Childhood visits to the family lighting store excited Fred Naimer of Montreal Lighting, who loved to wander in the warehouse and play amid all of the lighting fixtures on display. While he always knew he was destined to follow in his previous generations’ footsteps, he also realized he could bring innovative skills to the business. Under his ownership, Union Electric was named a Finalist for the best Lighting Showroom in the middle region of North America. He now operates a new retail lighting business that is breaking ground by relying on the Internet more than traditional bricks-and-mortar stores have in the past.
How did you get your start in the lighting business?
My family was in the electrical supply business since the early 1900s when my grandfather – along with his five brothers – founded Star Gas and Electrical, which was later re-named Union Electric Supply Co. Ltd. When I was in grade school, my father used to bring me with him to the office on weekends. While he would catch up on his paperwork, I would wander through the vast warehouse filled with cables and supply goods. The smell of the insulation on the cable is still embedded in my mind today. After the hike through the warehouse, I would then venture to the showroom and explore the forest of bright lights, appliances, and my favorite, the electric trains! I always knew that I would one day join my family members and work in the business.
When I was old enough, I would work summers in the warehouse and learned about many of the products we sold. I was always drawn to the showroom though, as I appreciated the different styles of products shown there. I was lucky to have the attention of some very talented people who worked for us, and they were always happy to volunteer information about the products and the differences between the qualities of the lines we carried.
After finishing high school, I decided it was time to go to work full-time. Perhaps not entirely happy with my decision to not go to university, my father told me that I would have to earn my way through the ranks like anyone else. My first day “full-time” was spent cleaning the boiler in the furnace room from the inside!
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen?
Where do I start? Looking back, my first experience with a “major change” was the building of the first Lightolier lighting lab in the country back in the mid-1970s. This was the first time that recessed and track lighting were given the spotlight (excuse the pun). Sales exploded on these products, and our showroom became the “go to” place for this category. We were also having great success with imports from Europe, crystal from Schonbek, and many other line with whom I still do business with today.
Then came halogen. Everybody wanted halogen! Halogen came from Europe and therefore was expensive. People expected to pay more for halogen — and were happy to do so. Fixtures were smaller and sleeker because of the relatively smaller size of the halogen bulbs. These were good times!
Next, China! Manufacturers started to shift production to China, and the European lighting was copied and put on the market for a fraction of the price. The best example was an Italian torchiere that was copied by Basic Concept. The original sold in our store for close to $2,000. The copy, made in China, sold for $250! In about three years, this design was available in almost every store (not just lighting stores) for as low as $12!
With low prices and high volume came the “big box” stores in the early ’90s. They were all about price, price, and the price! It was a blessing in a strange sort of way, as it forced lighting showrooms to become better at merchandising and managing their businesses. Those who chose to take on the home centers at their own game perished. Those who elevated themselves and differentiated themselves flourished. In my city of Montreal, prior the big box infiltration, there were 86 “doors” that sold lighting as their primary product. However, 10 years later there were only 26! Thank goodness for those manufacturers who chose to support the showrooms and not succumb to the lure of big volume orders from the home centers. We owe these manufacturers our greatest gratitude.
LED was the next big change, but unlike halogen, LED came from across the Pacific. The first LEDs to be presented to the public were inexpensive and had lousy performance. Our challenge was to now convince customers to pay more to get LEDs that performed. Those showrooms that took the time and expense to train their staff on LED technologies benefited because most did not — especially the big boxes!
Today the challenge is the Internet. Our new business, Montreal Lighting & Hardware, is basically a Web site with a showroom. Most of our products are shown online, however there are still some manufacturers that are afraid to allow their products to be shown. To them I say, “Get over it.” The only thing that manufacturers must do is protect the IMAPs. If this is not done, it will spell the end of most brick and mortar showrooms. We need the margins to maintain our presence. Those manufacturers that don’t police their IMAPs are doing our industry an injustice. Our showroom sells everything at the IMAP price and we have QR codes on every price tag to encourage the client to compare online. Transparency is key today. Exclusivities don’t exist anymore. Our competition is no longer the showroom across the street or across town; it is the world!
What has been the key to your success?
I hope people would say I was “straight” and “honest.” I have always tried to make promises that I could keep. Funny, but many times I was asked for commitments or promises that I refused. This was for no other reason than I felt I wouldn’t be able to live up to my end. A good deal has to work for both parties. I must protect my company and the other party must protect theirs. There should always be a common ground somewhere in the negotiation.
I have also always surrounded myself with the best people. First and foremost is my sister Andrée. We have worked together for over 35 years and are still talking! She has the greatest sense of style and is a terrific balance to me. My son, Daniel, who started in the business 8 years ago, is very technical and enjoys both selling and learning. He is the future and the “raison d’etre” for the new business. In addition, four of our best people from our previous business (Union Lighting) followed us. Their passion and desire for success shows every day!
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
I wish I would have started to get involved in networking earlier on. I cannot over-emphasize the importance of joining the American Lighting Association (ALA) and other groups that allow a person to meet others in their industry or community. Get involved! I only discovered ALA, then called the AHLI, mid-way through my career. When I look back at all the friends and acquaintances I have made over the years, it only confirms what a wonderful industry I am in, and how lucky I am to know these people. I am also very involved in community work. This is an excellent balance to business, I find, as it teaches you a sense of appreciation for what you have, and to not to get upset over small things.
Where you see Montreal Lighting 5 or 10 years from now?
Our new store is (excuse the pun again) “light years” ahead as far as presentation goes. Because we don’t carry inventory and use touch screens in the showroom to browse ours and other Web sites, we show only one style of any given “family” of lights. This allows the customer to see and touch the quality and finish of a product, and then go online to choose the right size and application. Therefore there is no duplication. In addition, all of our fixtures and sconces are mounted directly to J-boxes on the ceiling or wall. There are no tracks or grids where you can always squeeze in one more piece. Everything is spaced so that you can appreciate each style without distraction from another light. We order everything from the manufacturer and DO NOT remove the showroom sample. This only happens twice a year prior to market. Without the sample, we cannot show our clients the product. Our manufacturers appreciate this very much.
Hardware is also an important category — important enough to include it in our name! We have an excellent selection and have some clients who use us exclusively for their hardware needs. We also do a nice business in decorative accessories and occasional furniture.
In the future, I see growth within our local market, but especially in our online business as the Canadian market grows to accept this more. Albeit the numbers are growing, but Canadians still don’t buy online as much as our (North American) neighbors. We do use it for research though. Most of our marketing is done online, and most new customers say that is where they first found us.