A history of electrical work runs deep for Tyson Neal, who founded Legend Lighting in Austin, Texas four years ago.
As he was growing up, Tyson Neal would think about working for the family business: PowerHouse Electrical Services. His great-grandfather began wiring houses in the 1950s and grew the company into the largest electrical contractor in the state’s capital city. During his high school years, Neal worked part-time with his dad, uncle, and cousin at PowerHouse before he went to college, where he majored in Business, History, and Spanish.
“I remembered how fun it was visiting my family’s business and I enjoyed the opportunity to work with my father. Everyone there is very knowledgeable and I learned a lot, but discovered I was more interested in running a business than becoming an electrician,” he admits.
That’s when the idea for starting up a lighting showroom began to take shape. “I planned it out for one year before I opened the store,” Neal recounts. He found an ideal spot – a 7,000-sq.-ft. warehouse that previously housed a party rental company – and then completely remodeled the space. “This location is on the busiest section of the freeway, so visibility was a given,” Neal says.
Having a retail showroom also complements the family company. Both PowerHouse and Legend refer customers to each other and enjoy some synergy. That said, Neal didn’t want to ride on anyone’s coat tails.
“I wanted the showroom to have a different name than the electrical business to reinforce the fact that we really are separate companies,” Neal states. “I wanted to make it clear that the store wasn’t a front for an electrician.”
“Starting from scratch was hard,” Neal comments. The late Larry Lee, who owned Texas Light Bulb & Supply for 12 years before joining Legend as an outside salesperson, was a mentor to Neal. “He made a major contribution to our history and taught me a lot,” Neal comments.
Another significant source of information for Neal is the American Lighting Association (ALA). “At first, my exposure to various lighting manufacturers came from catalogs,” Neal recounts. “Then the ALA had a ‘first-time attendee’ special for its annual conference and I went to see what it was about. I learned about being a better business owner and manager, plus I learned goal-setting and planning techniques. Joining the ALA has been great for me, and I’ve been going to the conferences ever since,” he states. “I saw a need for me to get involved in the industry. Through the ALA, I’ve forged friendships with other showroom owners from coast to coast. I can pick up the phone and call someone and ask, ‘What do you do when this happens?’ and hear what worked for them. Or an ALA member might call me with a question about which software I use or recommend,” he explains. “I also take all of the ALA’s educational Webinars.”
In addition to the ALA, Neal has also joined professional groups such as the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin (HBA), the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI), the local chapter for the Interior Design Society (IDS), the National Kitchen & Bath Association (NKBA), the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and the Austin Independent Business Alliance. “We don’t just belong to these groups, we go to their meetings,” he affirms.
Unlike most sections of the country, the greater Austin area did not experience a sharp decline. “The housing market didn’t go through a shortage, but there was a soft demand in 2008,” Neal explains. By 2009, there were less distributors around and Legend Lighting was considered to be a new opportunity.
Family on Board
“I like the technical lighting products, but I don’t have an eye for the decorative items or for merchandising,” Neal confesses. “My mom (Carol Neal) said she’d come down on a Sunday to help me out.” Later his cousin, Kim, who had years of experience in marketing and managing customer lists at Xerox, offered to help out by building the showroom’s database.
“Everyone has their skill set to bring to the table,” Neal says of his relatives. “It was just a matter of recognizing each need.” Not only did Neal’s mother join the showroom staff, but so did Kim. “I write a quarterly newsletter with articles about lighting, plus write our blog,” she comments. “I follow the ALA on Facebook and I’ll share some of their posts with our followers.”
While mother and son enjoy working side by side in the showroom, Kim also goes out on job sites, calling on builders, designers, architects, and contractors. Having connections to obtain professional photographs is another plus. “When I post a job photo of ours on Facebook, it gets shared a lot,” she explains.
“We’ve learned that it’s not about selling products; it’s about selling a service and solving problems for the consumer,” Neal remarks. In short, customers are treated like highly valued friends. “We make the buying experience personal for them,” Kim Neal states. “Our excitement for lighting is apparent, and customers really connect with that.”
Tyson adds, “We try to pick products that customers don’t see everywhere else. We let them know that they’re working with a family and that we’re here all the time.”
“We’re learning something every day – and that makes the job fun,” Tyson Neal states. “I never want to lose that! Being involved in social media gives us something else to talk about with customers.” The store also has a presence on Pinterest as well as Houzz.
At Legend Lighting, bringing in fresh merchandise on a regular basis is a priority. To clear out slow-moving stock, the store holds a “Love Your Light” sale every year in February around Valentine’s Day. The sale is announced via newspaper ads and eblasts and trade customers are given first dibs.
“We do this to make room for the stuff we buy at the January market,” Neal says. In addition to making a list before they go, the Neals take their sales force with them to the Dallas show. “If our salespeople like a product, we know they can sell it,” he notes. “We [Tyson, Carol, and Kim] have final say in what we buy, but we take their feedback into account.”
Reps also serve as a sounding board. “In the beginning, we relied on reps for guidance in displays and for knowing what sells in our market,” Neal states. “It was like having coaches; they want us to succeed.”
One of the most successful areas in the store is the working landscape display. “I think the category is addictive,” Tyson admits. “Customers come in for a fixture for the front yard, love it, and then come back to do the backyard.”
The other area that homeowners are interested in is LED. “People used to want to know the difference between incandescent, CFL, and LED. Now they want to know good, better, best in LED only,” Tyson reports. “We make our own green leaf hang tags – showing LED products – to have consistency in our displays. We also tag new products to help our designer customers quickly focus on what’s new since they came in last.” The “New” tags stay on for six months.
The Little Extras
And then there are the little subtle tweaks along the way that Tyson Neal has employed. “I pick the music for the store myself. I chose a mix that puts people in a creative mood while they’re shopping,” he explains.
The placement of the lamps and fixtures also took some determination. “I attended merchandising seminars given by Denis Caldora at Dallas market as well as the ALA Conference – and that really helped a lot,” Neal states.
While customers may be more traditional in their taste, Neal hangs contemporary fixtures in the front windows to create visual excitement and freshness. The more traditional-style products are in the back of the store, which is easily noticeable from the entrance.
Magnetic Light Charms and two unique candle line called Rewined (featuring repurposed wine bottles) and Bertu are a few of the accessory lines that do a particularly great job of bringing in repeat business.
After four years of operation, the Neal family feels confident that their business will achieve their namesake “legend” status in the greater Austin area for years to come.