Volume 10 | Issue 4 | Year 2007

Former vice president Al Gore is currently perhaps the most visible public figure advocating a change in habits to reduce energy consumption, a byproduct of which is pollution that contributes to global warming. In the Academy Award-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, Gore points out that replacing a single traditional incandescent light bulb with a fluorescent light bulb reduces annual carbon dioxide emissions by 150 pounds.
For Columbia Lighting, maker of general commercial and industrial fluorescent systems solutions, as well as high end architectural lighting under its Alera brand, “The attention that the movie has attracted couldn’t come at a better time for us,” points out David Smith, vice president of Columbia/Alera brand management. “Everyone is conscious of this issue, today. I live in a small town and just the other day our little local paper featured a big story about kids doing a project to encourage people to change from incandescent lighting in their homes to CFL (compact fluorescent lights).”

And while everyone wants to make a contribution to a better environment, there are also significant economic incentives, as well. “Energy costs are growing by about 6 percent annually, according to the Department of Energy,” Smith points out. “Since lighting can easily comprise half of a building’s electric bill, that’s a big chunk of expense that can be significantly reduced by more sustainable lighting. The bonus is that the federal government provides further encouragement through tax rebates offered through the Energy Policy Act (EPAct) of 2005. Lighting system improvements that exceed the ASHRAE/IESNA (American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers/ Illuminating Engineering Society of North America) Standard 901.1 2001 for warehousing, manufacturing or other high pay applications may be eligible for as much as a 60 cents per square foot rebate. In addition, some local utilities and state governments also offer rebates for the use of energy-efficient lighting in upgrades and new construction.”

Indeed, Smith believes that growing awareness of the advantage of fluorescent alternatives over traditional lighting explains why Columbia Lighting sales have increased over the past few years despite any new product introductions. ”Basically, we’ve grown with the market,” Smith says. “Columbia has strong brand recognition, and as customers seek to install more fluorescent lighting, we’re a top choice because of our reputation for reliability and innovation. That reputation dates back to 1897 when the company was founded by Rudolph Doerr in Spokane, Wash. – we were there at the very start of the illumination industry. In 1936, the company began to manufacture the then new technology of fluorescent lighting and after World War II focused exclusively on fluorescent fixtures. In the 1950s, Columbia developed a line of high-end recessed fluorescent troffers using Cornian glass. The biggest innovation came in 1966, when we were the first company to introduce parabolic lighting to control and distribute light in a predetermined pattern while reducing glare and maintenance requirements; 40 years later, it remains the de facto industry standard. Our tradition of excellence includes such product breakthroughs as the Very High Comfort (VHC) parabolic fixture for glare-free illumination of computerized offices, the P4D with DuraLouver, and the Zero Plenum Troffer, an innovative lighting solution for cramped and overcrowded ceiling plenums. Today we are the third largest brand of fluorescent lighting in North America.”

Consequently, as a combination of government incentives, cost-cutting measures, and the general inclination to “do-the-right-thing” for the environment drove demand for fluorescent lighting, Smith concedes that, “There was a lot of low lying fruit for us for sure. At the same time, there was some confusion in the external marketplace about our direction, which was in part due to our acquisition by Hubbel Lighting in 2002. The process of integrating with our new parent company led to a lot of distractions that had to be resolved before we could refocus on properly identifying and serving customer needs.”

Now, Columbia Lighting is poised once again to revolutionize industrial and commercial lighting with a unique systems solutions approach affected through a series of new product developments designed to save companies money, comply with new government energy consumption standards, and improve the environment. “Our intention now is to not only take advantage of the existing opportunity, which is fairly significant in and of itself, but also to take a larger share of the market. We expect to achieve this by offering complete lighting systems of new product configurations that meet specific customer requirements. The old approach was to sell fixtures. The new Columbia Lighting isn’t just a mere commodity provider, but an energy solutions partner.”

Create Change
The switch to this new orientation began in October 2006. “We had a series of discussions with our channel partners, our sales representatives, as well as our own sales force to assess what products would best serve our markets and how we could best present them,” Smith says. “In our business, the sales channel gets a little complicated because there are a
number of entities involved before we finally get to the end user. There’s us, there’s our fixture and ballast-manufacturing partners, and then there’s various distribution points to electrical contractors before we get to the actual customer. So it’s important to make sure everyone knows what’s going on to actively partner with us.”

Equally important, of course, is that end-users know what’s going on as well. “In May, after we’ve formally announced three new major product programs, we’re going on a road show tour to six major cities,” Smith says. “We’re taking a number of people – our own outside sales guys, independent distributor reps and other key people to announce the new Columbia Lighting and how we can help business reduce their costs through green technology that provides the best illumination for their needs.”

The tag line of the overarching marketing push is “Create Change”…change for a better environment, change for better lighting conditions, change for a new way of thinking about illumination that has a significant effect on bottom-line performance. “This is not just another new and better product. This is a new and better way of addressing business needs to improve performance and to attain their goals,” Smith emphasizes. “Even with customers that are already fairly knowledgeable about the advantage of fluorescent in general, there’s a bit of education we have to do to show them how our new products and systems can help reduce overhead and improve general lighting conditions.”

Equally important to creating a change in customer thinking about illumination is the need to create change in how lighting is sold. “It’s more than selling a customer some fixtures. It’s looking at the full scope of how an application is going to be used, how the lighting can solve a problem or address a need, and how do we make the system as efficient as possible and still achieve the lighting needs of a particular situation,” Smith says. “You don’t want to have to pay for light where you don’t need it and, conversely, it’s not saving you any money to skimp on lighting and possibly impair worker productivity or increase the likelihood of accidents or mistakes. Also, proper integration of the controls and what you want them to control, for example, can have almost as much an effect on cost-efficiency as the light itself.”

To this end, Columbia has just announced three new product programs: VersaBay, EnergyMax and ZPT.

New Product Programs
For applications requiring high ambient temperature tolerance, VersaBay systems come equipped with radiators to provide maximum ballast heat dissipation, enabling cooler operation. All electrical components are on the same plane as lamps, which prevents lamp heat from entering the ballast cavity. The benefit is longer component life under even the most challenging conditions. VersaBay lighting systems also offer the industry’s highest warranty rating with a low two-inch height profile to reduce the chance of obstructions. The ballast can be easily accessed without tools in one quick step.

The EnergyMax offers an exclusive “tuned” system design that features customized louver material and ballast, with the two T8 fluorescent lights in a standard housing instead of the usual three lamps. The two-lamp system provides the same lumen output as a three lamp parabolic, but with an 18 percent increase in efficiency rating (88 percent vs. 70 percent) with a 25 percent reduction in wattage from 64 watts for two bulbs versus 85 watts fro three lamps. Controls are fully compatible with occupancy and daylight harvesting sensors and the step level dimming is an affordable way to meet the strictest
EPAct requirements.

ZPT is designed specifically to fit into shallow plenums, eliminate dark strips and still fill a room with controlled light – more footcandles on the work surface with a 90 percent efficiency that leads the market. It’s easy to install with a 1/2-inch low profile with telescoping housing and ballast access from below the ceiling. There are multiple aesthetic options to fit any room décor, while achieving significant energy savings.

Columbia employs about 1,400 people nationwide, and sells throughout North America to job sites and strategically located distribution centers and warehouses. “About 90 percent of sales are in the United States,” Smith says, “the rest is in Canada and we’re starting to so some business in Mexico. Our customers are exclusively commercial and industrial businesses; we just, for example, did a major custom lighting project for Wal-Mart. We have no desire to offer residential products; in fact, there are other divisions of Hubble Lighting that address those markets.”

The company has been headquartered in Spartanburg, S.C., but will soon move to Greenville, S.C. “We outgrew our existing location,” Smith explains. Columbia maintains nearly a million square feet of manufacturing space in Spokane, Wash. (220,000 square feet), Bristol, Pa. (296,000 square feet, with an additional 83,000 square feet for distribution) and Juarez, Mexico (216,248 square feet), plus an extensive network of warehouses and distribution centers throughout North America. Smith notes that manufacturing is about evenly divided between Mexico and the domestic plants, but, “like all other manufacturers, today, we are looking more closely at foreign operations with lower labor costs.”

He adds, “While some of our processes are automated, roughly about half are still labor-intensive. That’s not going to go away, particularly as we focus the business away from commodity products and more on custom designed solutions. There are still some things that we can hard tool if the volume justifies it. But for a number of projects we do soft-tooling; the manufacturing system has to be flexible to respond to specific customer needs as they arise. It may be a one time special order, or it may be a special order that may recur at certain points throughout the year.”

Another issue is the higher cost of doing business in general. “Also like other manufacturers, we’re up against rising costs of raw materials. There’s been some flattening out since about 2005, but the fact is that they haven’t come down. And aren’t likely to,” Smith says. “Same with the price of electricity and fuel that goes into your basic operating overhead. So to manage that better, we are heavily into lean manufacturing, with at least one major kaizen event annually.”

“It’s an exciting time for us,” Smith says. “We think we can do a lot for our customers to make them more efficient and save money; at the same time, that improved operating efficiency ultimately results in fewer carbon emissions that can help improve the environment for all of us.”

This means that for Columbia Lighting, to quote the pop song, “The future’s so bright, you got to wear shades.”