And we thought we've been around a long time: Barbizon Lighting is in the middle of a 60-year celebration. The company that prides itself in the supply, service, and installation of a slew of lighting equipment and accessories for various performing arts, architainment, live, film, and television applications was founded in 1947 as an electrical supply business (then Barbizon Electric) by friends Sid Bloom and Sam Resnick upon returning from World War II. They took over a business based in Lower Manhattan that boasted four employees and sold light bulbs, toaster ovens, even toy trains; moved it Uptown; and eventually found themselves in the entertainment lighting industry.
Today, Resnick's son, Jonathan Resnick, and Bloom's son-in-law, Case Lynch, are involved in the business, with more than 20,000 products stocked and offices in New York, Boston, Atlanta, Charlotte, NC, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Miami, Orlando, Phoenix, Washington DC, and London. We caught up with Jonathan Resnick, who is now president and CEO of the company, to discuss the Barbizon's colorful past and what to expect in the coming years.
LD: What was the motivation for your father and his friend to start Barbizon Electric?
Jonathan Resnick: Dad and Sid knew each other through their brothers. After the war, they decided to go into business together and found this guy in downtown New York City who was in electrical distribution; he brought them on and in June of 1947, they took the company over, incorporated it, and moved it Uptown on Tenth Avenue, in the low 50s, right in the theatre, film, and TV areas.
LD: And just like that, they had their own business?
JR: Back then, you could just start something without a huge capital investment. Coming out of the war, you could have a dream and just start a business.
LD: Where did the name come from?
JR: The name Barbizon came from Sid walking by the Barbizon Hotel in New York and thinking it would be a good name. They wanted it to be at the beginning of the alphabet for the Yellow Pages.
LD: How did the business develop through the years, especially with the introduction of television and changes in theatre and live production?
JR: Our customers really brought us to the business. We weren't necessarily going to specialize in entertainment lighting; it just happened. In 1958, when tungsten halogen was developed — we were the first stocking distributor for those lamps — Dad and Sid really thought we should start specializing. So we started with light bulbs, then it became gel, etc. Mole decided to let us carry their TV and film gear, so that helped our business explode. Then we started the installation business. And in the 80s, we brought more theatrical-based employees to the company. The New York City office is sort of an anomaly from the rest of our other offices, which are very theatrical; in New York, we offer basically everything.
Dad and Sid were very unique in that they came at this from a business point of view; they understood what it took to supply this industry. Now, people start a business in this industry because they were on tour or were a production or lighting designer. They built the business as business people. But they loved the game and the challenge.
LD: Your background is in journalism. How did you get involved in the family business?
JR: I had worked summers in the business, but when I graduated college I went on to work in the TV news business as a news assignment editor. I was the first news editor of CNBC. But then my dad was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and asked what I thought about coming into the business. He had never really asked much of me for the family business, so I went to my management and asked if I could come back into news if I wanted. They said yes, and so I left to give it a try. I came on and never looked back.
LD: Where does most of your business come from today?
JR: If you looked at us 25 years ago, we were more about light bulbs. Now it is all about lighting: equipment, expendables, accessories, and other facets of the business. Light bulbs used to be at least 50% of the business, and now it's much less.
We have more than 175 employees, so we have an incredible amount of experience in all areas of the business, not just from our traditional areas but also from architainment, houses of worship, etc. When people need control systems that are not in the entertainment business, we're there. We're currently helping a surgeon develop the operating room of the future because it's all about control systems; no one in healthcare has been able to do it. Radio frequency and theatrical lighting folks can do it, though.
LD: What are you most proud of through the years?
JR: I take a lot of pride every day in the calls our team gets and how they solve problems in all of our offices — from a lighting designer with his crew somewhere on the road who needs something right away to the LD who walks in and asks us to cut a pattern. There are thousands of stories like that for us. Our service and our ability to respond on a number of different levels have been our hallmark.
LD: How do you see the industry changing in the next 10 years?
JR: I think bringing more business discipline to an undisciplined business will help all of us in the future. It's crazy how we undercharge for the amazing services we provide as an industry. The amount of software and hardware technology our technical people understand to run a show or do an installation is incredible. A top-notch lawyer would be charging way more. So what is our real worth?
You don't need an MBA; you can learn it. But we have to become a more disciplined business as an industry. You can't just run a business in this industry with MBAs because they won't understand a show. We're young in our business-savvy as an industry, but old in our love of the challenge.
LD: Barbizon seems to have gotten more involved in the architainment market lately, with such projects as 7 World Trade Center. Is that a growth market for you?
JR: We've really gone into architainment lighting because of the LDs. You have to give people a different environment, and that's happening more and more in architainment. Architainment, though, has been around for a while now and the growth in the overall business has grown slightly. Our end of the business is not going to explode and triple what we're doing.
The cheapest form of changing your look is lighting. The reality is that commercial buildings start off in design and want to do huge things, and then they dig a hole and it's over budget, and so on. Lighting is always one of the last things to get done on these kinds of projects, so we'd all be kidding ourselves if we thought there would be substantial growth. But there is some growth, especially thanks to LEDs.
LD: Do you think that LEDs will ever completely eclipse other forms of lighting?
JR: Absolutely not. People are missing the point. There is never going to be one form of technology that wipes out others. There are still 1kW Fresnels in TV studios that were there 20 years ago. Some people will only put moving lights in a club. It depends on what people like. More available tools gives designers more to play with. No one wants to have the same look. It's about keeping up with the technology, understanding it, and knowing how to use it.
LD: What's something you'd like people to know about Barbizon Lighting that they might not be aware of?
JR: Our biggest frustration is that theatre people know us for theatre, film people know us for film, and so on. Then when people are on another side, they don't realize we can do much more for them. We're in all facets of the business, so it can be frustrating if a customer comes into our showroom, and says, “I didn't realize you guys do that.”
For more information, visit www.barbizon.com.
Forty years — that's not a long time. Just ask anyone who's lived longer than that! Ours is such a young industry, an exciting arena in which to grow, and a limitless playground for the future! So where is it headed? And where is our little company headed within it? At Atomic Design, our roots are in rock and roll, a business that's only 40 years old. Thirty years ago, the television studio set was nothing more than a single curtain. Corporate events of the scale and nature that support us have only been going on for 20 years or less. But like our kids who are reaching these milestones, these young industries are getting their act together. Thanks to publications like this one, our colleagues and our clients are better informed. As our industries continue to grow, as our clients become more educated, and as competition heats up, I see us applying that backstage, the-show-must-go-on attitude to an expanding range of challenges from an expanding range of clients.
— Soren West, president, Atomic Design Inc.