J. Frederic Cohen, and his wife Vera, have always been ahead of their time, when it comes to entrepreneurship
from running a lighting store & import business to inventing Sparkle Plenty and running a USA-made mirror manufacturer.
If you’re in the lighting retail industry, involved in the lighting import business, or the ceiling fan and mirror manufacturing category and haven’t heard of Frederic or Vera Cohen, they’re perfectly fine with that. In fact, this successful couple from Missouri prefer to fly under the radar.
The truth is, they’ve been involved in the home décor industry for more than 50 years. Together, they opened their first store – Lamp & Lantern Ltd. in the St. Louis area and made their selection especially unique by flying to Europe several times a year to source fixtures.
“We went to the very first Spanish trade fair in Valencia in 1965 and purchased bronze chandeliers in many styles that the St. Louis area didn’t have,” Fred Cohen explains. “We bought crystal pendants in Germany to hang on those bronze fixtures and designed new styles [for our customers].” Not only did the unusual chandeliers sell fast in the showroom, but the Cohens began selling them to other lighting store owners that they knew. “We expanded our imports to Italy with great success,” he remarks, adding that they’d typically make four to five buying trips to Europe a year. Fortunately, spending a lot of time in an airplane was something Fred enjoyed immensely.
“I have been flying for 70 years, starting when I was 12 years old and hanging around the airport, gassing and washing planes,” he recalls. “I got many rides from the pilots who showed me how to control, land, take off, and navigate. When I was 15, I got my license.”
Lighting captured the couple’s heart since they opened their first store. “Our first retail lighting store had wood floors, beams [on the ceiling] to hang chandeliers, and an old brass cash register that counted up to one dollar. It looked like an old general store in the frontier days. We sold light bulbs in bushel baskets,” he states. [The Lamp Journal trade magazine featured the showroom back in 1966.]
As the retail and import business grew, the couple then targeted another segment of the industry: ceiling fans. “The St. Louis Fan Company was another one of our ventures that was timely and served a niche business that we recognized,” he recounts. “We developed the business with research from the St. Louis World’s Fair styles. Our new sales representatives sold the ceiling fans to most of their lighting store accounts as well as furniture stores.”
Another entrepreneurial idea inspired the couple years later when they invented Sparkle Plenty chandelier cleaner. “We developed the formula and packaged it in a white box with a sparkle pop-up,” Fred comments. “Since I knew most of the good sales reps around the country, we had immediate sales and a lot of success. Eventually we sold our Sparkle Plenty product in Canada, England, Spain, and other countries. I purchased the name from Chester Gould, the artist and owner of the Dick Tracy cartoon characters. When we registered the name, that brought a lot of attention from the major chemical companies that wanted to purchase our product and definitely the valuable name. Eventually we did sell it to one of the largest in the U.S.”
Over the years, the Cohens’ empire expanded beyond the lighting showroom, ceiling fan company, import business, Sparkle Plenty, and later real estate holdings. These days, the couple remain focused on their latest “baby,” a mirror manufacturing company that makes all of its products in Missouri. The Hitchcock-Butterfield Company does a sizable business in manufacturing mirrors and frames for some of the home décor industry’s biggest brands as well as under its own name. The Hitchcock-Butterfield products are sold online through all of the major e-tailers as well as through showrooms all over the country.
Where did the unusual name come from? “Vera and I were in London watching the changing of the guard. at Buckingham Palace,” Cohen relates. “There was a lot of pomp and ceremony. As I was looking around, I saw some old 18th century shops nearby, and one of them had a sign that read: The Hitchcock-Butterfield Company Fine Clothiers For Gentlemen. I wrote the name down on a piece of paper and slipped it into my pocket. Later, when we were back home and we needed a name for our newly founded mirror company…Voila! And that’s how it happened.”
These days, Vera and Fred’s son, Jay, has taken over the day-to-day operations of the business since Fred decided to retire on his birthday three months ago. Naturally, that doesn’t mean he’s ready to spend his days in a rocking chair. “I am enrolled at Washington University’s grad school program, majoring in Archeology and Anthropology,” he comments. “I’d like to earn my Ph.D. within two years.”