Atlantic Electrical Supply in Virginia is a successful blend of two families spanning multi-generations.
In the 1920s, Atlantic Electrical Supply was enjoying such solid business in Baltimore that Isador Richard (I.R.) Levet – grandfather to cousins Stephen and David Levet who are at the helm today – started up a branch in Richmond, Va., in 1929.
As kids, the cousins worked at the store doing a variety of chores from warehouse duties to working behind the supply counter and everything in between – not that they experienced any preferential treatment due to their bloodlines. “Our granddad was as hard on us as he was with everyone else,” David recounts.
David and Steve’s fathers (I.R.’s sons) were partners (and stockholders) in the business. The young cousins worked at the store while they were in high school and graduated from college, concentrating in different areas. David’s degree was in human resource management; Steve’s was mass communication, later landing a job as a Congressional press secretary and working on a gubernatorial candidate’s campaign. With experience at the giant public relations company Hill & Knowlton under his belt, Steve was not wanting – or expecting – lighting to be in his future. “I worked here in high school and grew up with it around the kitchen table,” he says. “I never imagined going into the family business.”
“We had the great opportunity of working with our fathers and our grandfather,” David notes. When David’s dad died unexpectedly at age 69, he stepped up to fill his father’s shoes at the company. Then Steve’s father died in January 1991 at the early age of 56. At that time, Steve and his wife were running their own public relations firm and publishing a media directory they created from scratch. “My grandfather (I.R.) asked me at the funeral to join the business and I started working here that April,” he relates. The decision was not easy and for a long time afterward Steve was working double shifts, splitting his hours between the store and running the p.r./publishing firm. Steve and David are 50/50 partners in Atlantic Electrical Supply today.
Helping the younger cousins through the transition into hands-on ownership was another set of cousins (Alfred and Alvin Lehman) whose respective fathers were share-holding partners with I.R. Levet in establishing and running the business. Octogenarians Alvin Lehman serves as manager/Lighting Fixtures and Alfred Lehman is the outside sales manager. They both grew up in the company and remain actively involved today.
For example, when Atlantic Electrical Supply moved to its current location 38 years ago to make room for a new highway, Alvin suggested the showroom be positioned diagonally on the plot of land. “I wanted the windows to face in a direction where the sun would never shine directly in, generating glare and excess heat,” he explains. He also specified the showroom to be constructed as a series of small rooms featuring categories such as outdoor, living room, formal/crystal, and sconces.
“This way, I can build more of a rapport with the customer when we can sit down one-on-one at the table in each of these small rooms and focus on their plans without having them be distracted by another fixture in a different category across the showroom – for example, an outdoor fixture when we’re discussing crystal chandeliers – or by another salesperson helping a customer with their renovation plans. I think the room by room approach is more cohesive for doing whole-house plans,” he states. Each room is spaciously appointed. “We don’t have vignettes or ceiling clouds. We try to keep each room clean and uncluttered,” Alvin notes. His life-long experience with lighting and his commitment to keeping abreast of the trends and technology has given him a faithful following of customers that span generations.
Like Alvin, Alfred has no intention of retiring anytime soon. “I enjoy this business,” Alvin says. “The guys [builders] I deal with are my friends. We feel in our hearts that we bring something valuable to them. I think one of the reasons we’ve been successful in recent years [during a recession] is because of our policies. We don’t have any greed in our pricing,” he remarks. “We also bring the best value to our customers with our expertise. I think of myself as a far better promoter of lighting [than our competitors]. Once we have someone as a customer, they tend to stay with us.”
The industry has changed a lot in a very short period of time, but that doesn’t affect the Lehmans’ upbeat attitude. “Change has to be accepted, whether it is good or bad,” Alfred states.
What would their fathers think? “My dad would be proud that I stayed in the business for 58 years,” Alvin says. “The industry was different back then, where it was more of a people business. You could call up the president of a lighting manufacturer and he’d know you by name as well,” he recalls. “We even had friendly relationships with competitors [in the old days]. They’d come to me to do their home and we’d do things together. I enjoy coming to work every day,” Alvin adds.
“I think my dad would be proud that I attained the amount of experience that I have,” says Alfred. “He’d be proud of the friendships I’ve had with customers and the amount of business I’ve brought in.”
Both Lehmans have high praise for the way Steve and David have led the company. “We pride ourselves on our ethics, integrity, and honesty,” says Alfred, adding, “Steve and David have been very open to the changes and suggestions I’ve made.”
Rising to the Challenge
One of the biggest changes that David and Steve made was to computerize the business. “When I arrived in the 1990s, they were still handwriting orders,” Steve says. “I decided that we needed computers. We found an industry-specific program (for electrical supply houses), but after a week, we sent it back.” Since Steve’s public relations business and its media directory was computerized, he knew that programs could be customized to fit more exactly to what was needed. Therefore, on nights and weekends, Steve began working on customizing a computer program that would benefit the company best. “I spent close to 1,000 hours of my own time on it,” he recalls. The hard work paid off though, as the program was able to capture transactions eligible for GE rebates. “It repaid for itself within nine months by creating and sending reports. Before that, we had done everything manually. The computer program [calculated] additional revenue that we wouldn’t have gotten previously,” he explains.
Adding computers wasn’t a hit with the older generation (in addition to Alfred and Alvin, who are in their 80s, the purchasing manager for the supply side is 94-year-old Wilbur Ellis). “I have a computer on my desk, but that’s because I have to,” Alvin chuckles. His office is also the central location for all of the manufacturer catalogs, which is a medium he is familiar with and prefers.
There are no ivory towers at Atlantic Electrical Supply. “Dave and I are very hands on,” Steve states. “We can still do everything at the store but drive the forklift,” he quips, adding, “We both work roughly 60 hours a week.”
Although the store has been serving the Richmond community since 1929, Steve and David are not content to sit on their laurels and count on repeat business. With the Internet, there is more competition out there than ever. “Even though we have the largest showroom in the metro area, as a [relatively] small independent, we don’t have the buying power of larger organizations. We’ve had to learn to buy smarter and look at different sources in order to remain competitive,” Steve explains. “We have an e-commerce Web site and we consider it to be like another salesperson – and it still requires you to communicate with the customer.”
The operation is comprised of 25,000 square feet and encompasses several floors of warehouse space, which comes in handy when selling from a Web site. “Not only do we have the most knowledgeable staff in the area, but we also have the largest back up of inventory,” Steve states.
The cousins also keep Atlantic Electrical Supply involved in many community activities. One of the most recent endeavors was initiating a co-sponsorship with the Central Virginia Electrical Contractors Association to raise funds for apprenticeships through the Richmond Electric bowling league. “We have 12 teams and have gotten other electrical supply houses and manufacturers’ reps involved. We’ve donated $4,800 to the apprenticeship fund so far,” Steve says.
Atlantic Electrical Supply’s commitment to serving the community in a variety of ways – plus its playful promotions such as holding a funeral for the A19 bulb when the new EISA legislation was enacted and superior customer service – has created generations of loyal customers.
The legacy just may continue into a fourth generation. While David’s children are too young to think about a career in lighting, Steve’s sons have already worked in the business after school like their father did.
The future looks rather bright (pun intended). “We’re turning the corner; we’re seeing the economy improving, especially in the light commercial side.” Adds David, “Things are definitely moving along now and everyone [16 full-time employees] here is busy.”
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