A weekly game of pinnacle, the advent of the hot plate, and the growing availability of household appliances all played a role in Hermitage Lighting Gallery’s evolution in Music City.
There are several unique things that can only be found in Nashville – the Grand Ole Opry, the Parthenon, and Hermitage Lighting Gallery – and each has gone through an evolution over the decades. The Grand Ole Opry originally started out as a weekly radio broadcast in the 1920s. The Parthenon, built in 1897 as part of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition is a full-scale replica of the original Parthenon in Athens, but today it serves as an art museum. It’s the same with Hermitage Lighting Gallery, which has roots that can be traced back to 1943 with weekly pinnacle games between friends Jack Tenzel, Nathan Taradash, Mose Elterman, Irvin Greenspan, and Ike Goldstein.
Soon, business collaborations were formed between several of them, the first being the distribution of a new gadget (the hot plate) which led to broader categories of electrical appliances under the name Hermitage Distributing Company. There was a shuffling in ownership between the group and by 1947, with the addition of Tenzel’s brother Leon to the company, the business name was legally changed to Hermitage Electric Supply Corporation with Jack Tenzel as its President. When Tenzel passed away in 1953, his wish was for his son-in-law, Gerald Fleischer (married to Tenzel’s daughter Doris) to become an officer in the business after his Air Force duties were fulfilled. Gerald joined the business the following year and became the company’s President in 1965, which also marked the year that lighting was added to the product assortment. He became an active member in the lighting industry and was among the first inducted into the American Lighting Association’s Hall of Fame in 2000.
All along, the business had been growing in leaps and bounds, moving several times, each time to bigger quarters to comfortably display the categories (equally divided between household products, lighting, appliances, and kitchen) as well as continuing to hire more employees.
The Legacy Continues
Under Gerald Fleischer’s leadership, Hermitage Lighting continued to flourish and his enthusiasm for the business did not go unnoticed by his son Jack. “I was always at the store. I even got picked up from school by the delivery truck,” Jack Fleischer comments, adding, “I have very vivid and happy memories of hanging out there.” When it was time for college, Jack wanted to go out West. “I wanted a big school that was also a big business school,” he recalls. At Arizona State University (ASU), he earned a bachelor’s degree in Management and was considering going for a Master’s degree — except the lighting industry intervened. “When I was in college, I worked at Kaybab Lighting in Arizona, hanging fixtures to make some pocket money,” he states. “After I graduated, I still wanted to stay out West so my dad got me a job at Statewide Lighting.” After extensive management training, Statewide transferred him to the company’s Sunnyvale store and then later to a branch in Sacramento. “It was all a learning experience,” he explains. One of his fondest memories in California was buying a motorcycle from the Thomas Lighting rep, but that paled in comparison to a greater experience: meeting his (then future wife) Daniella at the Showcase Lounge, where her sister was singing.
“I pursued her for three months,” Jack recalls. Daniella vouches for his tenacity and was equally intrigued by this lighting guy she just met. “It was the early ’80s, and I was approached to run the Lights Fantastic store in Austin, Texas. He broke the news to Daniella that he was headed to Texas and invited her along — and she agreed to relocate with him. Time passed and when Jack told his father that he was thinking of putting down roots in Austin and buying a house, that’s when Gerald realized it was now or never to ask his son to return to Nashville and join him in the family business. As many industry veterans can attest, the 1980s were boom times for lighting. “I was an aggressive kid, so I was able to make a lot of money. By 1985, we had doubled the size of our building,” Jack comments. Nashville was become the place to be and even builders from Texas were coming to the city to build homes. In 1991, the economy took a downturn and Hermitage Lighting had to consolidate. “Even though we had grown big, the economy knocked the wind out of us,” Jack says.
Before Gerald Fleischer passed in 2007, he had imparted a good work ethic and code of behavior in his son. “My father was a fine gentleman and a gentle man,” Jack affirms. “He was honest and instilled in me that when you say something to someone, you do what you say. He was a Mason and a Shriner and lived by those precepts. He never met a stranger, and I aspire to that. I’m more brash and restless than he was.”
Jack took the role of being President seriously, reading books on best practices and participating in retreats. The passing of the torch from father to son went smoothly, although Jack quips, “We had to transition [him] from being the decision-maker toward doing more delegating. That said, he was fully engaged in the business.”
Hermitage Lighting Gallery still sells appliances and kitchens – just like it did at the beginning – but Jack also added a hardware division when an opportunity to merge with another Nashville mainstay, Lankford Hardware & Supply Company, presented itself. With Lankford’s hardware and plumbing selection under the Hermitage roof, the company now offers the widest variety of specialty lighting and hardware products in central Tennessee.
“My goal is to do the right thing by my customers and my employees,” Jack notes. “I have created what I call the Management Advisory Council, where each division of our company is represented. We meet twice a month, and they meet for 30 minutes without me present so they can talk about me if they want,” he chuckles. “I also meet individually with each manager for ‘Action Plan’ meetings to determine what they need to work on.”
With 72 full-time employees, there is a lot of organization to handle. There are training courses for employees in each division to take, plus each member of the sales staff is evaluated using the Harry Friedman [of The Friedman Group] methodology that calculates ticket size and close rates to determine whether an employee is going to work out. In addition to operating via its own custom software – written by software developers on staff – the company also has a national accounts division and three buildings to manage. Meanwhile, Daniella handles all of the social media, communications, and advertising needs for the company.
“When the Recession hit us from 2008 to 2012, I had to make adjustments and scale back, which created some tension throughout the company understandably,” Jack recounts. “During that downturn, it took the fun out of the business for me. It’s been a challenge.”
With the economic struggles in the rearview mirror, Hermitage Lighting Gallery is poised to continue the momentum that is occurring lately. It’s also time for Jack and Daniella’s children to consider whether a career in the family business is a good fit for them. One son works in Chicago for the pharmaceutical industry and another one works for Farrey’s in Miami. Amanda took on an internship in New York City this past summer and is weighing her options. “I’m probably more like my dad,” she confesses. Stay tuned, the family legacy might be ready for another chapter.