Three generations of family stand behind AFX, currently celebrating 80 years of innovation with plans to continue on for many more decades to come.
One of the most iconic names in professional football history is Coach Vince Lombardi, who led the Green Bay Packers from 1958 to 1967. His style of leadership – which centered on effort and commitment – inspired the very best performance from his players. He knew how to get his team to execute his plan to perfection, out-perform their opponents, and play mistake-free football.
Those sentiments that Lombardi shared about teamwork, winning, and honor have gone far beyond football; his leadership style has been emulated by companies in nearly every type of business imaginable.
In the lighting industry, one of the most iconic names is AFX (formerly known as American Fluorescent), whose leadership has similarly built a culture based on a commitment to excellence for the past 80 years. The now third-generation, family-owned company has continually grown and evolved its services, offerings, and approach in response to – and sometimes ahead of – what the market demands. Illinois-based AFX has done a remarkable job of reinventing and transforming itself while remaining firmly rooted in the values that have been at the core since the beginning.
A winner of numerous design and innovation awards over the years, AFX’s portfolio includes indoor and outdoor fixtures along with designer-oriented and basic products for commercial, hospitality, healthcare, and residential applications. These designs have helped re-define energy-efficient lighting and re-invented the decorative fixture category by combining aesthetics with the latest LED technology and top-notch design engineering.
Back to the Beginning
William Rusnak grew up in a Chicago banking family, and as a young man owned a furniture store. While attending the 1933-34 Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago, Rusnak first encountered the concept of fluorescent lighting. He decided to take a chance and invest in what he guessed would be a significant impact of the newly discovered technology. Rusnak opened the doors to American Fluorescent in 1938.
His son-in-law, Jerry Solomon, joined him two years later and became instrumental as the business gained a foothold in the industry. Solomon became President in 1959 and, under his leadership, the company built a reputation as an innovator. One of their biggest accomplishments was the development of under-cabinet lighting, proving that fluorescents were not just for commercial and industrial applications.
In 1973, Bill Solomon joined his father in the business and was appointed to his current role of CEO 10 years later. Under his leadership, the company has steadily built market share and has spearheaded the development and introduction of energy-saving decorative fluorescent fixtures.
In reflecting on the company’s 80th anniversary, Solomon notes, “We continually strive to bring relevant and innovative lighting solutions to our customers. Central to our success is the relationships we’ve built on trust and respect with all our stakeholders, including customers, employees, and supplier partners.”
Bill is the last of the Solomons at American Fluorescent/AFX. There are no other family members involved in the business today — a far cry from when he started at the company. “If anyone in the family was out of work, my dad gave them a job,” he laughs. “My grandmother was the office manager, my sister ran the switchboard, mom did payroll, my uncle managed sales, and throughout the ’60s and ’70s, probably half a dozen of my cousins worked here.”
Solomon is proud of the legacy built over the decades. He describes his grandfather as an entrepreneur and a bit of a rebel, whose handshake and word were as good as gold.
“He borrowed $10,000 from his father so he could get out of the banking business and start this company,” Solomon shares. “He was very much an ‘I did it my way’ type of business owner and was extremely loyal to people and treated them very well. My father was a different type of leader. He would do anything for anybody. He was a storyteller and typical salesman. People really loved him because he was such a genuinely good person.”
How does he measure up? “I’m a combination of my grandfather, my father, and my mother,” Solomon surmises. “Like my father, I genuinely care about people and like engaging with them. I enjoy the sales process, taking a close look at customers and their needs to learn how we can help them and their businesses. I do business with integrity and have tried to be honest with our customers about what I think are the most important things they need to know.”
While Solomon’s grandfather was more of a risk taker than his father, “I share his philosophy that you have to take risks to grow a business,” he remarks. “My mom, as the daughter of the founder, was no-nonsense. She was quiet, but very inquisitive. She would try to get as much information as she could before making a decision, which is a trait I try to emulate.”
From a young age, Solomon was immersed in the company, doing all the summer job-type of tasks that are typical for children of lighting business owners. He was also very cognizant that his last name drew attention.
“There was no such thing as being anonymous when you’re the son and grandson of the owners,” he states. “You can’t take your role for granted. You’ve got to show them that you care more about this business than anyone else. When I loaded trailers or worked in shipping, etc., I worked harder than anyone because it was important for me to develop the respect of the employees. I called my dad by his first name at work, and we tried to develop a business relationship outside of our family dynamic.”
A New Look
Throughout its history, the company has been committed to delivering superior quality, uniquely designed, and technologically advanced lighting products. American Fluorescent had built a reputation for continuously developing, expanding, and rethinking its core offering to reach beyond the traditional electrical distribution channel to include showrooms and the decorative market.
As LED technology began gaining market-wide attention and a consumer audience, Solomon realized American Fluorescent needed a change in its name and look. In 2012, he initiated a massive rebranding effort that included changing the name to AFX.
According to Solomon, the “AF” signifies the strong connection to the original name and its commitment to retaining its value and reputation. The “X” represents changes in lighting technologies as well as the company’s overall solutions orientation. As part of its rebranding, the company also rolled out a new positioning statement – “Lighting Your Vision” – which reflects the customer-centric approach taken in developing products and programs.
It also rolled out “Stonegate by AFX,” a custom, made-to-order, designer-focused decorative line that features product families by renowned designers. [AFX acquired domestic manufacturer Stonegate Design several years ago].
“Everyone thought LED technology would evolve over a period of time, but it happened so much faster than expected,” Solomon notes. “We had been competing mainly against other fluorescent products, but as the playing field [started] changing, we recognized the need to adapt and make the changes that would keep us relevant and offer a value proposition.”
Early on, AFX had engineers designing and developing LED products. “It was a major conversion,” Solomon explains. “We had been very limited in the type of designs we could produce for fluorescent bulbs. From a design standpoint, the change to LED gave us so much more opportunity for design creativity. Many lighting companies weren’t as prepared, and there was a quality issue in the early years of LED [introduction], which gave the segment a bad name. Our preparedness allowed us to promote our quality products and gain users’ confidence.”
The AFX headquarters, 100,000-sq.-ft. assembly facility, and three warehouses are located in Waukegan, Illinois. In addition, the company maintains warehouses across the country – in North Carolina, Texas, and California – that provide fast service to its distribution network of lighting showrooms, electrical distributors, and trade professionals who work with specifiers, designers, and architects.
Today, AFX products are used in a range of applications from commercial buildings, hotels, and restaurants, to multi-family, assisted-living, and single-family residences. The majority of sales is to trade customers, and to show its loyalty to that segment, AFX creates designs that are more commodity-driven with fewer features and a lower price point for the e-tail market.
People Make the Difference
Product quality isn’t the only reason AFX has endured through the decades; it also comes down to relationships, starting with the employees. The amount of loyal employees is a reflection of Solomon’s style of leadership. Several years ago, when AFX formed its “20-Year Club,” there were already 28 members with two decades of service at the company.
“We have a very close-knit team and we treat them right,” Solomon states. “If employees have personal issues or difficulties, we try to work with them and help them through. We want to see them succeed and feel their best.”
That commitment to innovative, quality products remains evident, even after all these years. “I really enjoy the product design and development process,” Solomon recounts. “The landscape is constantly changing and challenging, and it is very exciting to see new and different designs take shape. And, of course, seeing our customers’ reactions is so rewarding.”
Solomon emphasizes the important effect that relationship-building has had on the business. In this era of digital communications, however, maintaining that commitment to doing business with a personal touch can be challenging.
“My biggest piece of advice for young people is to engage in face-to-face time with customers,” he comments. “As tempting and convenient as [digital methods] might be, personal communication will continue to be a major factor in doing business. Getting to know your customers and building relationships will always bring value. You’ve got to know what they want so you can provide it to them. When you combine that with providing the highest quality of products that exceed customers’ expectations, it’s a powerful recipe for success.”