Independent family-run lighting businesses face some challenges that publicly held corporations do not. One of the most emotionally complex involves hiring relatives and considering succession planning among family.
In the ’90s movie You’ve Got Mail, Tom Hanks’ character quotes the famous line from The Godfather, “It’s not personal, it’s business” as his and Meg Ryan’s characters start a friendly online friendship unaware of their conflicted business ties as competing retailers. In the lighting industry, business is almost always personal — with lighting and family intertwined at nearly every level and spanning generations.
How are family-run companies successful in preventing work conflicts from disrupting family life? What are some key principles they have learned when it comes to working with relatives and surviving some of the hardest economic times over the past few generations?
The answer, it turns out, is as individual as the people who make up each family. There are, however, common philosophies that exist between each of the family-run lighting companies interviewed.
As David Director, the second generation owner and President of New England-based retailer Connecticut Lighting Centers points out, “There is no right or wrong approach to how a family finds its success. The business changes – it has to – but it is the fundamentals that need to remain constant for success. My job, as my children join me in business, is to open their eyes with past experience examples while allowing for change.”
Change Is Good
Whether one is working in a family business or not, it’s hard to dispute the notion that the older people get, the more resistant they are to change. For family-run companies, this occurrence is even more challenging since personal relationships are involved.
Eric Lebersfeld, President of retail chain Capitol Lighting (which has stores in New Jersey and Florida), admits that prior to 2006, the company had no pressing reason to implement any major changes. “Who questions what they are doing when it is going so well,” he quips. Economic challenges – such as the housing bubble that began to burst in 2007 – forced Capitol Lighting to move fast. Plans and change than had been originally discussed fell by the wayside as the company needed to make dramatic maneuvers to come out the other side. Knowing the impact their decisions would have on their future, Eric and his brother Ken, Capitol’s CEO, sought the insight of peers and business leaders for the best strategies. As third-generation owners, the brothers also relied on the generation before them (Herman and Max, who are still involved as co-chairmen) for guidance.
“During this critical time, my father and my uncle never let egos get in the way,” Eric Lebersfeld recalls. “We were a team focused on what was best for the big picture and that’s how our transition took shape. It was a very tough time for us and we also had to look closely at our staffing needs.”
The recent Recession clearly heralded a new era. “The question became, ‘How do we look back at this and say this was the best thing for our business? One key initiative was to hire the right people — that is a core activity of our present and future. Those who join us help shape our vision.”
When to Pass the Torch
Unlike the opening ceremony for the Olympics, there doesn’t seem to be a scheduled day or year or particular landmark in mind for the older generation of a lighting family to pass the torch to the younger one. In most cases, the leadership change is gradual.
Although David Director grew up working at the lighting showroom his father, Art, bought in 1972, it wasn’t his intention to join the business full-time. In college, he was more interested in pursuing a career as a sports coach or phys ed teacher, but somewhere along the way, the lighting industry took hold.
“It’s important to impress on the next generation, what the retail life is like — it’s tough, the hours are long, and though you may not be there all the time, you are thinking about the business all the time,” Director comments.
These days, Director’s son, Todd, and daughter, Jenna Lee, have joined him in the business (son Brett is attending college), but the choice was entirely theirs. “I never pushed my kids to work in the business,” Director states. “I wanted them to want to work at Connecticut Lighting. I told them, ‘If you don’t love it, don’t come [into the business]. Don’t do it for me.”
David sees some of himself in his son. “When I was Todd’s age, I too felt I could run through walls — it’s the cool part of being young. The change is in energy,” he notes. “I still have the passion, but the energy changes. Todd brings the energy, and it’s great.”
At Capitol Lighting, there wasn’t direct pressure to join the five-generation-strong family business, but there was some gentle persuasion. “My grandfather did a little more with Jewish guilt in how he’d love to see it happen,” Eric Lebersfeld recalls. Since its humble beginnings in 1924, Capitol Lighting has had an enduring history of husbands, wives, cousins, uncles, siblings, fathers, and uncles working at the retail chain.
“My father [Herman] gets up every day and says, ‘Good morning, world!’ That is quite an approach to life,” Lebersfeld says. That sunny attitude is pervasive throughout the organization and family. “Our thought is that you can’t fake making someone’s life brighter, and that holds true for our customers as well as everyone on our team,” he explains. “Customers and colleagues know when you don’t love what you do, so we have put an emphasis on asking who we ask to join us. With time being a most precious commodity, who we share our time with is absolutely important to our success.”
A healthy dose of fun is also in the job description. “I work 10 feet away from my brother, Ken. Life is way too short not to have fun. We don’t want to waste time, but we want to have a good time.”
Rick Wiedemer, the third-generation President of Ohio-based manufacturer Hinkley Lighting, more or less discovered how much he enjoyed the lighting industry as an adult. He didn’t spend time at the factory as a teenager and his father (Jim) didn’t bring his workday home to discuss at the dinner table.
Within one month of earning a Business degree from Ohio University, Wiedemer asked to apply what he learned in college to the family company and credits his entrepreneurial spirit with the decision to join his father’s business. “Passion builds when you see something you can help build and develop,” he remarks.
Wiedemer’s first year was spent learning every department in the factory so he could fully understand the manufacturing process. Later, he and his father mapped out their roles based on their individual strengths and the needs of the business. Wiedemer found that meeting customers and attending American Lighting Association (ALA) events was not only impactful on the business, but were key in his growing passion for the company.
While his father had an unspoken desire for his son to join the company, Rick was clearer with his own children. He felt it was important that they discovered their own passions before considering the family business. In fact, each of his children – Kristy, Jess, and Eric – joined Hinkley Lighting and played key roles in its success. Today, his sons continue to help lead the brand; Eric as General Counsel, and Jess as VP/Operations.
Then there are those who grow up in the lighting industry, but choose to embark on a different career path. Some come back to the family business, and others do not. One example is Janine Segal, Vice President of California-based manufacturer Access Lighting. After a successful career in healthcare, she later turned down a position in the medical field in order to return to her father’s company. “It certainly wasn’t for the pay, but lighting gets into your blood,” she admits.
Her family’s entry into the industry was far from typical. “We left South Africa during trying times and can say the lighting business has been good to us,” she explains. “Our [direction] comes from an unspoken, organic place. Dad has the game plan – although he may not always speak of it – and it is built on the common good and extends well beyond our blood line. Our paths have taken on a life of their own, and we found our roles despite ourselves.”
Although there were no formal plans to do so, one by one family members began joining the company. Today, Janine works alongside her father (Harry) plus her sister, her husband, a niece, and a nephew. Her own pre-teen children have become involved, spending the winter holidays assisting in the set-up of the manufacturer’s showroom in the Dallas Market Center and summers at the office with their grandfather, helping to produce company marketing and product videos.
Bigger Than All of Us
A common characteristic among many of these successful lighting industry leaders is their acknowledgement of being a part of (and having responsibility for) the world around them. They share a commitment to a bigger picture – whether that means a responsibility to employees, customers, or the surrounding community – plus pride in their business and a passion for the industry. They don’t shy away from the hard work that being part of an independent, family-run company entails and they level with family members who wish to join the company that there is no “free ride.”
Sometimes the position that a relative wants is not the one best-suited to his/her talents. Being a successful company leader means showing respect for family and non-family members alike as well as maintaining an openness and reliance on the skills of business people who aren’t on the family tree.
“My dad (Harry Rosenblatt) feels an incredible responsibility and commitment to our workers – and [that ethic has] passed down,” Segal says. “I came into the business with multiple graduate degrees and looking for all the ‘rules,’ but [I’ve realized] that Dad’s natural talent, knowledge, and worldliness go beyond books — and it is humbling.”
Eric Lebersfeld echoes her sentiment, adding that his father and uncle were raised with the daily question of “What did you do nice today?” vs. the typical question asked by parents to their children, “What did you do today?” That concern for others is “the fabric of our family,” he states.
There are times when succession planning is not about selecting a relative to take over, but to search outside the family for the best leader to move the company forward.
“We are proud of the depth of our team, well beyond family. Their talents and professionalism have brought our brand to where it is today,” Wiedemer says, adding, “Success is attitudinal; we have a passionate and skilled team and we invest in our resources.”
“As the Recession had us reset our business, it provided us with a foundation of growth for the future – whether the next generation joins us or not,” Lebersfeld comments. “We have a path forward that offers advancement and opportunities for our employees. Retail is changing and evolving so dramatically that it is hard to say what our kids will be coming into with the business in 15 years, but the company is more strategic today than ever before.”
At Connecticut Lighting, Director is in agreement. “Business is more complex today; it is so much more than selling product,” he asserts. Todd and Jenna Lee grew up in the technology generation and therefore easily embrace all of the rapid changes that technology brings. “If you keep everything to yourself, you’ll never grow. We continue to add key management [from outside of the family] as we grow,” Director says. “Todd understands that these trusted members of our team are key to his own knowledge and success. They are a part of the Connecticut Lighting family and our future.”
Having a younger generation involved in the family company has other benefits. “My sons and daughter are much closer [in age] to our target customer,” Wiedemer states. “They understand the changes in the customer over the past 10 years, they know and understand [current] consumerism, habits, and desires; they are in touch and able to keep our products and brand relevant to our audiences.”
“It is interesting to watch other families in lighting today, seeing the next generation joining the business,” Segal observes. “These kids are more tech-savvy and it is changing the direction. It’s very exciting.”
As for the future of these family enterprises, no matter what up-and-coming generations choose as their path, it is clear that family businesses have evolved with the times.