enLIGHTenment Magazine is proud to present the recipients of our annual awards series 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 get involved in the lighting industry?
I had a lifelong dream of building a company, not necessarily of becoming a rep; I had no idea what a rep was. I had two successful previous sales positions in corporate America, so a sales company seemed logical.
My father consulted for a brand called Aladin, which made kerosene lanterns that could also be electrified. Mollie from Klaffs in Connecticut gave me a few minutes one day, and when I expressed the value of having a lamp that also worked during a power outage, she bought $2,000 worth.
I quit my job January 1, 1987 and built county maps of every lighting store from Cherry Hill (NJ) to the Hamptons (NY). My second line was wooden duck lamps and ships in a bottle with a lamp and shade. The ship one didn’t go over so well since Coastal was not the advantage I thought it would be. When a beloved rep with Murray Feiss passed on, 80 resumes were sent to Murray Feiss for consideration and Judy Mason from Krell Lighting suggested that I send mine. I gave (sales manager) Michael Goldstein a call, and he pretty much said I didn’t have a shot. After four months in the industry, I had visited 100 showrooms and wrote a total of 5 orders — but one month later, Mike called and suggested I send my resume. A couple of weeks and several interviews later, Mike offered me Murray Feiss on an exclusive basis. That was May 1987, which is when I feel I really entered the lighting business.
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen?
I was always aggressive and have a passion for business, but in 1987 it was just myself in my agency. Any commissions or revenues I earned were reinvested into my business.
Today I manage a staff of 11 and have found allocating resources to be key. Like every business, we apportion time and manpower in our immediate and strategic planning. We still take a long-term view and invest in building brands as we did 29 years ago, but on a larger scale today.
We find ways to differentiate our agency and we drive business to the showrooms we serve. We extensively cultivate sales in the design community; it’s a team effort with a dedicated staff, a quote desk, design and trade show attendance, plus spending thousands in direct email efforts. We become lighting specialists and invest in busy design firms, visiting builders and construction sites, and have delivered millions in jobs back to the showrooms.
When the Recession hit, the showroom business contracted. Staffing was reduced and the fixture hanging responsibilities fell to the reps. We had to assume the associated costs and chose to differentiate ourselves with that responsibility.
For example, we just finished our fifth space in one major showroom in NYC, which included an illuminated wall of birch trees facing a city street. Instead of the old days – where it was me and a helper for a week – we had a team of five people in and out in three days. To us, that means building out some retail dynamism with visual merchandising to drive the eye of the shopper to our brands.
We try to do something special for each. Last year we sourced vintage barn tin roofing and 100-year-old oak factory flooring for a vintage motif. In another, we found a local furniture fabricator to make a display to our specification that helped this vendor and retailer differentiate themselves.
Among the challenges we’ve faced over the years is seeing commissions drop. What a factory sees as 1 point here and there ends up being 20 to 50 percent of our topline revenue, 1 percent from them is 10 percent to us. Trying to run any business with these reductions is difficult. With significant payroll costs in one of the most expensive markets in the country, shrinking profit margins are a painful reality.
The Internet has become another challenge as the market of lighting buyers is a zero sum gain. If there are 10 people who want a lighting fixture, they are influenced by the showroom and the reps selling and merchandising efforts, but if four people buy online, we lose four sales. Why isn’t t a rep compensated for shipments into their market? Look at your UPS zip code shipments. Should reps stop branding our spaces? We can’t stop the Internet, but the sales they garner come from a defined market. As factory’s micro-manage goals and issue unrealistic sales quotas, they also take our allocable dollars and resources to help achieve them. Why not consider paying a rep 2 to 3 points on every shipment into the territory so they can invest further for the showrooms and factories.
A rep has a 30-day notice on a significant portion of their business. I have built several million-dollar businesses in less than three years by being dedicated to them. Sacrificing time with my family, investing in building brand awareness, and going above and beyond for what we expected would a long-term relationship. Reps need to look at a factory’s rep tenure history and determine if they jump around before investing too much in a brand. Big brands rarely become bigger by finding another rep; smart factories are analytical and strategic in product development and aggressively invest to meet the market where it is today.
Reps are forced into 100 home and site visits a year to ascertain product failures as showrooms can’t and factories tighten return policies. We have to prove manufacturing defects and resolve issues. Reps must do this or pay the price of loss of brand allegiance by the dealer. We have a frustrated customer call to have a factory resolution and the only resolve is our investment to fix it in the field.
What has been the key to your success?
Feed your business and it will feed you. Invest in people. I knew that if I was going to build a sales company, it was always going to be more than me. I recognized the value of enthusiastic young talent, invested in them, mentored them, and treated them with respect. This built loyalty and commitment. Anyone on our team will bleed for me because they know I will do the same for them; I won’t ask them to anything I won’t do myself.
Where do you envision your career in the next 5 or 10 years?
I hope to be here doing what I love and evolving to meet and make new opportunities for as long as the young men who bust their asses for me allow. They are schooled to never give up, strive to be the best, and continuously improve people, processes, and accountability.
And one more thing — I want to have a single digit handicap.