From Platzmeister to Bricks and Clicks, Capitol Lighting Shows how a Jewish Family Business Succeeds in Every Generation.
Capitol Lighting's Beginnings
Max Lebersfeld, a German Jew, worked as a platzmeister in a factory in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in the early 1900s. The platzmeister was an average working, who had an eye for where stock should be stored in the warehouse. He fell in love with the factory owner’s niece, Ethyl. She was an affluent Hungarian Jewish girl, and marrying Max meant marrying well beneath her caste. Her family was displeased and it was a pretty nice coup for a young, working class, Max Lebersfeld.
The newlywed Lebersfeld’s had the American dream. They thought they’d leave the Austro-Hungarian Empire for the prospects of America; there, they’d make their fortune; then return home to Budapest to flaunt the success of the working class Max and his high class wife, Ethyl.
The Lebersfelds arrived in New York, armed with a document vouching for his workmanship. Initially, Max worked at a factory in Harrison, NJ, but his wife saw that his talents extended beyond his platzmeister trade; she wanted him to become an electrician. Max was a builder and a craftsman, able to make detail masterpieces without the benefit of today’s technology, and he learned the electrical trade.
At this time in Newark, NJ, where the Lebersfelds were living at the time, the houses were being converted from gas to electricity. This was perfect for Max, who would use his two skills to cut through the flooring with such perfection that he offered his customers free labor, if they could find where he made the cut after the job was finished. Max didn’t have to give too many of his customers their money back, and they were very happy with his workmanship.
Ethyl Lebersfeld got inspiration again, when she realized they could make extra money by selling the electrical supplies that Max and the other local electricians were buying in large demand, and Capitol Lighting was born.
Next Generation Lebersfelds
Capitol Lighting stayed a small, but profitable business for many years, until Max’s son, Arthur, got into the business. Arthur Lebersfeld really turned Capitol Lighting from good to great. Arthur, “had a vision for the future,” says his son, and current owner, Herman Lebersfeld. “He expanded the business, expanded the products that we carried. Capitol Lighting was the first one ever to advertise lighting fixtures in the newspaper.”
Arthur Lebersfeld added new Capitol Lighting stores throughout New Jersey. Then when it came time to retire, he did what every Jew in New Jersey does, he moved down to South Florida. But, Arthur couldn’t retire by living out his golden years in a rocking chair and on a golf course. In South Florida, he partnered with the Jaffe Family, who owned a lighting fixture store in West Palm Beach, and open up the first Capitol Lighting store in Florida.
Today, Capitol Lighting has five stores throughout New Jersey and four in South Florida. Herman runs the business as chief operating officer out of the Boca Raton headquarters, with his sons, Ken, chief operating officer and Eric, vice president and chief marketing officer. Arthur’s other son, Max Lebersfeld is the Vice President and Treasurer, from the New Jersey locations, with his two sons, Jason, Chief Information Officer, and Brian, Capitol Lighting’s web manager. Like the generations of Lebersfelds before them, the current generation is moving with the times. They don’t see the necessity of opening up anymore 12,000 square foot showrooms, with the overhead that comes with them. The new generation of Lebersfelds is plowing through the tough economy and moving Capitol Lighting into the future with the mantra, “Bricks and Clicks”.
When asked about the economy, Herman Lebersfeld uses humor to downplay the difficulty companies like theirs in the home improvement industry are facing, saying, “retail sales have been postponed.” But Capitol Lighting’s internet sales at 1800lighting.com have been a fortunate light in the tunnel. Two years ago, both Eric and Ken advised their father that they felt the economy was going to take a turn unlike any other recession they’ve weathered previously. “We had to let a lot of staff go. Capitol Lighting was nominated for Family Business of the Year in 2003, we’re up for nomination again now in 2010. So I looked back at the application to see what we fill out then. At that time we filled out that we had 250 employees. Now when I’m filling out the current one, we have 165,” stated Herman Lebersfeld. “That’s something a family business does not do. In Past Recessions we just bulled our way through it. It’s not the first time we had a recession; it’s at least the third or fourth time. We kept everyone and tightened our belt on other things. But the boys recognized ‘this is not your father’s recession’.”
In 1996, they acquired the domain name, 1800lighting.com, but regrettably they delayed in capitalizing on the ecommerce platform. Now their website is state is world class in productivity and design thanks to Brian Lebersfeld who runs the website out of New Jersey. In Stuart, Florida, Capitol lighting has set up a prototype store around the “Bricks and Clicks” philosophy. The Stuart, Florida, Capitol Lighting store is much smaller than the other showrooms and runs in sync with the website at 1800lighting.com. The great thing about the new Capitol Lighting stores is that they still have a full showroom of samples, but the supply room is the website. This cuts overhead by about 25% while still giving the customer the ability to see and compare the quality and look of various manufacturers. The importance of having the store with the internet and the internet with the store cannot be understated. If you’re going to shell out a chunk of change on quality lighting fixtures, you need to have a lighting professional advise you because the variances can be minute, but they can make a world of difference when they’re installed.
Jewish Family Business
The Lebersfeld family is very active in the Jewish community. Herman and his brother were both president of their synagogues and active in the UJA. Herman and his wife are also supporters of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, helping families throughout the world by managing the distribution of funds for various projects since 1917. Mrs. Lebersfeld is on the board for the Joint and has been very active in various projects throughout the world. In 1984, Herman Lebersfeld helped raise money for the movement of Jews from Ethiopia.
In addition to Jewish charities, Capitol Lighting has also succeeded throughout the years thanks to Jewish business ethics. A great example of this was when Puritan Lighting, key vendor for Capitol Lighting had a terrible fire in their warehouse in which all of their records were destroyed. Arthur had just received a significant shipment from the vendor. The accounts receivable notified Lebersfeld of the shipment and the fire, and without a thought he sent them their payment in full immediately. As a result of his honesty and integrity, when Puritan Lighting rebuilt, it always put Capitol Lighting first on the list for specials, deals or anything else a retailer could take advantage of. Eric Lebersfeld said, “That has been the mode we’ve done business with. Every deal has to be good for both us and the vendors.” Ken Lebersfeld added, “there is a theme that runs through the business: core values of ethical conduct”.
The Lebersfeld family story and the Capitol Lighting story should be motivational and inspirational for today’s generation. It’s a story of taking risks, innovation, ethical conduct, giving back and most importantly, working hard. Max Lebersfeld past on his immigrant work ethic to his son, and it kept going from there. Herman said his father’s favorite saying was, “Bite off more than you can chew, and then, chew it”.
What does the future hold for Capitol Lighting? The future is here, and the prototype of the future of Capitol Lighting and lighting sales in America is at the Stuart, Florida Capitol Lighting store. Capitol Lighting plans to take this prototype “Bricks and Clicks” store, and create the first national chain of lighting stores in the country. Herman is looking forward to the end of the recession, and the position that Capitol Lighting is in with a leaner new business model. And that chapter, titled, “Bricks and Clicks” will be written by the younger generation of the Lebersfeld Family. On his boys taking over the business, Herman said, “I can take it easier. One day, my wife came home at 3:30 and I was home. She says to me, ‘you got fired, didn’t you.’”