The last decade has witnessed significant expansion throughout Europe for dimmer and lighting control manufacturer Lutron. A steady stream of new products emphasising the energy-saving potential of lighting control has helped to maintain the company's high profile, as has the opening of regional offices to serve and support the European HQ in London.
With a "huge revitalisation" of many key product ranges in the pipeline, sales director residential systems Northern Europe John Niebel spoke to David Davies about the need for continued system development and the importance of healthy competition.
Q: How has your role at Lutron changed/evolved over time?
I have been working for Lutron for more than 15 years, and have held many different roles during that time. My first role was sales manager, which may have been a rather grand title given that there were only about half a dozen of us [at the UK office] back then! You had to be a bit of a jack of all trades in the early days. My title has changed several times since then, and for the last two-and-a-half years I have been sales director residential systems Northern Europe. My main responsibilities are to look after the residential channel, grow sales, and look after our customers and distributors.
Q: At what point did Lutron's business in the UK really begin to take off?
A: I can pinpoint that quite clearly: it was after the second CEDIA UK Expo in 1998. We had already seen that there was an opportunity in the UK residential market, following the formation of the CEDIA organisation there, as we had already enjoyed a lot of success through the CEDIA channel in the States. But the one tabletop demonstration at that particular edition of CEDIA UK Expo provided the genesis of everything we have done since. We found most of our best dealers at that exhibition, and even today, six of our top ten dealers are companies that we came across there.
Q: In what ways do you think that Lutron's product/solution portfolio for residential customers is distinctive?
A: It's a very simple point to make, but the main thing that sets us apart from just about everybody else is the reliability of our products. One of the comments that comes back to us time and time again is "we know that your stuff doesn't go wrong, and on the odd occasion that it does, you fix it. It's wonderful to be able to know that." It is not possible to say that about all of the products out there. Our stuff works and continues to work. The fact that we offer an eight-year warranty is an indication of the reliability of the products and the faith that we have in them.
Q: What measures have you put in place to monitor the changing demands of Lutron customers?
A: We like to keep very close to our customers, and to this end we have held annual conferences for the last seven years. We keep very close to our customers and listen to them very attentively.
Q: What impact is the economic downturn having on the residential lighting sector? When do you think that a recovery might take hold?
A: Of course, everybody has taken some kind of hit as a result of the downturn, but I think that the high-end residential sector is probably the most unaffected. That is not to diminish the fact that several CEDIA members and dealers of ours have ceased trading this year, but I think that compared to the commercial world it's a whole lot healthier. In fact, we have seen surprisingly steady sales throughout the year. I expected to see a downturn in the second half of 2009, but we haven't seen it so far and fingers crossed we won't!
I honestly believe that the corner has been turned, and while it will be some time until we are back to where we were a couple of years ago, it is clear that things are getting better slowly but surely. The worst is over and people are not nearly as gloomy as they were six months ago!
Q: What's your view on the growing number of lower-cost automation protocols that are coming into the residential market?
A: Our view is that a competitive market is a healthy market; one that grows because people see it is important and recognise the opportunities there. It has always been our intention to have a sector of the pie; by growing the pie, we increase our own proportion of that. We see all forms of competition, whether low-cost or high-cost, as being grist to the mill. If the market grows, we grow with it. One point to note is that people should not have a distorted impression of Lutron's target market. While most of our business in the UK is fairly high-end, we have a range of products in the US to cater for all aspects of the market. It is certainly not an area that has been overlooked.
Q: What does the immediate future hold for Lutron?
A: There is a whole host of new technologies coming onboard within the next 12 months, and most areas of our product ranges are going to see a huge revitalisation. The green and energy-saving aspects of what we do are becoming even more important than they already are, and we intend to take full advantage of that. Accordingly, you will see that the next generation of our products are even more focused on an ecological, energy-saving approach.
In terms of Lutron's European presence, we already have offices in Berlin, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona and Milan, in addition to our regional HQ in London. We also have sales representatives in pretty much every other country. However, it is always our intention to keep growing, so undoubtedly there will be other offices as time goes by.