The smart chandelier from Bulbrite uses LED lighting.
Lighting has certainly evolved over the past 50 years – as has Bulbrite, the family-owned light bulb company that started with Christmas and decorative bulbs in 1971.
Five decades later, the company founded by Andrew Choi and now run by his daughter Cathy has moved beyond a local business in Manhattan to an international one – with a full range of light bulbs, including LED and its Solana smart line, distributed to lighting showrooms and home retailers – operating out of its headquarters in Moonachie, N.J.
Andrew Choi first came to the U.S. on a business trip when he worked for a Korean light bulb exporter. He liked this new country, and, turning 30 years old in 1971, decided to quit his job and start his own light bulb business here.
His wife, who was pregnant with Cathy at that time, was less thrilled with this idea, Cathy Choi told Home Accents Today recently.
Working out of his apartment in Manhattan initially, Andrew used both his light-bulb experience and salesmanship to build his business, as well as another important tool: Food. He called on the stores on the Bowery, Manhattan’s lighting district, with bagels in one hand and bulbs in the other, Cathy said, as he believed people would be more apt to listen to you if you offered them free food.
“That was how the business got started,” she said. “Our core has always been the specialty lighting retailer.”
He also embraced his new country by changing his first name to be more “American,” and after someone told him his Korean name sounded like Andrew, a good alpha name, that worked for him, Cathy Choi said.
Her father not only took on the new name, but came home and told his wife that she had to take on an American name that started with a B – so she chose Barbara, after Barbra Streisand, the Lady Gaga at that time, Cathy said. And they continued down the alphabet with their children: Catherine, Dorothy (after Dorothy Hamill, the Olympic ice skater) and Eric.
After a handful of years in business, Bulbrite began its ascent to the next level with the onset of a trendy new type of incandescents: Halogen. With his contacts in Japan and Korea, where many bulbs were manufactured at that time, her father was able to quickly source high-quality halogen bulbs, and saw an uptick in sales, she said. Now armed with two product catalogs – decorative incandescent and halogen – her father realized he couldn’t go it alone anymore, and brought in manufacturing reps to expand his business beyond Manhattan.
Cathy herself didn’t join the family business after college, choosing finance over bulbs initially. However, when Andrew was turning 60 in 2001, he began to think about his succession plan. So over lunch with his daughter in the Bowery – again using food as a sales tool – he planted a seed in Cathy’s head.
“’If you’re at a point in your life where you looking for a change,’” he told her, it would be great for her to join the company, she remembered. She realized years later that that meal was his selling-her-on-the-job lunch. And she was turning 30 herself at the time. “I was at an inflection point too.” So she was in.
Given her career experience, she expected to run a division immediately, but her father had other plans.
“’You’re starting in customer service because the most important part of the business is the customer,’” he told her. “’And the only way you’re going to learn about the business is by picking up the phone.’”
And she did. Then she worked in departments throughout the company until her father felt she was ready to run operations.
As family businesses can have their own challenges, Cathy heeds the leadership advice from her business coach: Keep family, ownership and leadership separate.
“In a family business, those three circles tend to overlap a lot,” she said, and the better one can keep those separate – “so it doesn’t become like ‘I’m mad at my brother because he didn’t bring the side dish for Thanksgiving but I need to talk to him about a project’” – is “how to keep the family relationship healthy.”
Eight years later, in 2009, she approached her father about becoming president, and he agreed, becoming chairman himself.
Cathy assumed the president’s role as the lighting industry itself was going through a massive technology shift at the time. The Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) – mandating the phasing out of incandescent bulbs that had been the industry’s mainstay for more than a century, starting in 2012 – had been passed by Congress in 2007. So much of Bulbrite’s product line would soon become obsolete.
Luckily for Bulbrite, “I have this never-ending quest to be better,” she said. “Do better, and be better.” She successfully navigated the transition from analog products to digital ones. Now 80% of its business is LED, though “it’s not too long ago that 80% of our business was incandescents and halogens.”
Innovation is key, but Bulbrite does not stray from its core: Products where the light bulb is the hero – including filament/Edison bulbs, string lights and retro ceiling kits. So don’t look to it for decorative items such as brass chandeliers.
Its LED filament bulb line, in fact, now with more than 100 SKUs, is among its best sellers, as well as the string lights, she said. And its Solana smart bulb line continues to grow, its LED candelabra bulb being the newest addition.
“We’re passionate about the quality and source of light and how that makes you feel.”
Today’s fast pace of technology pushes Bulbrite to keep creating and innovating – whereas that wasn’t the case early on. “Everything moves so fast now,” she said. “Now, if you stand still, you’re falling backwards.”
This article first appeared in the October 2021 issue of Home Accents Today.