A conversation with Todd Langner, President & CEO of SESCO Lighting in Florida, the largest manufacturers’ rep firm in the country with 300 employees and a full-time
Todd Langner has four decades of experience in the lighting business, starting out in his family’s hardware and lighting store in Florida. He spent 30 years in manufacturing, primarily on the residential side, with brands such as Illuminating Experiences, Forecast Lighting, Hinkley, and Troy Lighting (which he purchased and later sold). He then moved to Cleveland as VP/Marketing & Product Development for Kichler and later ran the lighting division of Hunter Fan. Ten years ago, he joined SESCO as VP/Business Development.
EM: You bring a unique perspective of both the residential and commercial lighting sectors. What have you seen as the key differences?
Todd Langner: I want to preface this by saying that I believe relationships are still the most important thing anyone can bring to this job. You’ve got to be motivated to build, develop, and grow strong relationships even if you’re in a very technical, engineering-oriented, commercial setting. You can be the most technically brilliant person, but if you don’t know how to hone and refine those relationships, you’re not going to get the business.
My residential background helped me a little bit, but there are major differences in both the products and markets. On the decorative side, most of the reps I had worked with were smaller, having just a couple of principals. That scenario works fine on the decorative/residential side, but the commercial side is very technical and provides a large range of services to customers. You’ve got to have a tremendous amount of knowledge about the products and about lighting itself. True lighting design involves working with architects and engineers, and encompasses much more than typical sales. It’s almost the reverse of the decorative side — which is 90 percent aesthetics and 10 percent function. In the commercial world, performance is critical. Space must be lit properly, plus there are code issues and regulations for commercial buildings that vary by state and city.
Out of our 300 employees, 100 are salespeople on the street. The rest are a combination of project management, customer service, quotations, and applications/calculations.
Each of our major manufacturers — Philips, Acuity, Eaton, and Hubbell — have a rep firm in every major market that, together, controls a huge portion of the lighting business. They have purchased many niche manufacturers out there, and continue to, consolidating the market even further.
Any agency in even a moderately sized market must have people calling on multiple professionals: architects, contractors, engineers, and distributors. One of our largest divisions is the Public Sector, which calls on municipalities, utilities, DOT, etc. Beyond our Distributor division, our National Accounts division calls on chains in retail, restaurants, hospitality, and others that need the same type of lighting in multiple locations. We also have an Energy division that attacks the retrofit and conversion business, going out and doing audits, presenting designs to the building owners that include a payback analysis of how much money they’ll save from an energy standpoint.
EM: Can a residential lighting rep easily adapt to the commercial sector?
TL: Training is the biggest thing. Salespeople on the commercial side require far more training; many of ours are Certified Lighting Consultants (CLC). The technical and code sides of the commercial business are far more complicated than what a typical decorative rep needs to know. In U.S. major markets, you’re not going to be successful if you don’t have enough outside salespeople, but equally as important is the inside support staff. It’s really the price of admission to the commercial sector. We’ve got to have people inside who can do all of the things required by engineers and architects, such as photometrics, design, submittals, etc.
Among our sales team are former electrical contractors and engineers — people who got disillusioned or bored with what they were doing previously. Sales can be a very lucrative position and can increase their earning potential.
I would encourage people who may be on the decorative/residential side of lighting and interested in a change to make that leap. It’s a very challenging business involving intense training, but from a long-term industry and job security standpoint, it’s much more stable. The larger agencies will give newcomers an education both book-wise and on the street.
EM: Has commercial lighting been as affected by online sellers as much as the residential side?
TL: We certainly have some, but online sellers don’t really affect us much. Commercial product websites carry a lot of basic products online, but products sold by pure specification businesses like SESCO are not commonly found online because they are so technical. They are just too complicated for most people to select online without professional help.
EM: What are major changes you’re seeing in the commercial market?
TL: I was coming into the commercial side at about the same time that LEDs were starting to appear. While the impact of LEDs has been significant on the decorative side, it had to be a complete sea change on the commercial side. Nomenclature changed, codes changed, and new tests had to be performed to determine fixture efficiencies. The timing for me was a happy coincidence because everyone on the commercial side was going through the same learning curve at that time. Commercial businesses were used to small improvements with different lighting components, but this turned everything on its head. North of 90 percent of what we sell is LED, maybe 95 percent. There are still countless properties, roadways, cities, and industrial sites that haven’t yet been converted, so it’s a wonderful time to be in commercial lighting. It’s going to take a tremendous amount of time — probably 10+ years — to fully convert everything both outdoors and inside.
The impact of LED on the commercial side will be staggering. Luminaires are now going to last between 5 and 20 years without needing to be changed. That means a massive slowdown in the number of fixtures being sold. So what will lighting companies do as an alternative? Lighting fixtures are becoming more than just devices to provide light. We’re hearing terms like “LAAS” (Lighting As A Service), which can function as a data collector, provide marketing statistics, offer instant store coupons, and indicate mapping for shoppers to products throughout a store, and more. Major advancements are also being made in controls on board, making intelligent fixtures one of the biggest subjects in the lighting business. Everyone is watching to see what will be unveiled next — we’re entering a new frontier.