Our second Hall of Femme recipient is respected for her family values, hard work, and for giving back to the community.
Laurie Gross had no plans or desire to go into the family business when she was growing up. She’d accompany her father, Richard, to the store on Saturdays and help by affixing stickers on catalogs and other manageable tasks for a child, and in her high school years, she’d help out over the holidays in customer service and the cash register.
When it came to her career goals, Gross set her sights on television broadcasting — and not behind the scenes. “I wanted to be the first female TV news anchor,” she states. But the only job offers that came were as a secretary, and her father said, “Well, I’ll pay you more than that [to work at the business].” So she took him up on his proposition and joined the family company that her grandfather, George, founded. “My dad knew me better than I knew myself,” she admits. After working in the office at the flagship Toledo, Ohio store, her father moved her to their Ann Arbor, Michigan showroom as the sales manager. With no management or lighting experience, “I immediately found out I loved selling and learning about lighting,” she confesses.
“There have always been women in the lighting industry, but not many who owned the business. I always thought my dad was a trend-setter in that regard. He had no qualms about bringing his daughter into the company,” she remarks. Richard appointed Laurie President of the company in 1992; her brother, Joe, was named Vice President in 1997. Gross Electric operates two lighting showrooms: one in Toledo, Ohio and the other in Ann Arbor, Mich., plus three electrical supply counters. In the early 1980s, there weren’t a lot of females in electrical distribution. “I absolutely had to prove myself; electrical contractors were not used to working with a woman,” she recalls. “Both the electrical distribution and showroom lighting business have become more gender-diverse.” Perhaps the greatest tribute to the Gross family success was the fact that, over time, electrical distributors would occasionally ask her father for advice on bringing their daughters into their own businesses.
The same immersive process that Gross does with new hires – where they spend time in their first few weeks getting a feel for the company by observing every department – is the same she does herself and recommends to her peers. “We all have our areas of expertise, but it behooves every business owner to see for themselves what is involved in each job, from warehouse and back office to purchasing and selling,” she states. “My advice to anyone coming up in the showroom business is to focus on the things that are important to your store. In the era of social media, it’s easy to get caught up in hearing what other people think the problems are [for showroom owners].” Success involves knowing your market, your clientele, and your competition.
“The internet and home centers have had a huge impact as competitors over the years,” Gross says. “What we’ve worked on is focusing on our strengths. We’re not going to change the world, but we can be proactive to compete against these market changes. Look at what you do and what makes sense.”
That self-examination led Gross to switch up the showroom’s marketing message to increase foot traffic by emphasizing coming into the store to receive a special discount or a premium (free bulb). “If we don’t sell them when they are coming into the store, then shame on us,” she quips, adding, “So far, this approach seems to be working.”
The customer has changed so much over the years. “Back in the 1980s, everybody wanted the same thing: polished brass and glass. Now, no two people want the same,” Gross states. “When I first started selling, you walked around the showroom with the customer, picking out decorative fixtures, and basically just worried about the appropriate size.” Today, salespeople perform whole-house layouts of recessed lighting, calculations of footcandles, LED technology and lighting control systems.
“The customer has become much more educated about lighting because of Pinterest and Instagram,” Gross shares. “The pre-shopping they do on the internet has actually helped with the buying process since they already have an idea of what they want when they walk in the door. If I can get the homeowner in the store early enough in the process – and I express this to my builders – then it’s [a win-win for us both]. If the customer is sent in after the drywall is up, it’s too late.”
Construction has long been a male-dominated field, and it’s taken some perseverance to change builders’ and electricians’ minds about lighting. “It’s hard to get them to understand how lighting has changed. The best way I’ve found to get them on board is to work with them when they do a showcase home. I will donate all the recessed and install the [brands and types] that I want to use, and there is a better chance of upselling the customer when they see the result,” she explains. “There are some who only want to [spec] what they’ve already done for years – like six-inch incandescent cans – and then there are some who ‘get it’ that the market is changing and have a controls person on staff now; those are the ones who are ahead of the game.”
Evolving the business to meet today’s customer needs for one-stop-shopping has led the Gross family to expand into categories such as door and cabinet hardware when it acquired Buehler Decorative Hardware in 2012 and expanded into accent furniture shortly after. “The first time I went to High Point Market was five years ago and that has helped significantly with [our selection]. The designer market has become so important lately,” Gross notes. Showroom division manager Michele Ramer – who started part-time at Gross Electric when she was 18 years old – is the chief buyer, although final decisions are by committee. “When we come back from Market, we vet the selected products through our team and try to get as much input from everyone as possible,” Gross states.
Advice for Others
To women who are just getting started in the lighting industry, Gross suggests getting involved as much as possible. “The more you’re involved – with groups like the ALA or going to trade shows and markets – the more people you’ll meet who can help you in ways you don’t even know about,” she comments. “There are a lot of people who know more than I do and I’ve learned a lot from the people I’ve met through the industry. Vendors are also a great resource. Perhaps they’ve seen another showroom customer struggle with the same problem you’re facing and can put you in touch with them to discuss solutions.”
Gross believes the showroom channel is still viable. “There used to be a lot of talk that showrooms would be going away. There’s a reason why etailers like Amazon and Wayfair are building brick-and-mortar stores now. My dad always used to say, “I don’t want to reinvent the wheel.’ Plenty of people already know how the wheel works,” she says. “Consumers of all age groups are beginning to come into stores [again] because they want to see and feel the product. There is also more of an interest in shopping local. There’s a reason Gross Electric has been here for this long – this year is our company’s 110th anniversary – customers are learning to take advantage of our expertise.”
The goal for the next five years, according to Gross, is to “do what we do best and focus on driving customers to the store. We want to keep the business healthy and look for new opportunities to grow the company.”