The evolution of Hinkley Lighting. In 90 years, Hinkley Lighting has morphed from outdoor lantern manufacturer to all-around powerhouse
Everyone remembers their first job, but how many are still working there? Although his responsibilities have expanded over the years, Rick Wiedemer is among an elite list of multi-generational lighting manufacturers who share such a rich personal and business history in the industry.
“I started at Hinkley in July 1969 just 30 days after graduating from Ohio University [with a degree in Business],” Wiedemer recalls. When he stepped into the business, it was a completely fresh experience. “I never worked there while growing up. My father always kept his work separate from his home life and family,” he says.
“My training during that first year was working in the factory and performing every operation for weeks at a time,” Wiedemer explains. “ I have never forgotten how important that was, as I have always had that basic knowledge of manufacturing processes as a result. “
Stepping into a leadership position in the company wasn’t all smooth sailing. “Being the owner’s son and gaining respect from fellow employees was my biggest challenge back then,” he remembers. “The only way to work through that was to not be afraid to work harder and longer than anyone else and be willing to take the worst job without complaining again and again. Respect is hard to earn, but once [you do], it is invaluable in building your business.”
Then again, Wiedemer had some hard-working mentors. His grandfather, Stanley, was a manufacturer’s rep in Kansas City who counted the copper outdoor lantern maker Hinkley Lighting among his lines. The company was founded in 1922 by Phil Hinkley in Cleveland and originally named The Phil R. Hinkley Company. Over the next 10 years, Stanley Wiedemer became the company’s sales manager, relocated to Cleveland, and bought into the company.
“By the mid-1930s, Phil had left the business due to illness and my grandfather acquired 100-percent ownership,” Wiedemer recounts. Stanley’s sons – Paul, Jack, and Jim – all became involved with the business after graduating from college. In 1941, the company employed more than 40 people, but World War II had a great impact on business. All three of Stanley’s sons enlisted in the Armed Services and the Phil R. Hinkley Company converted its manufacturing processes to produce airplane parts and sub-contracted plating jobs for the government. All three boys returned safely from service and resumed work at Hinkley. Once materials and machinery were available, the company refocused on manufacturing lighting. “After WWII, Stanley’s sons came back to the business and were made equal partners. Over the years my father, Jim, became the sole owner,” Wiedemer says.
Hinkley Lighting’s business boomed along with the post-war boom in tract housing – in part due to the G.I. Bill – as more Americans were able to fulfill the dream of owning a home. Through the 1970s and ’80s, Hinkley was still focused primarily on outdoor lighting. “We expanded into landscape lighting, but our core business was all still outdoor-related,” Wiedemer comments. “We recognized that outdoor was much more dependent on new home construction and by broadening our offering, we could level out the hills and valleys of new home building.” As a result, the line grew to include kitchen and bath fixtures and eventually chandeliers.
Like most lighting manufacturers, Hinkley’s business flourished during the housing bubble of the 1990s and early 2000s, but the recent Recession has tested the mettle of many companies. Instead of merely surviving, Hinkley seems to be defying the odds by actually thriving and growing despite the rocky financial climate. “We are just trying to survive a changing environment,” Wiedemer comments. “We have always recognized that we are not the largest or broadest in our industry and that we would have to create a niche to be successful. From the beginning I have always placed a very high priority on personal relationships, many of which have carried us through tougher times.”
One of the most successful recent campaigns that Hinkley has launched involves a large-scale effort to boost consumer awareness of the company. “Lighting has not been branded per se, and while it is a huge challenge, we are making that effort with reasonable success,” Wiedemer explains. “We have carried our stylized cataloging and advertising into our Dallas showroom to solidify our brand.” At the January market, Hinkley unveiled a mammoth, completely renovated showroom that emphasizes the lifestyle concept to its retailers. “We believe brand awareness is a key element of successful retailing and our showroom channel can help themselves by embracing it now and in the future. Our showroom was created to be a concept center for our retailers in addition to just displaying new products,” he affirms.
It is Wiedemer’s hope that Hinkley Lighting’s legacy will be the reputation for having a strong foundation of relationships and for being able to compete in the industry as a smaller player. “We are willing to take calculated risks and challenge the norms of ‘It’s never been done that way,’ evidenced by our lifestyle branding,” he says.
Helping to make that legacy happen are Hinkley’s employees. “Good people are always the cornerstone of any successful company,” Wiedemer explains.” Besides our family, there have been others that have grown with us. One of those families had three generations working with us at the same time. The remaining member is our product engineer Bob Brainard. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I currently have the longest tenure with the company although our Supply Chain Director Ron Chmielowiec has been with Hinkley 40+ years. I think our underlying motto is ‘We have fun working hard’ – which truly says what we have tried to build at our company and I think it is reflected in our longevity and success.”
There are several employees, however, that are especially near and dear to Wiedemer’s heart. “I don’t think there is anything that a father could be more proud of than having his children come into the family business,” he remarks. “I have been fortunate to have all three of mine work with me and it is always exciting to see them grow. My daughter, Kristi, was with the company for more than 10 years and now is at home in Denver raising her family. My sons, Jess and Eric, are taking on more and more responsibility and I enjoy the business so much more because of my connection with all of them. Jess entered the business 12 years ago and brought a rounded operational perspective to the company,” Wiedemer states. “His new ideas and freshness helped put programs in place for the next generation. After eight years as a practicing attorney, Eric joined the company two years ago and is offering another perspective for the future.”
What does Wiedemer believe is the biggest secret to success? “We love the business and our customers. We believe that they enjoy doing business with us and the more we can offer that is appropriate for their channels, the stronger that bond and the bigger we can all become.”
The Legacy Continues
Rick Wiedemer’s children were very aware of the family business from a young age. “While my brother, sister, and I were growing up, my grandfather, father, and aunt all worked at Hinkley,” explains Jess Wiedemer. “It wasn’t unusual for my father to bring home checks to sign or catalog and design concepts to review during the week, so we were very exposed to it. On Saturdays we would go to the office with my father and play in the office while he worked. This definitely made us aware of the business and piqued my interest in it at a young age,” he recounts.
During high school and college, both Eric and Jess had summer jobs in the factory assisting with maintenance, assembling lighting fixtures, and helping out however necessary. Upon graduating college, Wiedemer’s sons did not automatically join the family company. Jess had a short stint in another industry, but moved back and began helping with Hinkley in 1999. “Beginning with data entry and then recognizing all of the opportunities, I was able to move around to any area that needed assistance. This process gave me an in-depth understanding of the business and prepared me for my current position as Operations Manager,” he recalls.
While Eric acknowledges that he always felt that someday he would be involved in the company, like his brother, he didn’t take a direct path. “My father encouraged me to gain professional experience outside of the business,” he explains. “I went to law school, became an attorney, and was working in product liability litigation. In 2010, my father and brother approached me about joining the company to handle its legal affairs. After having worked in complex litigation for about six years, I decided to make the switch into the business because I felt that I could make a positive impact and I was excited by the opportunity to work with my father and brother.”
Both of Wiedemer’s sons are appreciative of the good advice their father has dispensed over the years. “I learned to underpromise and overdeliver. Exceeding expectations works,” Jess comments. Meanwhile Eric values his father’s encouragement to “listen twice as much as I contribute and to try to understand the issues and effect change by patiently gathering consensus.”
Working with family can be tricky. “The key is to listen and respect each other’s opinions and be willing to take chances,” Jess notes. “It is a great opportunity to be part of a family business. It is definitely fun working with family, from both a generational standpoint as well as different levels of industry experience.”
Eric says that gaining the respect of your fellow coworkers is another hurdle when you are the boss’ son. “It takes time,” he says. “My advice is to work hard to understand all the aspects of the business.”