Penny Burns: Oklahoma Trailblazer

Lighting Sales Rep Penny Burns

Long-time ALA member Penny Burns Klein, who was among the first women to create their own sales representative agencies, discusses the challenges she faced and advice for young reps starting out today.

enLIGHTenment Mag: How did you get your start in the lighting industry?

Penny Burns: I started working in a lighting showroom in Oklahoma City in 1966 at the age of 19. During my 17 years there, I worked in office management, showroom sales, and as the purchasing agent.

EM: How did you get started as a lighting representative?

PB: I got an opportunity to become a rep when an agency out of Dallas was covering Oklahoma and West Texas and calling on our showroom. The agency was looking for a sub-rep for this territory and I decided to take the opportunity to work for Rex Hood and Gary Lasher at Pro Lighting Sales. This was back in 1983, and the rep industry was predominantly male at the time. I had to make certain that I knew my products inside and out and how to service my customers to fill their needs. Since I had been a buyer myself, I knew what made a rep valuable to me. At that time, it was a rep who would take care of inventories, build product, demo the product to builders as well as electrical contractors, lighting showroom salespeople, and outside salespeople at the distributor branches. I made a decision that this would be my career so I had no choice but to work hard because I was on commission only and I had to provide for my family.

EM: When did you realize that being a lighting rep was the right career for you?

PB: Since I started in the industry so young, lighting is all I really knew and the next step of advancement for me was becoming a rep. After working as a sub-rep for one year or so, several manufacturers believed in me and they recommended that I start my own agency. Ron McCarthy with Juno Lighting and Bob Vandevier with Kichler Lighting were instrumental in helping me start up my own rep agency. That is when Penny Lighting was formed, and I represented these lines for over 25 years.

I realized I was good at being a sales representative when – after months of presentations and work with one of the largest residential contractors in Oklahoma City – I was able to get them to change their recessed line to Juno, which in turn opened a large electrical distributor to supply them. The recessed lighting category seemed to be one of the hardest lighting categories to get customers to change.

EM: What is your advice to other reps with less experience?

PB: I had to learn the hard way. When times are good, they are very good; and when they are bad, they can get pretty bad. Early on for me, it was doing whatever I could to survive in the bad times. I learned to save for the downturns, invest in my retirement plan early, pay myself a percentage of earnings, and remind myself that most contracts for reps in this industry are only for 30 days so I’d best be prepared. I would suggest that younger reps starting out should have a financial advisor of some sort to help them set short- and long-term goals.

EM: Your son Andy joined you in the business (and he is being honored as a Pillar of Industry at this year’s ALA Conference), did you encourage him to enter the field or did he express an interest on his own?

PB: Actually both of my sons, Andy and Jason, joined my company. Andy was 20 years old at the time – going to college part-time and selling T-shirts for a living – when he realized that I needed help. Jason moved back home from Utah to join the company.

I told them both that it takes self-discipline to get yourself up and on the road every day making calls, and that the job entails feeling rejection from customers sometimes. Time management was another issue that they needed to learn.

Andy likes to focus on the technical side of things and started calling on interior designers, electrical contractors, and architects to help generate business to the lighting showrooms and electrical distributors. Jason left the company to become a factory rep for Juno and later started his own agency in Austin, Texas.

EM: What do you love most about your career?

PB: I love the lighting business in general, but I mostly like the customers and the friendships I have made along the way. The downside of the business is the time on the road spent away from family. As a single mother, my boys had to learn to do a lot of things on their own.

EM: Florida-based lighting representative Martha Graham told me that you were a role model for her when she was starting out. Did you have any role models?

PB: What a great compliment to receive from Martha, who is such a successful rep herself. I have always enjoyed sharing thoughts with her about the industry and business practices we share as women. I feel I had a lot of role models starting out. I was like a sponge that picked up all I could from sales managers, customers, and my peers. There were a couple of women who were factory reps when I started, but I was blazing my own trail as an agency owner to my knowledge.

EM: Over the past 5 years or more, there has been a lot of discussion over why there aren’t as many young people entering the lighting industry — especially as reps. Does it all come down to the fact that it’s hard work and money doesn’t just flow in, or that there are “sexier” fields now like technology?

PB: I think you nailed it that it is hard work, money doesn’t just flow in, and exposure to our industry is not seen by all. A lot of young people you see in the rep business may be there because it’s a family business. I think that you have to find those who have an interest in the interior design/home furnishings field and who can look at lighting as a stylish, trendy, always-changing field and once you are educated and trained properly could make you a nice living. Nothing is handed to you as rep, you have to work for it.

EM: Speaking of technology, there has been
a lot of advancement in the lighting industry. How do you keep up with all of the developments?

PB: Even with technology to help your business, it is even more difficult [to stay on top of everything] today. I try to stay close to my core manufacturers and follow their lead on what they are introducing and why. I also rely on our major manufacturers as the industry has seen many failures from secondary lines since LED has evolved. It is imperative to be careful and promote those manufacturers that are able to warranty and build their products well. 

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