Lighting and Imagination: One Man’s Road to SuccessPublished: July 15, 2010 in Knowledge@Emory
In 1960, Harry Gilham, not quite 30 years old, had worked for four years in Dalton, GA, for a plumbing supply company with a small lighting department that he had established. A Navy veteran and graduate of Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, Gilham had a plan to start his own lighting company, and he walked into an Atlanta bank with confident expectations. “I felt Lady Luck favored me and my dream,” Gilham recalls in his soon-to-be-released memoir, Lighting the Way: The Story of Georgia Lighting Company (Middle Camden Press, August 2010). That feeling was short-lived. The senior vice president of the bank—a friend of Gilham’s family—turned down his request for a loan, telling the young man he didn’t have enough experience.
“The banker was wrong,” Gilham writes in his book.
Gilham’s memoir chronicles his Navy service and his 40 years as founder and president of Georgia Lighting Company and World Imports Lighting, which grew to become the second largest lighting company in the U.S., with annual sales of nearly $40 million in 1998. The book closes with the story of the company’s acquisition by The Home Depot in 1999 under the watchful eye of Home Depot co-founder and co-chairman Arthur Blank, and it ends with the lighting company’s dissolution six years later during the tenure of chairman and CEO Robert Nardelli.
In his book, Gilham could have taken Nardelli to task, but he doesn’t. As he explains in a recent interview with Knowledge@Emory, “I wanted the book to be upbeat.”
While clearly a memoir, the book also offers plenty of tips for entrepreneurs. Reflecting on his road to success, Gilham says he was persistent, passionate about what he did, and diligent about analyzing the company’s profit and loss statement. He also sought out expertise in areas where he had little. “I always had the best legal and accounting advice I could afford,” he says.
It was also important to him to hire the best employees possible and to keep them happy. “They can be smarter than you, but you can still be the leader,” he adds.
Gilham liked the lighting business and he liked building relationships, many of which, he writes, played an important role in his professional achievements. He was also willing to take risks. While it no longer seems strange to order an Italian lighting fixture, back in the 1960s and 70s, doing so was considered exotic. “I was right on the edge of the market,” says Gilham. “People were amazed at how most of those things became best sellers.”
Given today’s reliance on high-tech correspondence, real-time bank transactions, and the Internet, it’s hard to imagine how unique Georgia Lighting was, especially in terms of its global business model. Gilham spent a lot of time in Europe, and his life was made much easier when Delta Airlines began to expand its routes. Gilham was a passenger on Delta’s inaugural flight from Atlanta to London, and he was delighted when the airline began flying directly from Atlanta to Milan and Rome, places he often visited to meet with manufacturers, artisans, and business associates.
It took time and effort, but spending time with these people face-to-face gave Gilham a chance to get to know them and to establish relationships of trust. He often paid in advance for his purchases—chandeliers and sconces, one-of-a-kind pieces, hardware—and as a precaution, he hedged foreign currencies in forward markets. “Entrepreneurs need lots of different skills,” Gilham tells Knowledge@Emory. “You’re not all one thing or another.”
Although he is circumspect about the sale of his company to The Home Depot, Gilham doesn’t regret it. He was in his late 60s, ready to retire, and he had the utmost respect for Arthur Blank. In the agreement with the home improvement company, Gilham would remain president of Georgia Lighting and would work with The Home Depot to “improve the gross margin and revenues of Department 27—Lighting Fixtures and Ceiling Fans,” he writes in the book.
After several years, the arrangement soured under the leadership of Nardelli. The company’s shift in focus under Nardelli spelled doom for Georgia Lighting. When Gilham got wind that Nardelli planned to close Georgia Lighting and separate it from World Imports, Gilham composed a letter to Nardelli explaining why he thought it was a bad idea. But Gilham had been told the news by an insider and feared the employee might be fired, so he never sent it.
Whether Gilham was advised by his lawyers to do so or because he truly wanted to write an upbeat book, he exercises considerable restraint when chronicling the dissolution of Georgia Lighting. “How did I feel about the closure of a business that occupied more than 40 years of my life?” he asks in his memoir. “I can’t hide my disappointment and frustration that, after so much time spent building Georgia Lighting, it was gone in an instant. In the end I think it is wiser to look forward, not backward.”
It was with some consolation that Arthur Blank, in a 2008 interview in The Atlanta- Journal Constitution, validated Gilham’s assessment of what had gone wrong. The AJC quotes Blank as saying, “I think the [Home Depot] company would have been much better served if Nardelli had taken the time to study the company and understood really what it was about, and where the strengths of the company were . . . and worked with the founders in that regard. That didn’t happen.”
Gilham writes that big box retailers are a fact of life, but he also believes lighting showrooms, such as the kind he made popular, fill a need. “There is enough business for both to survive and prosper,” he writes.
In the wake of their dismissal from The Home Depot, more than two-dozen former Georgia Lighting employees banded together to launch Masterpiece Lighting. Nardelli filed a lawsuit, but the new business owners were armed with a lesson in persistence—perhaps gleaned from their old boss, Gilham. They fought the suit, which was eventually thrown out. Gilham is not an investor or advisor to Masterpiece Lighting, but he is clearly proud of his former Georgia Lighting associates.
While much of Gilham’s memoir focuses on his career, the book also relates other aspects of his life, including the two years he spent aboard the USS Balduck stationed in the Pacific Ocean. The book also mentions his quintuple by-pass surgery in 2006, his bout with prostate cancer, and a few hints on how best to approach retirement, including the adage “Retire TO something.”
While Georgia Lighting’s success and sale to The Home Depot made Gilham a wealthy man, making money was never his top priority. He still lives in the same house he and his wife bought in 1968 (though he admits to several renovations).
“Money is certainly important,” he says, “but it’s not my prime purpose. I prefer to put my time and energy into endeavors that give me satisfaction.”
Gilham recalls running into an acquaintance, a successful architect, shortly after the architect had retired. They talked briefly about their careers. “He told me he hated every minute of his,” says Gilham. “Can you imagine?”