If Karen Wolf were a type of lighting, she says she’d be a color-changing LED.
It’s an appropriate choice for this industry dynamo, principal of The Wolf Group—her self-titled manufacturers’ rep organization—and hands-down winner of Residential Lighting’s 2006 Industry Leadership Award (selected by reader response to a ballot in the May 2006 issue). Unaware of Wolf’s chosen alter ego and completely unprompted, Casablanca Fan Co.’s Vice President of Sales Scott Torontali coincidentally declares her a “chameleon,” as well as the “quintessential rep.”
“Karen conforms her personality to fit the audience in front of her,” Torontali says. “She doesn’t put on the sales mask. People see that and open their doors. To really succeed in dealing with people daily, you have to get along with all different types.”
For Wolf, that’s a piece of cake.
The Art of Living
When Wolf was a child in 1950s Philadelphia, her father and hero, Elmer, owned a foreign automobile dealership.
“He was passionate about what he did, and he taught me well,” Wolf says. “I always remember him saying, ‘The most important thing you have in your life is your reputation. Have integrity, be honest and love what you’re doing.’”
Placing such value upon genuine plain-dealing served Wolf well as a teenager. She’d shown great talent and interest in sculpture, so in the early ’60s, her parents took her to meet with family friend and iconic American realist painter Andrew Wyeth, to see whether their daughter had a future in his world.
Standing in the great artist’s Chadds Ford, PA, studio, Wolf’s father’s instruction paid off. She says she wasn’t at all nervous:
“No matter who you’re going to meet or what sort of celebrity they might have, they’re still people,” she says. “I told myself, ‘There’s nothing to be nervous about; this is just a person who happens to have achieved something.’”
Wyeth must have liked what he saw; he recommended Wolf to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. From there, Wolf went on to the Philadelphia College of Art, graduating in 1968 with a degree in art education and sculpture.
For the next 12 years, Wolf taught art—and continued honing her people skills—to students of all ages, from grade school to college. Though she enjoyed teaching, once she got her first taste of the sales world in 1980, she never looked back.
Living at the time in the small town of Wilkes-Barre, PA, and raising two children, Wolf decided she wanted to pursue a career change that would afford her some flexibility. When a friend asked her to head up a new division at his framing and art store that would sell art supplies to engineers and architects in the commercial market, she jumped at the chance.
“I loved it,” Wolf says. “I could make calls when I needed to, I didn’t have any restrictions. I could do what I wanted.”
The store’s commercial side grew in leaps and bounds during Wolf’s one-year tenure. In 1981, she moved with her children, Jake and Jessica, back to her hometown of Philadelphia, where she made her debut in the home furnishings industry, taking a managerial position at a well-known designer showroom, Duncan & Huggins. The two years she spent there not only introduced her to the lighting industry (one of her favorite exhibitors in the showroom was the Cedrick Hartman lamp company), it brought her enough industry acclaim that exhibitor S. Harris Fabrics asked her in 1983 to move to Washington, D.C., to open and run a showroom in the brand new Washington Design Center.
Though Wolf enjoyed her work at S. Harris—and at the Design
Center’s International Contract Furnishings, for whom she worked in the late 1980s—her ultimate goal was to work for herself. “I knew I could do it,” she says. “If I could pull lines together, I could be in business—especially with lines that I love.”
Love & Lighting
Turns out, home furnishings lines weren’t the only loves on Wolf’s radar in the mid-1980s. Newspaperman Alan Tepper had walked into her friend’s gourmet bakery and into Wolf’s life back in Wilkes-Barre. When the two finally married and merged their families in 1985, she had no idea Tepper would one day be her partner in business, as well.
But soon after Wolf struck out on her own, founding The Wolf
Group in 1988, Tepper left his job with the American Newspapers
Assn. to join her.
“I had a fear that [working for myself] I was going to sit around and drink beer and watch TV,” Tepper says. “But I have to keep up with Karen, so that never happend. She’s got an incredible determination to accomplish what she sets out to do.”
The Wolf Group’s lighting roster grew accordingly, as clients like George Kovacs, Robert Abbey, Casablanca and Hunter Fan Co. climbed aboard. The train’s been hurtling full speed ahead ever since, and according to Bill Ulewicz—who called Residential Lighting’s office on his last day before retiring as Senior Vice President at Hunter Fan Co. just to rave about Wolf—a large part of that success directly relates to her and her husband’s storybook marriage.
“The family, personal side of their business—they cover all the bases,” Ulewicz says. “Quite frankly, the contributions they made to my success [were invaluable]. Just working around them, you realize there’s another drum beating there, and perhaps you should get in step with it.”
Watch and Learn
Watching Karen Wolf in action—which Residential Lighting did in October at Robert Abbey’s High Point showroom—truly is a treat. Attracting customers and colleagues like moths to a flame, she leads a tour of new products, editorializing on how each piece fits in with current trends and how it relates to and builds on her client’s established tradition and reputation. Her eyes dance behind funky eyewear as she stops to answer questions from other reps, then seamlessly picks up where she left off. Clearly, Wolf is crazy about her job.
“We have to really love what we’re bringing to other people,”
she says. “Otherwise, it just doesn’t work. [Lighting] done well can take a very modest-looking space and turn it into a jewel.”
Indeed, Tepper says, it’s Wolf’s seasoned eye that makes her so good at what she does.
“Karen is an accomplished painter and sculptor, so she brings this wonderful sense of design to the table when she’s selling,” he says. “If she has a ceiling fan from the Art Nouveau period, she’ll stop her pitch and go into the movement’s history. She presents product better than anyone I’ve ever heard; other salespeople will follow her around just to hear how she does it. Phrases she’s used creep into my own sales presentation.”
Casablanca’s Scott Torontali agrees. He, after all, originally nominated Wolf for the Industry Leadership Award, and he gets emotional when he talks about his reasons for doing so. “Karen has this tremendous transfer of enthusiasm,” he says. “She’s so [energized about] her products that she gets others excited about them. She challenges you to be better.”
In truth, Wolf looks beyond lighting’s individual members, challenging the industry, actively seeking causes to champion. She follows through, too—a fact made abundantly clear to Maryland’s legislators just last year. In 2004, the state passed a law of which most of its retailers were unaware that mandated all ceiling fans sold meet specified energy-efficiency require-ments by March 1, 2005. The problem? Manufacturers weren’t making enough Energy StarÂ®-rated products; the effects of the regulation would have devastated too many showrooms. Wolf notified her dealers and, along with colleagues from the American Lighting Assn., Annapolis Lighting and other area dealers, testified before state House and Senate committees.
“There aren’t a lot of reps out there who’ve appeared before legislators,” Tepper says. “Karen led the charge.”
Wolf and her team won an eventual stay. The Maryland law didn’t go into effect until this year, giving manufacturers and dealers alike more time to prepare their products and their businesses. The experience also laid the foundation for Wolf’s fighting position on energy efficiency.
“It’s sort of our burden right now,” she says. “When you think of the energy that’s used for lighting in this country! The hospitality industry gets it; now it has to come in residential life. It’s incumbent upon lighting manufacturers to really address that situation. It’s gotta start somewhere.”
If homeowners start with just one or two energy-efficient pieces in their home, it will make a difference, Wolf says. Rep-resenting companies like Lithonia—which is on the cutting edge of fluorescent and other sustainable technologies—inspires her. While the industry must educate consumers that “this isn’t your mother’s fluorescent,” she says it’s just as important to educate retailers, as well. “There needs to be more creativity and ingenuity and less looking at what everyone else has done. Dealers have to purchase and hang a couple of those fixtures, even if they don’t want to get on a bandwagon. If I’m elected,” she jokes, “I will put a fluorescent lamp in every home.”
The Future Is Now
Politics aside, for Wolf, lighting success equals education and training. Whether advocating new, energy-saving technologies, bringing trends to manufacturers or simply breaking down a product to its most basic elements, Wolf says the key is to make people comfortable with the item (or idea) being sold.
“People relax when they hear [a simple, honest presentation]. Then, you can tell them about the details: ‘See how this works? Here’s where it came from, here’s its history.’”
Wolf tries to impart this same philosophy to those with whom she works. Retailers and manufacturers alike relate tales of her passion, her zeal and her overriding desire to make herself 100 percent useful to her lighting family.
“I was delighted to hear of Karen’s accomplishment [winning the Industry Leadership Award], but I wasn’t surprised,” says Rick Williams of Dominion Electric Supply Co., whose D.C.-area employees inundated Residential Lighting offices with their votes in favor of Wolf as this year’s award winner. “She’s a wonderful lady and has done a great deal for us [at Dominion] and for our industry.”
Perhaps Wolf’s success in—and love for—lighting was mapped in the stars long ago. In a perfectly ironic twist to her tale, long before the industry was even a glimmer in her eye, Wolf read in a horoscope that her path in life would be in lighting.
“Not doing what I do?” she muses, “I haven’t even gone there. Lighting is everything. It’s alive. I still love the challenges—bringing something unfamiliar to someone and getting them to put their little toe in the water. I love it.”