LEADER Retailer: Ric Jolie- Benson’s Lighting & Fans

How did you enter the lighting industry?

While in college in the early 1970s with the goal of attending law school, I came to that proverbial “fork in the road”…and, as Yogi Berra directed…I took it! I had been doing side work as a discotheque DJ and met up with the sound and lighting wizard who had installed the equipment for a couple of clubs. We combined his technical knowledge with my sales and business background and formed a company together.  We focused on the entertainment segment, designing the lighting and sound environments for discos, nightclubs, and restaurants. Over the subsequent six years, I became more and more fascinated with the science and artistry of lighting, and began expanding our scope of work into the residential market.

In 1981 I was offered an opportunity to work for Economy Electric Supply, located in central Connecticut. Already the second largest electrical distributor in New England, the company was in a growth mode, looking to expand with more locations and more lighting showrooms. Initially hired as a showroom manager for the first branch acquisition, I rose through the ranks as more showrooms were added, eventually becoming the vice president of the lighting showroom division. In the late 1980s, I moved to Boston to accept a position as vice president of the showroom division for Massachusetts Gas and Electric, New England’s largest electrical distributor with 12 locations in 3 states.

Tiring of the corporate environment and desiring to be more in control of my destiny, I set my sights on owning and operating an independent showroom. With my wife, Rebecca (who had been employed in the state-of-the-art Lighting Concept Center at Mass Gas), we moved to Miami in 1994 to seize upon the opportunity to begin the process of acquiring the well-established Benson’s Lighting from Dick and Nancy Cole. At that time, the company, founded in 1963, was a lighting showroom powerhouse focused almost entirely on the retail trade.

Not to throw the baby out with the bath water, our business strategy was to continue maximizing the retail success and incrementally add high-end residential builder business, decorator, and designer clientele, export, and some commercial supply. We completed the acquisition of Benson’s in 2003.

What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen?

If nothing else, the lighting industry has been in the vortex of change ever since the early 1980s. I recall when nearly the only finishes available were polished brass, antique brass, and pewter. Most lighting was sold through electrical distributors, and free-standing independent, lighting-only showrooms were few and far between. Three time mark-ups less 50 percent were the norm. Domestic lighting manufacturers were the primary suppliers with some product coming in from Europe.

We can thank the likes of Fred Glassman of Fredrick Ramond and Robert Sonneman of Sonneman: A Way of Light who introduced wonderful new merchandising concepts.  Display grids, application segmented showroom layouts, and lighting becoming a vital component to the entire interior design scenario all made lighting a “hot” item for the consumers.

Then, of course, the onset of product being imported from Taiwan and later China took hold in the 1980s and big box stores were viewed as major threats to the profits of lighting showrooms. How to compete was the pressing question among all the traditional lighting retailers.

Adapt, change, or fail — that was the scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and still is today.

The number of suppliers exploded during this time. Back in the day, the majority of lighting showrooms in Dallas were confined to the 10th floor of the World Trade Center building at the Dallas Market Center. Markets were considered “fun” events, and the Summer market was bigger than January, helped in large part by the attractive 4 Star vendor incentives [offered by key manufacturers]. Today, working the market is a marathon feat.

The last 35 years have been a great time – although challenging – for the lighting industry. Advances in technology and the increased focus on fashion, plus greater consumer awareness, have all combined to make lighting such a vital element in design.

There is no question in my mind that the single greatest change has been the advent of LED sources as a revolutionary, far reaching, component of lighting advances.  Nothing in my experience has had such a rapid and dramatic effect on lighting and illumination technology.

What has been the key to your success?

I can attribute some of my success to having entered this industry at a time when so many of the “titans” were still actively involved in the business.  From the distinguished likes of Art Director, Stanley Wolar, Gerry Fleischer, George Sturdy, Ira Phillips, Dick Cole, and, of course, sales trainer guru Michael Alford, and so many others, I had the wonderful opportunity to know these gentlemen and learn from them at industry events, ALA Conferences, and by visiting their businesses.

Vital to our success has been the efforts and dedication to providing a high level of service to our customers by our employees. We pride ourselves on providing our clientele with knowledge, solutions, and an elite experience.

As owners and operators of Benson’s Lighting for these past 23 years, I have to thank my wife Rebecca for leading us into an entirely new aspect of our business and now a significant dimension of our operation. Her tireless efforts in serving our builder trade has been vital to our continued success and fundamentally enabled Benson’s to survive the tumult of the 2008 Recession and the continuing impact of the e-commerce encroachment.

What do you wish you knew when you were first starting out?

That it doesn’t get easier the longer you are in the business. In fact, longevity may be a hindrance! The sea of change that the overall retail channel is experiencing today almost requires a veteran to forget what once worked before and may not apply at all today. Adapt or fail…that is more true than ever before. To succeed today requires a quick and timely change in mindset, strategy, and implementation. Consumer behavior is changing rapidly, employee training and motivation requires adaptation to a younger work force.  Starting out, I embarrassingly thought I had all the answers…today, it’s easy to not even know the question.

Where do you see your business in the next 5 to 10 years?

The entire lighting showroom industry is at risk due to the increasing tendency of the consumer to purchase lighting online, bypassing the traditional brick-and-mortar showrooms. I often say, “If one wants to buy a light, one can do that in the comfort of their bedroom at midnight with nothing but a laptop in their hands.” However, if one seeks “lighting, professional guidance, design and project management, and solutions not accomplished with a single light source” then the services and expertise of a highly trained lighting professional within the context of a lighting showroom are vital.

Over the coming years – and less than 10 – I see an increased loss of marketshare to the e-commerce marketers. I feel it’s safe to say that there will be fewer lighting showrooms than presently exist. It’s evident to me that our suppliers, the manufacturers we all do business with, see the same. They have addressed it by increasing their distribution to the non-showroom channels. Frankly, I cannot blame them for this. The consumer is leading the way. The Internet platform will only continue to be a force to reckon with.

To survive and thrive in the coming years will require Benson’s Lighting to clearly distinguish itself from a “be all to everyone” showroom.  I believe a more focused approach is required. Knowledge, expertise, and clear understanding of “concierge service” will be the keys to prosperity and survival.

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