manufacturers do this through a high/low or an on/off switch, while others are configurable through a remote application. Many businesses are looking for a solution where their property does not have to be in total darkness.”
By offering a programmable system (such as the one Optec offers), the architectural firm can save its clients even more energy by lowering the light level another 10 percent. “I like that it is customizable to the site’s needs and not just meeting the bare minimum code,” Bloomquist shared.
Another discussion followed, covering wireless protocol and whether the lighting system was tied to a specific system (it’s not). “We think that should be a customer preference,” Gatzow stated. By not coming with a specific wireless brand installed, the system can be used on any project instead of exclusively with those with a matching protocol. This gives the architectural firm more flexibility when bidding on projects.
Only at the end of the meeting did the topic of finishes come up (usually among the top three concerns on the decorative lighting side). “We went to [pole manufacturer] Valmont and matched their four most popular powder-coated colors (Bronze, Black, White, and Gray),” Gatzow answered. This provides architectural firms with seamless integration with a site’s existing exterior poles. Bloomquist also asked for a chip set of finish colors that the firm could have on-hand. Overall, she appreciated the hour-plus meeting and being able to see the fixture in person.
Our next stop was to Quad/Graphics, a massive printing operation that has six buildings in the Milwaukee area alone, not to mention many more in other states and countries. The printer has been slowly retrofitting its parking lot/area fixtures with LED, as well as high bays inside each plant. The process of retrofitting or replacing fixtures had already begun at the facility we visited, however, the decision-maker we met with is responsible for continuing that process at all of the other campuses. This customer was concerned about glare and cut-off, as well as evaluating any backlighting effects.
This conversation was completely different from the architectural firm in that the client was concerned about heat, longevity, and ease of accessibility. “With this customer, the conversation is more about ‘lumens per dollar,’” Gatzow told me. While 4000K in HPS (high pressure sodium) fixtures is used in many factories, this client was interested to learn there was a choice of 3000K, 4000K, and 5000K in LED. The concept of wireless protocols came up as well, and he was also pleased to hear that there is not a prescribed control brand that comes with the product.
Gatzow and Jeff Larson of Spectrum Lighting asked if the firm had a need for wall packs and showed several new options. “An architectural aesthetic doesn’t have to cost more,” Gatzow stated. “You can have something that acts like a spec product, but at a better price.”
Delivery times and standard finish colors came up in the conversation, as well as energy rebates. With many factories receiving energy incentives from utilities, this was an area of importance to the client — specifically whether there was a procedure in place whereby Optec could handle all of the paperwork on behalf of Quad/Graphics. (The answer was yes.)
Another concern the client voiced was availability of styles, noting that some of the competing brands “seem to discontinue products every week.” In this case, the 10-year warranty was especially valuable. “We support our products long-term,” Gatzow affirmed. While design details such as having a variety of hole patterns for product versatility was appreciated, it was apparent that customer service and standing behind products for a long time to come was more critical for this customer. After all, with multiple facilities worldwide, there will be a continual need to retrofit and adapt.
Our last stop was at Uihlein Electric, a well-known electrical firm in the Milwaukee area. Here, there was a team of electricians in the meeting. The chief discussion revolved around ease of installation. The interest also involved the availability of spec-grade product at design-build prices, as well as an integration of design styles for those customers who want to have the parking lot fixtures coordinate aesthetically with the building’s exterior fixtures.
Instead of a deep dive into optics or energy rebates, the conversation was centered on products that offered easy mounting with multiple points for greater anchoring power. The 10-year warranty was important to the electricians, and they liked the notion of being able to indicate whatever control system they wanted to use on a project without having to rely on what came with the lighting product.
Concerns about discrete shielding and glare protection options were prominent in the discussion, along with available light patterns. Another unique attribute these electricians were interested in was a low-profile fixture that could provide battery back-up in case of a power outage. While finishes matching Valmont poles was well-received news, one electrician asked if custom finish colors could also be accommodated (the answer is yes).
At the end of the day, this road trip was an educational experience for learning about the various concerns of the commercial lighting world. It wasn’t just hearing new terminology, but the design considerations and practical aspects involved in each segment was eye-opening for me. There’s no doubt that being a lighting rep – both on the residential and commercial side – is a much more complicated sales proposition, requiring a multi-faceted skill set than any other category in the home and build environment.