Jonathan Minsberg: Legend (Retailer)

enLIGHTenment magazine is proud to present the winners of our annual awards honoring those individuals in our industry who have been nominated by their peers for leading by example, standing out in their field, and inspiring others.

How did you enter the lighting industry?

My grandfather (my mother’s father) started the electrical supply company in 1926. My dad, Sol Minsberg, joined the family business when he married into the family in 1950. Today my brother, Michael (Mickey), and I operate the business and have switched titles and responsibilities over the years.

In my junior and senior years of college, I’d work in the showroom, but I really wanted to become a rabbi and teach Jewish history. I earned a bachelor’s degree in Judaic Studies from the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities in the early 1970s, but at that time the business was faltering. I felt that helping my parents out so they could fund my brother’s college education was the responsible thing to do.   

In the years since, I continue to volunteer as the main tour guide for our congregation – which is the 10th largest in the U.S. – and I’ve learned how to give 5,000 years of history in 45 minutes. It’s like talking to people in bumper stickers instead of paragraphs.

My brother Mickey and I have different strengths. He comes up with the great ideas, and I sit down and plan it out, writing two to three pages on how to make it work. We work well together. 

What are the biggest challenges you’ve seen?

In the pre-internet era, we had a catalog business called Golden Valley Lighting (named after a suburb in Minneapolis). We did a tremendous catalog business, even selling lighting to customers in Japan. Eventually the catalog business declined as the internet took hold and Mickey came up with the idea for the online business that became Bellacor.

The lighting industry today is a far different business than when I entered it. Back then, there was time to talk to people, and there was a reason to talk to people. Before there was a Dallas market, the industry met in New York City and not only would we spend time getting to know our suppliers, but they would interview us, too! We’d learn the story behind the production…like this is a die-cast piece, or this crystal is made in Austria. Most dealers had a relationship with their suppliers. They would sit and talk with you to see what you needed from them. We’d get to know their families and their hobbies and we’d genuinely look forward to them visiting us in Minnesota. Now [at a market] you have about 15 minutes to go through a few lines. It’s a whole different world. It used to be enjoyable to go to market, but now you need a stop watch. You used to carry a vendor for years, but now it’s “What have you done for me lately?” There’s not enough loyalty anymore. It’s a different set of criteria — not better or worse, just different. We’re a boutique industry, but we’re treating it as a mass-market industry. 

What do you think has been the key to your success?

I still treat the business as an extension of my personal goals. Maybe that’s old-fashioned, but I think you have to feel good about the product you’re selling. While my responsibilities have been exclusively focused on product, I’ve developed criteria for the companies I want to do business with.  I think dealers should come to Dallas market with a “hall of shame” list from your staff — the companies who are difficult to do business with. Is there one that has too great of an aggravation factor? We give our suppliers an overall grade. Life is too short to work with difficult people. I make a list of my top 10 easy-to-deal-with suppliers and go to market with the intent of doing more business with them. That’s an outgrowth of how I’ve been trained. I sleep well at night.

I think personal ethics is important to success. You need to be the same person everywhere in your life. I try to be the same person at market that I am with friends and family. That’s not something they teach in business school! I look at things through a different lens.

In Minnesota, reputation is everything. If you were to buy a car in Los Angeles, chances are you’d have no reason to return to that dealership and you probably wouldn’t tell anyone about your experience. In Minnesota, reputation = testimonials. That’s why we are vigilant to keep a clean reputation.

What does the future hold for showrooms?

The lighting business was mom and pop for so long. I think it will probably go back to a boutique business. There will always be people who can’t tell scale and need to see a fixture in person or who can’t distinguish a plated finish from a polished one, you know, the tire-kickers. Just like the clothing business, there are some things you want to try on and see in person.

How do we invent ourselves as boutiques? It has a lot to do with personal hand-holding and people talking to one another. There are customers who want to listen [to your expertise]. We [at Creative Lighting] may be somewhat insulated from what everybody else is doing because we’ve been here for 90 years. Legacy dealers [like us] have a different opportunity than start-ups.

We may have to set our sights on a different scale. Believe it or not, there are still some things that even Millennials won’t buy online. Maybe they get one to two deliveries a week from Amazon – and for everyday items like dog food – but why is it they only buy a couch in person?

It’s not the glory days [of years past]. Your customers are different, too. Now you have electricians and interior designers doing the buying. Conversely, I know people who have gotten their lighting from a kitchen and bath shop as part of a package — and that’s a different kind of hand-holding.

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