One of the most respected leaders in the industry, Sy Gerber reflects on the 10th anniversary of GM Lighting, the changes in the industry, and the joy of working with his son.
started from the bottom up, working at F&G Electric Supply in Chicago,” notes Sy Gerber, founder of GM Lighting. However he did not actively pursue the electrical field until after he graduated college. “I went through every stage in electrical supply, and over those 14 years, you understand every facet of the business plus your customers’ business and what their challenges are.” On Saturdays, Gerber also worked in the F&G lighting showroom, where he learned the residential side of the industry.
In time, he left F&G in Chicago to join his brother at Burns Air King (a manufacturer of bath fans and heaters) and relocated his family to California where he started as salesman, worked up to district manager, then regional manager. When that company purchased a small recessed lighting manufacturer, Gerber was made national sales manager. “There was a lot more recessed lighting sold than fans and there were so many facets to be explored in lighting. I saw a big future in recessed lighting,” Gerber recalls.
He was absolutely right, of course, but that didn’t mean it was easy. When Air King went out of business, Gerber and his brother, Al, and Bert Finmark founded Capri Lighting in 1974. Unfortunately, that was when a Recession took hold that weakened housing starts, led to long lines at the gas pumps, caused banks to fail, and interest rates to soar to 20 percent.
At the time, Capri was a small manufacturer of “white cans and a couple of trims” up against behemoths in the relatively new product category such as Halo, Prescolite, and Lightolier. Gerber met the challenge with product assortment, increased attention to reps, and great customer service. There was another development at Capri that ended up revolutionizing the industry: the debut of the MR16.
“I give the credit to the late Neil Kirschner of GE OEM lamps, Ron Mendleski, and our team at Capri who worked together to incorporate a way that our fixtures could accept the MR16 and MR11 movie-projector lamps. I’m very proud of this accomplishment,” Gerber remarks. “Ronnie invited Joe Story of Dillards department stores to California to introduce him to the MR16 and MR11 product. His response after the introduction of the line was ‘How fast can you get me 700 of these to one of our new stores being built?’” Gerber recalls. “Instead of using 150-watt R40 spots, he was able to use 50-watt MR16s, which at that time was a fantastic energy savings. Of course, after Dillards replaced its stores’ display lighting to Capri’s MR16s to punch up their displays, the entire hotel and retail store industry took note — and most followed suit.”
Time passed and Capri (which Gerber eventually sold) became one of the most notable companies in the business. Over the years, Gerber was able to help the overall industry by heading up the recessed committee that the American Lighting Association (ALA) formed to pursue the problems the industry had with insulated ceilings and the potential fire hazards from new installation procedures. Gerber did this with the help of the late Bernie Metzger, who was the ALA’s engineer of note, UL, and the ALA committee. “This saved the recessed industry from being extinguished from all insulated ceiling jobs,” he explains. “Our committee came up with the thermal protection that allowed the industry to continue.”
“Bernie and UL came up with the thermal protection that let the industry keep going. It was a nightmare [fighting legislation], but we won”
Not willing to retire, Gerber partnered with his former rep, Dave Meyer, who he knew for many years and who was extremely talented in undercabinet lighting. He came up with and designed a 120-volt xenon undercabinet fixture with many distinct features. “We thought it would be a perfect product to start the company, which was named Gerber Manufacturing, shortened to GM. One of the reasons I was so interested in partnering with Dave was because it also enabled me to work with my son, Rob, again. Now there were three of us who were co-owners of the company,” he adds.
About two years later, GM was introduced to an LED line that was affordable and also was color-corrected for actual lighting, which allowed for a myriad of possibilities for the lighting showroom and electrical distribution market. The fact that LED continues to evolve incredibly fast has only made Gerber’s excitement for the light source to grow. “That challenge has made it a more interesting field, but it’s so easy to expand your line with LED. There are so many facets that GM will explore and pursue in the oncoming years,” he notes.
The vast sea of LED suppliers doesn’t make the GM team hesitate either. “There are so many grades of diodes out there,” Gerber admits. The difference between success and failure often involves how well a company understand LEDs. “We always go for the best grade, and we also have the same vendors we had when we first started,” he states. “In just 10 years when we were starting out, we’ve gone from a 3-page catalog to 90 pages. From here, we’ll expand into fixtures that customers want from us and we will continue to come up with ideas.”
Another aspect that Gerber enjoys immensely is working with his son again. “I never went through a phase when I was not sure about the lighting industry,” Rob Gerber states. “I worked for my dad during summer and winter vacations going all the way back to pre-Capri days. After working in the factory, the shipping department, and going along on some sales calls, I was sure that this was what I wanted to do,” he recounts. “I started at Capri Lighting in 1976 and have been in the lighting business since then.”
After the company was sold, Rob continued to work at Capri, then Troy, and then Con-Tech Lighting before deciding the time was right to join his father at GM. As for worrying that working together would negatively affect their relationship, Rob says, “Some of the challenges that a father and son working together have to face are becoming too close [to a situation]. This could cause one of us to not make the right decision or not being able to voice their opinion for fear of offending the other one. The greatest aspect of us working together has been overcoming that tendency and creating a balanced work environment,” he adds. “The two greatest things I have learned from my father is to live life to its fullest, and that family comes first. I like that this industry is evolving; it’s always exciting in this business.”
Rob’s father agrees. “I find the lighting industry to be very satisfying,” Sy Gerber explains. “In all the years, and with all the people that I’ve been fortunate enough to be associated with, I can tell you that with a winning team such as we have at GM, along with the vendors, the representatives, and our customers who have allowed us to have the success that we’ve experienced, I am enjoying this time of life,” he concludes, adding, “I feel like the luckiest man in the lighting industry. I have a great wife, family, and friends.” ?