Denis Caldora is retiring after 35 years in the lighting business, and is ready to travel the world.
When the average person hears the term “dynamic duo,” Batman and Robin come to mind. For lighting people, however, the term typically referred to Denis Caldora and David Phillips. Or, as Denis prefers, “Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz…or do I mean Dizzy?,” he jokes. “We’ve always heard that having Denis and David come to your showroom was an experience. David was Desi to my Lucy; We were icons in the industry together. [I think of that time as] the hilarious adventures of Denis and David!”
“We met at a mutual friend’s housewarming party in 1990,” David Phillips recalls. Caldora had already been a successful lighting retailer in Miami and had returned to Florida after several years in California, where he had been hired by the late Fred Glassman at Fredrick Ramond to transform his company’s Beverly Hills retail store. Years earlier, when Glassman had visited Caldora’s Miami boutique, he was so impressed by the revolutionary way the fixtures were presented and hung (with a unique grid system) that he made Caldora the proverbial offer he couldn’t refuse. Caldora relocated to Los Angeles, where he helped the Fredrick Ramond retail store achieved showcase status.
When Fredrick Ramond was among the first to sign on at the Dallas Lighting Market, Caldora was in charge of merchandising the manufacturer’s showroom. The novel display system and merchandising techniques were the talk of the market among lighting buyers. As a bonus to customers, Fredrick Ramond provided Caldora’s merchandising skills to retail customers as a value-added service. As he traveled the country, Caldora’s reputation as a merchandising master grew, along with wide recognition of his skills in evaluating which fixtures to emphasize in each retailer’s selling area. In addition, he suggested sales techniques that were not only effective, but made the selling process fun for both the salesperson and the consumer.
Later, another of Caldora’s vendors from his Miami retail days – Andrew Schonbek – hired him to merchandise the new Schonbek showroom in the Dallas Market Center. After that success, he retained Caldora’s services for 20 years to help Schonbek’s retail customers sharpen their product presentations.
“I consider Denis Caldora to be one of a few people who really made a difference in changing the direction of the lighting industry,” states Andrew Schonbek, who served as president of his family’s multi-generational, award-winning crystal company until his retirement.
“When I got to know Denis in the early ’80s, many lighting distributors were really struggling in the high interest rate environment and the construction recession that followed it. In those days, lighting showrooms were mainly an extension of electrical distributors and there wasn’t much understanding of how to merchandise a high-end decorative product,” Schonbek explains.
“Denis was a successful distributor in southern Florida who had always had a natural flair for the display of beautiful lighting. His approach to positioning decorative lighting as a retail product for the remodeling market worked even in the tough economy of the day. He saw an opportunity to leverage this understanding in equipping other distributors with exciting merchandising approaches for lighting, and so began a consulting practice that transformed the industry,” Schonbek affirms.
“In my experience, a visit from Denis was a surefire way to super-charge the sales of even the most sophisticated distributors,” Schonbek recalls. “Not only would showroom visuals benefit from his creative input, but the sales staff would inevitably also be fired up with new enthusiasm and the ability to, as Denis would say, ‘tell the story.’”
After the collaboration with Fredrick Ramond, Caldora’s expertise was in such high demand that could no longer be a one-man operation. When they met, Phillips was 21 and already had relevant retail experience at Florida Fan Company. “I heard that Denis was looking to hire someone and he agreed [to try me out] on his next project, which was the Metropolitan Lighting showroom in Manhattan,” Phillips states. After that intensive baptism by fire, a merchandising duo was formed.
“What was apparent to me right from the start was how Denis merchandised a store based on how each product looked best and would sell,” Phillips says. “He would assess, ‘How is the consumer able to envision this product in their home? And can they even see it as it’s displayed right now?’”
Phillips had experienced sales training before while he worked in retail, but it was nothing like Caldora’s method. “Denis nurtures the clients, but he’ll also tell them point blank what they are doing wrong. He’ll even challenge them if, for example, they tell him that a certain style or technique wouldn’t work in their store,” Phillips recounts. “He’d ask, ‘Why don’t you believe it?’” In the end, the client would try something that Caldora suggested and it would prove to be a big hit.
“At that time, everyone was selling on price. But Denis would tell people, ‘You’re not selling something; you’re solving a problem that the customer has,” Phillips recounts. “It’s about finding the most appropriate solution in that store for that client’s home.”
Word got out and soon lighting retailers from all over the country were begging for training. When the duo launched what they called a “merchandising school” program, sessions were sold out for more than one year in advance. The duo was also quite busy transforming retail showrooms on behalf of Schonbek and Kichler for 20+ years, including giving hour-long seminars during Dallas Market.
The Biggest Benefit
“When I first started working with Denis, I was terrified of public speaking,” Phillips confesses. “Denis taught me to believe in myself, that I could do this. I think that one of the biggest gifts that Denis gave to me as well as everyone is confidence. He gave them confidence in themselves, and confidence that their taste level is more than adequate [to become a successful store] and confidence in the redo of their showroom. In the same way, he also gave manufacturers confidence,” Phillips remarks.
Caldora also has a great ability to find the hidden talent in everyone. In some cases, he’d observe a spark of interest and talent in employees who were not on the sales floor (i.e. warehouse workers, administrative personnel) and encourage them to take on a new role that was mutually beneficial to both the business and the employee.
“Denis was always about much more than helping increase sales and improving the bottom line,” Schonbek notes. “He cares deeply about people and wherever he went, he had good and uplifting words and deeds for others. It was a joy and an honor to work with him.”
The Bucket List
“I want to thank the industry for the most wonderful 35 years of my life,” Caldora states. “I want to thank all of the people who believed in me and worked together with me and David and allowed us to be a part of their business.
“I have great passion for the business, but it’s the people I’ve worked with – retailers, manufacturers, and business partners – who have all helped one another in reaching heights no one thought was reachable,” Caldora says. “We always had great excitement and fun – and plenty of success. [Work felt like] I was invited to many parties, we enjoyed it so much. Everyone had a blast, even if we were working til the wee hours of the morning.
“I want to thank the manufacturers who believe in my ceiling grids and my merchandising/sales programs and who helped me go above and beyond what I was able to do on my own. I spent 20 wonderful years with Schonbek and 22 years with Kichler and am so appreciative of those relationships,” Caldora says.
Caldora is ready and excited for what he calls his new job. “It’s called me getting to do all of the experiences on my bucket list that I can,” he explains. “I’m not sick or dying; I’m just retiring – and I wanted to do that while I am at the top of my game. We’re not here forever, and I’m still young. I’m going to travel all over the world. When I was young, I came out of the closet, and in my career I thought outside of the box. Now I want to do everything I’ve always wanted to do before I go in the box!
“I’ve had a wonderful time in the industry, but now it’s time to say goodbye and let the next generation come in. I’ve had great adventures in this business. Whenever we were re-doing a showroom, you always heard lots of laughter and fun. That’s what I think people will remember.”