Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Masterpiece Lighting was built from the ground up by veterans of that once formidable Atlanta lighting institution called Georgia Lighting.
fter 30 years in the lighting showroom business, Susie Adams still loves to sit at the showroom’s front reception desk, answering the phone and helping the customers who walk in. “I just love seeing that light come on [inside them] as I start giving them options for their project,” she says. Granted, the opportunity doesn’t happen often for her at Masterpiece Lighting; only when there needs to be coverage temporarily. “You will never get an automated phone system here,” Adams states proudly about the business she co-founded after Georgia Lighting was closed by its then-parent company, Home Depot.
Adams was mentored under the late Harry Gilham, who founded Georgia Lighting in 1960. Eight years later Gilham created the company World Imports, which was noteworthy at a time when there weren’t many resources bringing European lighting fixtures to the U.S. market. (Gilham served as President of both companies until 2001 and sold the company a few years later to Home Depot, which was looking to expand into the electrical distribution business. At that time, Georgia Lighting was one of the largest specialty lighting retailers in the country and was run by General Manager Ray Gardner, who was retained by Home Depot.)
Mentored by a Master
After graduating from University of Georgia with a degree in Furnishings & Interiors, Adams joined the Georgia Lighting staff. “From Harry, I learned about taking good care of customers. That was his biggest goal, to have us listen to what the customers were asking for and to follow up with them,” she recalls. “Both Harry and Ray expected customers to leave Georgia Lighting with a smile.”
While Gilham was writing his memoir Lighting the Way: The Story of Georgia Lighting in 2010, he continued to send people he knew to the experts he mentored. “He was a great advocate for us,” Adams remarks.
Another co-founder of Masterpiece Lighting is Dana Hunt, a registered interpreter for the deaf who earned a degree in Finance from Georgia State University and had a full-time job in vocational work when a family friend asked if he could help Gilham with a temporary IT dilemma back in the 1990s. Gilham admired Hunt’s aptitude for the strategic side of the business and had him stay on, handling a variety of financial and managerial positions.
While Hunt is President of Masterpiece Lighting and Adams is VP/Merchandising & Advertising, neither likes the idea of “job titles.” The same goes for Phil Sherer, another longtime Georgia Lighting veteran, who joined Hunt and Adams in their David & Goliath fight to establish a new lighting showroom out of the ashes of what was the formidable Georgia Lighting they loved for so many years.
“At the time that Home Depot closed Georgia Lighting, there were 200 employees between the showroom and World Imports,” Adams estimates. “There were a few of us who thought, ‘We can’t let [Georgia Lighting] die.’ We have to do something!”
Although they were not permitted to buy back the Georgia Lighting name and they had virtually no products to offer customers, Hunt, Adams, and Sherer knew they possessed something of value. “We basically had one room with 3 desks, a telephone, and some manufacturer catalogs,” Adams says. “But what we had to offer the Atlanta market was an educated staff with 20 to 30 years of lighting experience.”
They didn’t give up. “Starting over is not the same as growing a brand; there was no money,” Hunt explains. Any investors that Georgia Lighting had suddenly left when the Home Depot deal soured. “We all put whatever we had – cash, 401K money, home equity – into starting up our new business,” he recounts. A generous Georgia Lighting customer bought the building that Georgia Lighting had been operating out of and leased it back to them at a good rate.
And there was more good news. Hunt received two phone calls the day after the news broke about the demise of Georgia Lighting: one was from Rick Seidman of Quoizel, and the other was Tony Davidson of Kichler. Both offered encouragement and generous terms in the name of friendship and respect. “They stood by us, and I’ll never forget it,” Hunt affirms.
Hunt even received genuine condolences on the closing of Georgia Lighting from a former competitor. “He told me, ‘I never considered you a competitor; you were the standard.’ That really meant something to me,” he recalls.
With the encouragement of some key vendors, the trio of Georgia Lighting veterans rolled up their sleeves and began building a business from scratch with no displays and no products. They worked incredibly long hours every day of the week, and their own family members helped pitch in. “My wife was entering the orders by hand,” Hunt recounts.
The name “Masterpiece Lighting” was an idea from an ad agency as a reference to the renowned art gallery next door (a building Masterpiece Lighting now occupies after the gallery’s owner retired several years ago).
In January 2005, Masterpiece Lighting opened its doors and by the end of that month was advertising its first sale. Two months later, the new company was served with legal papers from Home Depot. What followed was an unpleasant year of trying to grow a business while undergoing repeated audits conducted by attorneys representing the home center. When the case was finally heard in court, the judge sided with Masterpiece Lighting and the case was dismissed.
Now in its 10th year of operation, Masterpiece Lighting has hit its stride. “It doesn’t feel like 10 years,” Hunt muses, acknowledging that becoming President & CEO of a lighting business was not the path he thought his life would take as an interpreter or in vocational work, but it wasn’t unwelcome.
“I’ve always wanted to be a part of something I know is honorable,” Hunt says. “We’re true to each other, and when we make a mistake, we own up and fix it. Our motto is ‘Excellence in Everything.’ We believe in doing the right thing. It’s been personally fulfilling,” he adds.
Ten years after that inauspicious beginning, Masterpiece Lighting has grown and thrived under the diligence of Hunt, Adams, and Sherer. In addition to the flagship location in Atlanta’s design district, there is a distribution center/warehouse of approximately 30,000 square feet nearby, plus another showroom location in the bustling Atlanta suburb of Roswell that opened six years ago. A sizable portion of one floor in the multi-story flagship is devoted to high-end and custom hardware, a lucrative department that Sherer oversees. Additional categories include plumbing fittings and hardware, plus luxury kitchen and bath products.
Finding good help isn’t much of a problem. “You don’t need to know lighting in order to work here,” Adams states. “We can teach lighting. If you have someone with the right attitude, all you have to do is train them.”
In fact, not having prior showroom experience can even be a plus. “That way, there are no preconceived notions. Although it’s nice if they happen to have had lighting classes without any bad sales habits,” Adams says. Masterpiece Lighting encourages some of the local schools – such as Kennesaw State University – and design schools to bring classes over to the showroom to learn as part of the curriculum. “There’s a lot to do here. For example, we’ll talk about the color and qualities of light,” she explains. From such partnerships, the showroom has received requests for internships plus full- or part-time work.
Most of the lighting training is from the American Lighting Association (ALA) manuals. Anyone who wants to undergo Lighting Associate, Lighting Specialist, and Certified Lighting Consultant accreditation is given the opportunity to do so.
“I think Masterpiece is a business model that could work with different categories,” Hunt comments. “I think we can expand the story of Masterpiece and the values behind it. There’s a place for a business with a story behind it like this one,” he states. “It’s not just selling a lighting fixture; it’s providing a solution. You know, that’s real value. I want to grow that.”
Indeed Hunt often retells the story of how Masterpiece came about as an inspirational speaker for other business owners and entrepreneurs. “I’ve been asked to share about the sleepless nights and discuss how other owners can measure their businesses,” he remarks. “Those hardships that we went through – the closing of Georgia Lighting and the birth of Masterpiece – allow us to see what the value really is to the consumer. [This journey] has been personally fulfilling. I think good values attracts people with good values.”
“I love what I do,” Adams affirms. “I’d never have guessed I’d be in lighting for 30 years, but every day is different and every customer has a different need.” And those customer interactions are what keeps the workday feeling fresh.
Another plus is the unity that the workforce maintains. “We take care of each other and work together [to help one another],” Adams explains. “By doing so, we’re not just tied to the job. It allows us to have a life outside of the business so that we don’t have to be those parents who miss their kids’ sports events. We volunteer, we give back to the community. [Our work ethic] is about having a quality of life. I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else.”