When a renowned lighting manufacturer declared bankruptcy two years ago, it appeared doubtful that it could be revitalized to its former glory. However, its dedicated employees refused to give up.
For more than 30 years, the lighting brand Holtkötter enjoyed iconic status with North American customers for its top-rated quality featuring German engineering and European design. Several years ago, however, there was a series of business decisions that impacted cash flow and led to a slow-down in production and shipments to customers. Customers began losing faith as they dealt with angry clients not only in retail, but on the hospitality side as well. When the head of the U.S. division left, the firm had no choice but to let the employees go and file for bankruptcy.
Almost immediately, National Sales Manager Tom Lillie, who had been with the manufacturer for nearly 15 years, stepped up. He, along with many of the long-time employees, steadfastly believed in the company’s products and core values and didn’t want to see the brand leave the States. The President of the German headquarters, Hans Holtkötter (whose father founded the company) also wanted to see the North American division survive.
Within a few months, the company was re-
organized with new management – Lillie was
appointed President – and new ownership, but
with all of the employees back with their same dedication to providing quality, technologically advanced European lighting.
Typically when customers feel “burned” by a brand – in this case by canceled orders and a lack of communication – it’s nearly impossible to win back their trust. That’s what makes the Holtkötter story different. While there were past customers who signed up almost immediately, many took a wait-and-see approach. Interestingly, hardly any decided that they wanted nothing to do with the new company (incorporated as St. Paul Lighting dba as Holtkötter). It seemed everyone in the North American lighting industry was curious to see what would happen next.
“When we came out with our first new products that June, approximately 50 percent of those who came into our Dallas showroom purchased them,” Lillie states. The designs were a hit, but there was still some reluctance to place a purchase order due to the then-not-so-distant past shipping problems
For that reason Lillie has opted to continue in his sales management role, along with serving as company President, traveling every month visiting distributors. “Being on the road made sense to me because I wanted to regain the customers’ confidence and convince them that we’re back,” he states. Going even farther in the name of customer service, Lillie has even personally written long letters to customers and end-users. “I’m just trying to do the right thing,” he remarks.
Just as with the former company, there is a factory on-site at the headquarters in St. Paul, where 95 percent of the lighting line is assembled. Lillie has arranged for distributors to visit the factory to see for themselves that the team they forged relationships with for all those years are still here. Some employees have been with the Minnesota-based business for 25 years, another for 18 years, and most have been there for 10 to 12 years.
Not Just Fixing What Broke
One of the most impressive aspects of the new Holtkötter is that it has become so much more than merely reviving the brand and resting on past laurels. Under the new management team, these new designs not only incorporate input from customers to create products with even greater sell-through, but include cutting-edge technology that has won the company prestigious accolades such as the Lighting for Tomorrow Awards, which recognize ground-breaking innovation. Lowering some of the price points to be what Lillie calls “more retail-friendly” without sacrificing the quality is another success under the new management team.
The new products are truly a collaborative effort from both sides of the Atlantic. “I might sketch out a product idea on a cocktail napkin and send that idea to the engineering team in Germany to produce,” Lillie explains. “Or I might have some of the tooling done by local engineers here to modify a design.”
The first line that Holtkötter came out with under its new ownership/management was called Genesis, an apt name for a reborn company making its first mark. “That series was based on a design [from Germany] that was modified with parts from scratch here [to better meet the needs of the American market], such as the square base that I had a local engineering shop do,” he says. Another one of its new LED torchiere designs received the Best Product in the LED category as voted on by customers participating in the Market Choice Awards, which was co-sponsored by enLIGHTenment Magazine and Dallas Market Center.
The employees have also come out winners in the new Holtkötter company. There are now corporate-matched contributions in the 401K plan, an improved medical plan, plus more holidays. “I wanted to give back to our employees, who have been so loyal,” Lillie says. The staff isn’t the only one who’s noticed and appreciated the changes. This year the company received the ARTS Award for best Portable Lamps.
A Bright Future
Now that the ship has been righted and steered successfully through the inevitable choppy retail waters that occur in the wake of a comeback, the company will be expanding its product line to include more European products. “We had a great reception [to the new European styles] at market. Retailers liked the designs and the price points,” Lillie remarks.
Under the new management, the company is also expanding its use of LED, whereas the brand’s top-sellers have long been halogen. “It’s always been a challenge to get a quality LED,” Lillie comments. The company has launched exhaustive efforts to source LEDs that can provide exceptional light output. “We exceed all of the recommended standards by two times, and in some cases up to four times the light output,” he notes.
Technological and sales triumphs aside, what Lillie is most proud of is “maintaining the respect of the industry,” he says, adding, “There’s been a lot of hard work by everyone involved and the support of the industry has been very gratifying. We had to face the music, but in the end you just get up in the morning and do the best you can.”