2010 Industry Leadership Award Winner Cathy Choi
 
Choi with her husband, Scott Lee, and their daughters, Samantha (left) and Sofia.

When Cathy Choi started at Bulbrite in 2001, the company was celebrating the 30-year anniversary of her parents Andrew and Barbara Choi founding the company. Although it was already known for its quality service, Choi was looking for a way to make Bulbrite stand out. And it wasn’t long before she found it in the green movement that was just beginning to take shape. 

“Bulbrite has always been known for our great service and light bulb expertise, but I was trying to find a way to validate that to our customers and leverage that to distinguish ourselves from others in the industry,” Choi says. “And then the legislation started happening and new technologies emerged, and it was the perfect storm.”

A decade later, education has indeed become Bulbrite’s trademark, and one of the tenets of the Bulbrite promise — a three-part pledge the company makes to its customers, promising education, high-quality products and outstanding service. And over time, these values have become hallmarks of not just Bulbrite, but also of Choi herself, a major reason Residential Lighting readers chose the 38-year-old executive as this year’s Industry Leadership Award winner.

Educational Efforts

After earning a B.A. from Cornell University and an M.B.A. from New York University, Choi worked at Price Waterhouse and then New Line Cinema for almost 10 years before joining Bulbrite. She started out in sales and operations, before being promoted to Vice President in 2004 and President last year. 

Since then, Choi and Bulbrite have become known as a driving force behind education in the industry. Bulbrite’s website features a robust information center, which covers everything from energy-efficient lighting to new legislation and requirements, and the company also offers seminars on bulb and LED basics. “Light bulbs are very technical and with the emergence of LEDs as a viable residential light source, the information in the marketplace can be overwhelming,” Choi says. “And with the new FTC labeling requirements as well as EISA regulations, I can only imagine how confusing it must be for our customers.”

In addition to her work at Bulbrite, Choi also promotes education through her work on the American Lighting Assn. (ALA) Education Foundation Board of Trustees. “She’s great to work with, and gives great opinions and feedback on training materials, including a lot of good technical information that salespeople will need,” says Nicole Juneau, ALA Director of Education.

As a result of the changing requirements and legislation, Choi also started an education initiative at Bulbrite that required everyone in the company to receive ALA certification. This way, Choi explains, every Bulbrite employee the customer comes into contact with, either directly or indirectly, is certified to some level. 

Working with a group of such dedicated individuals is part of what makes her job worthwhile, Choi says. “I come to work everyday and I love what I do, and it’s really exciting to lead a group of very committed people,” she says.

And Choi’s passion for her work is apparent to others in the industry as well. “I think Cathy adds a great deal of professionalism and energy that infuses a lot of much needed progress,” says Shelley Wang, President of WAC Lighting. “She’s a force that champions forward motion.”

Commitment to Quality

In addition to education, Choi and Bulbrite are also committed to providing customers with the best product available. The Bulbrite promise guarantees innovative, high-quality products, thanks in part to the company’s in-house, state-of-the-art testing lab, which was recently updated with sophisticated equipment to test LEDs. And high-quality product is another thing Bulbrite, under Choi’s direction, has become known for. 

“One thing I admire and respect is that [Bulbrite is] leading the way and doing it with quality product,” says David Director, President of Connecticut Lighting Centers. “Even if they’re not necessarily first to the line, they’re the ones that when I get product from them, I know it’s going to be quality product, and that’s very important in our industry.”

This combination of superior products and customer service has indeed helped Bulbrite distinguish itself from the competition. “The great part about Bulbrite is they are always on the forefront of what’s available,” says Daniel Pfeffer, CEO of Lighting by Gregory. “They lead the way, and are the first people to bring technology mainstream, and they make the process of buying bulbs very comfortable and easy, which isn’t always the case.” 

And others in the industry are quick to attribute this success to Choi. “Especially with light bulbs, technology and regulations changing so quickly, and it being such a competitive industry, it’s a testament to her that Bulbrite is doing so well,” said Fanimation President Nathan Frampton.

A Personal Touch

The third tenet of the Bulbrite promise, outstanding service, is something that Choi and her company take very seriously. 

“Cathy is very customer-oriented. The Bulbrite promise is at the core of everything she does,” says Patrick Laidlaw of Laidco Sales. “The thing I respect her for the most is when you talk to her, you don’t feel like you’re talking to the President of the company. You feel like you’re talking to a teammate.”

Choi also gets to know her customers on a personal level, Pfeffer says, which is important in the lighting industry, where one’s personal relationships are often paramount. “Cathy is unique to the industry because of the customer service that she and her team provide,” says Pfeffer. “She knows every person in my showroom, and that’s pretty impressive.” 

Choi’s focus on relationships goes beyond the industry, however, as she also places a great deal of importance on her relationship with her family, including her husband, Scott Lee, a senior architect at Morphosis, and their two daughters, Sofia, 7, and Samantha, 3. “Cathy does a really good job of doing the work-family balance,” Frampton says. “She really manages her time well. With any family business, there’s going to be challenges, but she seems to do a really good job of being President and still being there for her family.”

In fact, sharing experiences with family is Choi’s favorite way to spend time outside of work, although she also enjoys having great food and continuing to develop her leadership skills through organizations like Vistage, a leading organization for chief executives. 

As part of a family-run business, many of Choi’s personal relationships overlap with her professional ones, including working with her sister, Dorothy Choi, who runs a key part of the business. And many of the values that have become her trademarks are part of a legacy passed on from an earlier generation.

“I started doing business with her father, who was very much the same, and a wonderful man to do business with, and I’m sure a lot of that has been passed on,” says Director. “Someone has to be your teacher and mentor, and she had a very good teacher because he’s a very honorable man.”

Choi has also shown how a family business can really grow, says Frampton, who also took over for his father at Fanimation. “I think she sets an example that a second generation family member can be as successful as [the previous] family member and even take things to the next level, just by her being out there and spreading the gospel of light bulbs in a tough economic environment,” he says. 

In the end, as Choi said when accepting her award, she feels her work is “just beginning,” and there’s still much more to do. And the greater purpose behind all of that work, she said, quoting a post-9/11 letter from Meyda Tiffany President Bob Cohen, is giving people light.

“While everyone’s in the business of buying and selling things, the thing we’re selling at the end of the day is light, and light affects how people see and experience things,” Choi says. “We’re responsible for providing really beautiful light, and I look forward to leading Bulbrite to do so for many years to come.”