Murray Feiss, founder of Murray Feiss Lamp Corp. and Generation Brands, shines a powerful light on the home furnishings industry. With 60 years of lighting innovation under his belt, Feiss earned some early experience in his family's lampshade and furniture springs companies and now sits at the helm of a successful conglomerate of household brands. At the Dallas Total Home & Gift Market in January, he will receive the Academy of Achievement Award from the Accessories Resource Team, an honor that recognizes his status as an industry pioneer. Residential Lighting asked Feiss to survey the progression of his career and to discuss where he thinks the home furnishings industry is headed.
Residential Lighting: How did you get your start in the home furnishings industry?
Murray Feiss: My father had a company that manufactured springs for the bedding, upholstery and furniture industries, while his mother owned and operated a factory that created original hand sewn lampshades. When World War II was over, and I returned from the Navy, I went to work for both of my parents while simultaneously earning a Bachelor's degree in Business Administration from New York University. Following graduation, I wanted to flex my entrepreneurial muscles and do something that would utilize my father's spring business and my mother's lamps shade enterprise. I began producing wire frames that I customized for the lampshades my mother was manufacturing, so it was a natural progression for me to start my own lamp company. I felt that lamps -- lighting in general -- had a lot more opportunity than just lampshades. And I thought that the total volume of sales in lighting would certainly be much larger and that the business would be less labor-intensive.
Residential Lighting: How did your business evolve from there?
Murray Feiss: I acquired two sons-in-laws, and after my first son-in-law, Robert, had worked in the factories for a number of years and acquired enough experience, we opened a chandelier factory. I travelled with Robert, teaching him the overseas operation. I could not do this without having my second son-in-law, Ron, oversee the internal network including the supervision of our sales force and the day-to-day management of business.
Residential Lighting: What prompted your decision to switch the company’s operations to Asia?
Murray Feiss: In Europe, prices were constantly going up, and then we weren’t able to take care of our customers. So I then made a trip to Japan, Korea, Taiwan and China. And then I started doing business in those countries. We negotiated with the Chinese government, leased land for 99 years and built our own factories, developing factory towns, creating infrastructure and dormitories to house what is now more than 3,000 full-time employees. By owning our own factories in China, we can maintain control over quality, delivery. We can also maintain high fill rates and protect the copyright of original designs. We had an office at one time in Italy, but once we opened an office in Asia, we decided to concentrate our efforts on factories there. There were a couple of reasons for this change: First of all, the prices were better in Asia. And second of all, I was able to do a lot more designing in Asia because they quickly picked up on ideas that I had, and they were very fast in making new models. It was almost like writing on a blank board: You were able to do a lot of things at that time. The Taiwanese, in particular, were very excited about anything new and anything that they could export to the U.S., so they were very receptive to new designs and new concepts. Our move to Asia was in the 1970s, and we were one of the first lighting companies to have main offices in Taiwan, and then we were probably one of the first to have factories in China.
Residential Lighting: How did the company’s move to Asia change the business?
Murray Feiss: We ultimately moved our operations from Taiwan to China, where we currently own four factories. I think that the move allowed us to come in with a very strong product, good quality and pricing -- and we were able to create a lot of designs very quickly in China.
Residential Lighting: How has the company evolved today?
Murray Feiss: About four and a half years ago, we brought in a venture capital firm and made some acquisitions that we formed into a company called Generation Brands. Murray Feiss is now a strategic business unit of Generation Brands, and after acquiring Seagull Lighting, Monte Carlo Fan and the balance of their brands, Generation Brands also acquired Encompass Lighting Group which is the parent company of Tech Lighting, LBL, 2000 Degrees and additional brands. We are still actively acquiring additional companies and look forward to growth beginning in the fourth quarter of 2009 and extending through 2011. We currently maintain 18 brands and Murray is the Chairman of the Board of Generation Brands.
Residential Lighting: How has the home furnishings industry changed during your career?
Murray Feiss: We're talking about a period of maybe 50 to 60 years, but in general, I'd say that the industry is much stronger financially than it was at the very beginning. A lot of the companies that we do business with today are second and third generation. Basically, we do business with home centers, furniture stores, lighting showrooms and many others, including Internet companies. I think that the suppliers -- ourselves included -- are much stronger and much more diversified than they were years ago. I also think that the retailers are generally stronger and better developed than they were in the past. And then, I think that the industry overall is much more focused on the design and quality of the product. Also, I think that the consumer is probably more selective and better educated today. The consumer is looking for high quality, good materials, organic materials and products of value. As you take each step up the ladder, you then have no choice but to take another step up the ladder: That's generally the way things work, but I think that the consumer today has a much better understanding of what they want.
Residential Lighting: Where do you think the home furnishings industry is headed in the near future?
Murray Feiss: Of course, our major problem today is the fact that the housing market is weak. And this has an impact on two levels: We're not seeing a lot of sales in new homes or in existing homes. In the past, our industry had been somewhat recession-proof because, when home sales weren't strong, people would choose to remodel instead. So lighting would pick up with the pace of remodeling, especially in the kitchen and bath. However, this [current market] is an unusual situation because remodeling is not happening as often as it did in the past, since homeowners are struggling to get the credit they need for financing. So where do I see us in the next five years? I believe that business through the third quarter of 2009 is going to be tight, however, I see the recovery process beginning in the fourth quarter of 2009 and strengthening in 2010. Being in business for over 60 years, I am both positive and optimistic that those companies that practice good business strategies will emerge from this economic crisis leaner and stronger than ever.
Residential Lighting: What distinguishes your company from other lighting suppliers?
Murray Feiss: I think we're distinct in our concentration on design, on trying to give our customers the type of product and the type of service that they require to run their businesses. We maintain strong inventories so we can fill orders very quickly, and then our customers don't have to maintain strong inventories of our product; we can usually ship all of our products to them within 24 to 48 hours. Design, of course, is always the key to everything that we do.
Residential Lighting: What trends have you recently noticed in the home furnishings industry?
Murray Feiss: I think that the consumer is moving toward a simpler product, less ornate, simpler lines. They're more interested in color; they're very design-oriented. Also, the size of our products has grown as the homes have gotten larger, and the rooms have gotten larger. We've been affected by the fact that a lot of the new homes being built have 9- or 10-foot ceilings instead of the traditional 8-feet, which changed the size of our product. Now what those homes are going to look like in the next three to five years, and whether the emphasis on green products will push us into smaller houses with smaller rooms, I don't know. Basically, we design a product to fit into the average American home, and the size of that home is key to the type of product that we're going to produce. But I also think that the green trend is very important. We have to be energy-conscious, and I think that LED is going to be a strong part of this. We have some new LED products at Generation Brands that we're very excited about. Moving away from incandescent lighting over the next five years is going to be a strong initiative because so much energy is used in our industry and within the American home. At this point, I believe that LED is probably going to be the light of the future.
Residential Lighting: What does the Academy of Achievement Award mean to you at this stage in your career?
Murray Feiss: It's very gratifying. It's an award that I share with a lot of the people who have worked with me in the past, especially since ours has been a family business. My wife, two daughters and sons-in-law have all been very active in the business, so it's a confirmation of what we've been able to achieve as a family in our company. It's also been a confirmation of my goal to develop Generation Brands as a major lighting company in the future, with future acquisitions. I retired in May from the day-to-day operations of the company, though I'm active in the company as the Chairman of the Board.
For more information about Murray Feiss and Generation Brands, please visit the company's website: www.generation-brands.com