Nothing is business as usual anymore in retail, manufacturing, OR repping. We asked some long-time lighting reps how their operations – plus customers’ and factories’ expectations – have changed.
From Retail to Rep
“I’m a filament baby. My parents owned Coastal Lighting in Wilmington, N.C. and I grew up in the lighting showroom business. I remember the company H.A. Framburg when the Framburg family was still there! I went on to work in broadcast radio for awhile, but I missed lighting. When an opportunity came up to take over for a rep who was retiring, I came back to the industry I grew up in. The territory was huge – I had to cover Virginia, North and South Carolina, and then Framburg asked me to add Washington D.C. and Maryland.
“My dad was very supportive; he helped me get my first car as a rep. He started Coastal Lighting right after WWII and we hired some of the first females to work in the showroom at a time when there weren’t many females in the lighting industry.
“One of the biggest changes over the years since I’ve been a rep is keeping up with lighting technology. There was an adjustment going from incandescent to CFL and now with LED, it seems like advancements happen daily.
“Technology has helped the lighting rep. When I was starting out, there were no cell phones or faxes; you mailed in your orders. If a traffic jam held you up from being on time for an appointment, you had to find a pay phone – sometimes in the pouring rain – and call to let them know I’d be late.
“We also didn’t have the big box stores, which in turn ended up altering the perception of price among consumers. Back before there was the Dallas Market, everyone saw new product by attending [gatherings] put on by the American Home Lighting Institute (AHLI). Then again, you didn’t change out catalogs as often as you do now. On the plus side of technology, you can go into a showroom with an iPad and easily show the updates to the catalog.
“Our industry isn’t that large, so you really get to know your customers and their families. With so much manufacturing overseas (which was not the case when I first became a rep), I am happy that I have some domestically made lines such as Lite Tops, Northeast Lantern, Avalanche Ranch, and Legendary Lighting. I have a Facebook page for my agency and my customers share photos that I post from market. People will comment on my posts and it makes them feel connected with what’s going on at market when they can’t be there.
“The Internet has really changed our industry; all of our showroom customers have Web sites now. When I call on architects, they always ask for the Web site of the manufacturer instead of asking for a catalog so they can look online at the products.
“I’ve noticed my customers changing right along with the times. I have showrooms that are dabbling in hospitality projects and many who have branched out into decorative accessories. They are also advertising more.
“Being my own boss has been great, but I won’t say it hasn’t been tough out there – especially over the past few years. Just like everyone else, reps have to watch their overhead and how many nights we’re out on the road, plus keep an eye on the price of gas. Our job involves a lot of customer service, but there is also a lot you can do for customers without being out on the road.”
Lumina Lighting Sales
“I’ve been a lighting rep for 35 years, but my first sales job was in the petrol-chemical industry. Thomas Industries was one of the first lighting companies I repped, along with Litecraft of California, which was owned by Stan Johnston, who later became a rep. It was while representing Litecraft that I first met fellow rep and long-time friend David Stark of Lighting Concepts International in Arizona.
“One thing that has changed with the advent of technology (i.e. cell phones, email) is a rep’s availability. I make it a priority to answer a customer’s question within 30-45 minutes. I enjoy the freedom of running a business, but I am disappointed to see that there are very few young people coming into the rep business.”
San Diego, CA
“This is my 25th anniversary year as an agency owner; the industry has been good to me. This is a relationship-based industry and building and maintaining those relationships are key.
“You can’t live for today and forget about tomorrow. There are no guarantees in this business. A good rep has to plan for the future. When we had a downturn a few years ago, I didn’t lay anyone off and I made sure I was able to give everyone their holiday bonuses. I paid myself less money to ensure they were taken care of. You can’t replace good people easily – especially in this business. There is a lot of technology and know-how involved in lighting. I have a great staff; one of my full-timers, Carol, has been with me for nine years.
It’s no longer the [era] of the one-man rep firm. We carry 95 percent of the customer service load of our vendors, and our customers rely on us for that service. Our rep office is designed to support the distributors and specifiers. As my business has been growing and we keep hitting our goals, I’ve expanded my staff. Good reps need to invest in their business every day, whether it’s with time or people.
CRL Lighting Agency
Misses Face Time
“The rep industry has changed in that it’s gotten more impersonal, thanks to technology. There is less face-to-face interaction with the advent of email. On the positive side, technology has made communication easier and faster – you can find something out for a customer in minutes [on the computer] right at your fingertips. On the downside, technology dilutes some of the personality of the business. It’s not a handshake business anymore. There is still a lot of opportunity in the industry, however, expectations are higher than ever from the manufacturers as well as the retailers.
“There’s not a lot of young blood coming into the rep business. You have to go out and find them.”
Technology = Efficiency
“I’ve been a rep since July 16, 1979. Before that, I had a lighting showroom for nine years. I really enjoy the industry and started out as a sub-rep for David Felber out of Southern California, who had accounts such as Lavery, Halcolite, and Nulco. I also had a lot of specialty tool accounts. This was before the home centers, so I called on all of the hardware stores.
Back then, reps had huge territories like all of California, Nevada, and Arizona. Back then, there weren’t fax machines, cell phones, or GPS. I never left the house without four quarters in my pocket so I could stop along the way at payphones to make calls and catch up on messages.
“Without a doubt, technology has given reps greater efficiency to do our jobs. We live in an instant society. When a customer calls my cell phone, they know that if I don’t answer the phone, I’ll return that call within an hour. Accessibility is an important issue to the dealer. I will still hear stories from retailers who tell me that it’s been three or four days or more before they’ve heard back from a rep.
“Having technology does not mean that we don’t visit customers. We still need to travel our territory. When I came back to repping in 2009 (after working full-time for a manufacturer as a national sales manager), I made it a point to always be in a dealer’s showroom in the heat of the day – I live in Arizona – to show I cared.
“The cost of doing business for a rep has certainly risen, for example, the cost of gas. There’s also no such thing as a $4 sandwich on the road anymore or a $15 hotel room that you’d feel comfortable sleeping in. Back then, you used to mail or call in orders and it could take a six-week turnaround. The wheels [of business] turned slower in every way.
“Some things haven’t changed over the years. Real estate and sales pressure for the dealer are still the same, and as a rep you still need to be available, be knowledgeable, and be committed to the long-term relationships in the industry. That’s the same in 2013 as it was in 1979. If you don’t pay attention to a customer, why would they continue to be your customer? There is still a core requirement of sitting down face to face with your customers and establishing/maintaining that relationship.
“I just hired a young partner, David Wood, who has 10 years of experience as an electrical contractor. He has also worked for major lighting distributors, calling on builders.
“I was one of the first reps to undergo the CLMR rep certification from the American Lighting Association (ALA). I think the CLMR accreditation has value. It helps agents hone their skills for the lighting industry and helps a rep clarify to a customer why this lighting is a Mercedes, and another is a Yugo. There are nuances to selling lighting that the CLMR training provides. I would like to think that the CLMR holds as much value to the factory as it does to the rep, just as I’d like to think that having a rep who is an ALA member holds just as much as weight as being an ALA-member factory.
“I’m encouraged by the state of the industry. As much as we are living in an instant society, relationships are not instant. Creating a successful relationship still takes years in the making. I offer my customers availability, product knowledge, and merchandising. I was the first rep to have a full-time merchandising person on staff in Arizona. When it comes to my agency and the lines we represent, we sell it, hang it, fix it, and train your staff.
“I’ve been in the lighting industry for 43 years and over that timeframe, it’s different – and yet it’s not. It’s the same – and yet it’s not. But it’s still fun.”
Tom Underwood, CLMR
Saguaro Marketing Group
The Eagle Has Landed
The first time veteran lighting rep Steve Schwartz announced his retirement was three years ago, but he changed his mind. More than once. It wasn’t until the recent June Dallas Market that it became official. At the Hudson Valley Lighting showroom, well-wishers signed a poster, congratulating Schwartz and wishing him the best in his new life – although he hints that he might still come to future Dallas markets to visit his life-long friends.
After 35 years in the lighting industry, Schwartz admits it was hard to let go. “I wanted to pass on my name and my hard work,” he says. To that end, he has turned his agency over – with the approval of all of his factories – to John Ingles of The LightSource and Duane Averette of Averette Associates. Ingles and Averette have worked with Schwartz Associates for some time. “John and I represented the same companies in an adjacent territory,” Schwartz explains. The same is true of Averette.
Schwartz’ reputation for superior service and his prestigious line card were unique assets. “I wanted to give these guys the opportunity [to carry on with these important business relationships with my clients]. This was a special situation,” Schwartz says. “This is my time to be with my grandchildren, family, and [continue] working with charities. I’m going to be 70 years old this year.
“David Littman named me ‘The Eagle’ because of the eagle’s ability to soar and see things. Now everyone calls me that,” he chuckles. “David and I are personal friends. I was his first rep, back when he first started in the business.”
“This is a particularly easy [decision] because we shared the same lines,” Schwartz states. “What made it good for the manufacturers is that they don’t have to train someone on the product since Duane and John are already successful with these lines. Every smart businessman knows when it’s time to go,” he remarks. “I wanted to go out on top and I knew I had the right guys to keep it going.
“I feel I’m blessed to be in this industry – especially as a rep. The relationships I’ve made are very meaningful,” Schwartz comments. “It’s a bittersweet decision because I’m happy I’m retiring, but I’ll be sad to leave the business.”
“We’ve got some big wings to fill,” Ingles quips. “Our [retail] customers are very pleased and so are the factories. “We want to make Steve proud.”
“This will be a seamless transition,” Averette adds. “The beauty is knowing that our mentor, Steve, has confidence in us.” With the addition of Averette’s and Ingles’ agencies, the rep coverage spans the New York Tri-State area as well as most of New England.
Hills Somers, NY