Family Reunion: What a multigenerational lighting clan has learned along the way
By Paul Pompeo
This is the unabridged version, click here to view the edited version.
The Kornblatt family hold an unusual place in our industry. While there are and have been many, many lighting manufacturers, distributors and independent rep agencies that have had many family members employed, the Kornblatts are different in that while they worked together (primarily at the beginning of Jeff and Ryan’s careers) they also went on to work for completely different companies. I’m very grateful to Joel, Jeff and Ryan for uniting for this special conversation today.
Joel is the patriarch and fathered sons Jeff and Ryan. Joel, 86, is now retired; Jeff, 62, is Principal with KW Lighting Group and Ryan, 39, was most recently Regional Sales Manager with Luminance Brands. But the Kornblatt lighting lineage began even before Joel.
PAUL: Joel, I understand that your wife’s grandfather was an influence in your lighting career.
JOEL: Yes. My wife’s grandfather was partners with Wendel Lighting in New York in the 20’s, early 30’s. They went their separate ways, and their grandfather was probably one of the first to do cabinet lighting. They did cabinet lighting all over the country and also in the White House and for many celebrities in the 30’s and 40’s as well. So, lighting is both in my wife’s family and in our family.
PAUL: What year did each of you get into lighting?
JOEL: In the fifties—the late 50’s about 1957? It was my first job with Silbro Lamp as their Assistant Sales Manager. They were manufacturers. I had a hiatus for a few years outside of lighting. My favorite job other than lighting was a company called Weinstein the company who manufactured vacuum cleaner bags—and that was a real fun job as well. Back into lighting with a company called Genesis Lighting—which is long gone now—they were actually prime manufacturers [companies that manufacture all their products and components]. Silbro produced their own stampings [housings], finishing, plating, painting, and glass blowing.
PAUL: Joel, why did you take a hiatus?
JOEL: [Pauses] Actually, I lost the job—what happened was my best friend at the time was the sales manager and I on the side took on another line unbeknownst to him as a rep and he fired me [laughs]. It was my first job as a rep. That’s when I took the hiatus from lighting—for about four years or so.
PAUL: Did you learn a lesson from that?
JOEL: You would think, right? [laughter] Getting back to ‘What I’ve Learned’—that would be one of the things that I’ve learned. I later did take on the line as a rep—-it was my first job as an (independent] rep [agent].
RYAN: About 2001 I personally got into lighting, but I really lived it since a child [laughs], I started with my father at Legacy Lighting [a rep agency] as an outside sales rep.
JEFF: For me, it was 1987. I started my own company, Kornblatt and Associates—a rep agency.
JOEL: I threw them both to the wolves [laughter].
JEFF: That’s true.
RYAN: That’s very true.
JOEL: I don’t mean that in a bad way.
PAUL: What was your first job in lighting?
JOEL: My first job was an assistant sales manager for a company in Philadelphia that produced portable lighting. That was in the very early fifties and that lasted for a few years. I was instrumental in putting that company on the map in terms of distribution other than what the company was originally doing—which was one account. I don’t know if anyone remembers Stanley Home Products. They were a door-to-door [sales] company who sold home products—like the Fuller Brush man. I developed some new products for them; that lasted a few years.
JEFF: My first job was the same job I’m still doing [laughs], as a manufacturer’s rep in North Jersey/New York. The [company] names changed maybe 3 or 4 times; the lines have changed over the years, but essentially the same territory, same customer base. Fundamentally the same function, but the complexities have changed—there are more channels now. Me getting into a lighting rep agency in sales was my father’s idea. So, I started my own company, but he supported it financially the first year. I think the first commission check was $60. It may have been $62.37. [laughter]
JOEL: I don’t remember that, but I’m sure that was it. [laughter]
JEFF: It was a company that has been long gone—Gateway Horizon. Jack and Stan Silverman both worked for Quoizel. Jack was one of the reps here locally and Stan was the Sales Manager. They went off and started their own company, I was fortunate enough to take the line on. They were new, I was new, and they thought it was a great way to start in lighting.
RYAN: First job was with Pops— as a rep agent, with Legacy Lighting.
PAUL: What was your favorite job?
RYAN: In the lighting industry? I would say for me working at Traxon, it was working with new RGB technology at the time—that was a really fun job! It was groundbreaking at the time, it was kind of, it was the first new technology leading to real digital lighting—LEDs on the side of a building, things like that—this was about 2010.
JOEL: My favorite job was CSL lighting—it was the first regional job I’d had. Prior to that, I was the National Sales Manager or VP of Sales with a few lighting companies. Jeff and I repped Contrast Lighting together for a period of time and after Jeff and I split, I took the Contrast line totally as the regional manager. This lasted for 19 and a half years. My guess is that not too many regionals lasted that long!
But CSL was probably the most fun job that I had! My other favorite job would probably be when I was Vice President of Sales & Marketing at Weinstein Company.
JEFF: CSL was a fun line.
JOEL: Yes, it was.
PAUL; Why is that?
JEFF: Just the make-up of the company—the people who were involved with the company.
They were the first to bring MR halogen bulbs to the market that could be used for light commercial and residential lighting. Plus, making it decorative and really brining some interesting product into a market where the incandescent bulb was king. They came to the market with a festive attitude when they went to Dallas; the showroom was always fun to be in…it was a good time.
PAUL: Who was running CSL then?
JOEL: At the time the executive Vice President was Barry Leib and the President Jack Zukerman.
JOEL: They always had parties—aftermarket parties. Like one I remember at the Four Seasons in New York after LightFair that was awesome. They did that every Lightfair until it didn’t happen anymore in terms of bankruptcy and other things that we don’t want to get into right now.
JEFF: No real favorite—the job’s been the same, regardless of the name of the agency. It’s been the job I’ve had for 33 years. It’s been a couple of incarnations. For a period of time my father and I were partners. In the beginning it was just me, then later it was just me again. I’ve had people work for me on and off over the years. My office assistant has been with me for over 15 years. As of last year, I merged my agency [Kornblatt & Associates] with another [The Walsh Agency]. Their principal is semi-retired and works in the office, but his sons are in the business and they’re great kids. So now there are 4 or 5 [employees] counting our office assistant in the agency.
PAUL: Turning the question around—what was your least favorite job?
RYAN: I would rather not answer that.
JEFF: I won’t answer that. There will be too many eyes on this article [laughter]. It was not always sugar and spice at some points, but otherwise I have no complaints.
JOEL: Free publicity. [laughter]
PAUL: Have your generational differences led to any conflicts or maybe even some success stories?
RYAN: Yeah, learning the business through two generations, and I gotta tell you my dad told me what to do and it’s led me through my career. [pauses] Conflicts? My Dad [Joel] kind of fired me once for getting too many parking tickets [laughter]. It was from me being lazy back then—I didn’t want to go find a parking garage, so I just parked [right] outside of Lighting by Gregory [laughter]. So, I learned to not take the easy way out from a generation who did not take the easy way out. At the same time while learning, we also butted heads. There were things he did in the rep business that were kind of outdated. Specification was going through the roof. I said, “Why did you focus on showrooms?” Specification was starting to be where a lot of the activity was and showrooms were [becoming] a dying breed—which they were at the time, but now they aren’t. But that’s where we butted heads—this was 2003-2004.
JOEL: When I fired Ryan, it was for exactly for the reasons he noted. I actually did rehire him; I think the next day [laughter], I don’t remember the time [that Ryan was out of work], but I got his attention.
RYAN: You made your point [laughter]!
JOEL: I think that straightened it out and he did a great job after that.
JEFF: I really don’t think there were too may generational differences when I started—the business was predominantly showroom oriented. I don’t remember any.
JOEL: I don’t recall any generational problems—other than I was the father, and they were the sons—I guess maybe I was a little overly fatherly toward them. The bottom line I guess is everything went pretty smoothly most of the time.
PAUL: What is the most important thing that each has learned from one of the others?
JEFF: I basically learned my understanding of the showroom channel and lighting in general from my father. If it were not for his tutelage, who knows where I would be today? Without his inspiration and input and knowledge of the business, just to wake up one day and decide you’re going to be a lighting rep—it doesn’t happen. But without his background and support I could have never pulled off being a rep on my own—absolutely not.
RYAN: I second that, and also that whole being able to work from home thing— which was unusual—at the time. It taught me to be self-motivated. And it helped me years later—especially with what happened during the pandemic! From learning [to work out of a home office] all my life, having my office next to my bedroom, learning how to develop that work- life balance while working from home was very important.
PAUL: What is the strangest or funniest thing that ever happened?
JOEL: This is with CSL lighting…we did face-to- face presentations with architectural firms, lighting design firms, interior design firms. In the beginning they had a transformer—a little bulky transformer that I used to use in presentations. I was notorious for taking the leads and clicking them together and blowing out the transformer. Jack Zuckerman said, “If I have to replace another transformer, I’m going to have to fire you!” [laughs], but he was joking.