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August 2007
Watt’s New in Lighting Design?
By Casey Jacobus

     S.L. Bagby Co. is redefining the idea of a “manufacture’s representative.” By using creativity and education, and guided by a  strong ethical code, partners Jay Casabonne and Johnny Morgan have built their company into a trend setter in the lighting industry.

     “We have a different relationship with them than we do with other sales representatives,” says Keith Pehl, president of Optima Engineering. “They’re not scared to do something different, even if no one else has ever done it that way.”

     Established by light bulb salesman Sam L. Bagby in 1918, the Bagby company may well be the oldest lighting agency in the nation. Most appropriately, it occupies 7,700 square feet of converted loft space in an historic building in uptown Charlotte. This provides ample room for the company to demonstrate its products, including the latest in lighting technology, and to host seminars.

     During its first 40 years, Bagby was family-owned and survived numerous economic and social upheavals, including the Great Depression, several wars, and the civil rights movement, while witnessing technological advances that produced major changes in the lighting industry. Despite the challenges, Bagby grew, adding many lighting lines, including Lithonia, and forging lasting relationships with many distributors, builders and contractors.

     Today the company is thriving under a new leadership team. In 2004 Jay Casabonne and Johnny Morgan purchased the company and began a collaboration that led in new directions. The principal partners have 35 years experience in the commercial lighting industry.

     Morgan graduated from Georgia Southwestern University with a B.A. in finance. During his career, he has worked for both Cooper and Lithonia Lighting in various roles, including product and market development. He has lectured at both Cooper’s Source and Lithonia’s J.H. McClung Lighting Center on a variety of topics. Over his career, he has also worked with a number of national clients including Belk, Family Dollar, Food Lion, Kraft Foods, Lowe’s, Outback Steakhouse, and Wachovia Bank.

     After Casabonne graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology with a B.A. in industrial management, he joined Lithonia Lighting. He worked in a variety of roles within Lithonia, including regional sales vice president for the North Central Region and Western Region. He relocated to Charlotte in 2002 and invited Morgan to join him in purchasing Bagby in 2004.

     “It took almost thirty seconds for me to say ‘yes’,” says Morgan. “We share a sense of responsibility to Charlotte and our world to do more than just sell products. Our mission is not just to make money, but to make a difference.”

     Although Morgan and Casabonne shared a single vision, the first six to nine months were an adjustment period as they learned more about each other’s strengths while forming a working relationship.

     “I stepped on Jay’s toes occasionally and he pushed back,” laughs Morgan.    

     “There is a dynamic difference in our skill sets.” Responsibilities were quickly divided up. Casabonne’s primary role is leading Bagby’s efforts in the customer service and project management areas. He takes the lead in working with the electrical contractors and electrical distributors.

     As a LEED-accredited (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) professional, Morgan specializes in problem resolution for large facilities and multi-location retail customers. He works with the architects and interior designers on projects. He also participates in the development of new products by working closely with clients and communicating their needs directly back to the manufacturer.

     “My job is to worry about tomorrow,” says Morgan, “while Jay’s job is to worry about today.”

      Morgan believes his interest and participation in the development of new lighting technology helps to keep Bagby in the forefront of the industry. At the same time it enables the company to offer a greater value to society.

     “While we sell products, our main mission is to educate people about the impact of their lighting choices on the people in the spaces and on the natural environment,” says Morgan. “Our job is to help them make ‘smart’ (green and sustainable) choices.”

      To help the educational process, Bagby holds “Lunch and Learn” seminars two or three times a month. These presentations provide clients with information about new products and technology that can save both energy and the cost of waste disposal. They also include information about the latest in North Carolina codes and legislation.

     Optima Engineering has had a long-term relationship with Bagby and President Keith Pehl has seen a noticeable difference in the way the company does business since the ownership transition.

     “They have helped educate my electrical engineers on the latest in codes and lighting methodology and have provided support for a number of projects,” says Pehl. “It’s more like a collaboration. We know we can go to them and it isn’t just about what they’re selling.”


Illuminating the Options

     While Lithonia Lighting is the largest manufacturer Bagby represents, the company’s line card includes almost 50 other manufacturers. Within the past year, the company has received recognition from several of their distributors including: the Edge Commercial Presence Award from EDI, the Vendor of the Year award from CED, and Outstanding Sales Performance awards from Lithonia, Elliptipar, OCL and Zumtobel.

     “We are very proud of the national recognition we’ve received,” says Morgan. “We want to break the mold for what a manufacturer’s representative can be. We hope to fashion the future of the industry.”

     Casabonne and Morgan have provided innovative and sustainable designs for a wide variety of lighting projects. Their portfolio includes churches, libraries, warehouses, medical facilities, recreational projects, banks, retail outlets, and office areas. Clients like Bill Wilkinson, vice president in charge of new branch construction at Wachovia, attest to the partners’ dedication to customer service.

    “We have found them very responsive to our needs,” says Wilkinson. “They have helped us find more cost effective solutions and helped us become more ‘green’.”

     One of the most complex projects Bagby has dealt with was the Food Lion Customer Support Center in Salisbury. Corporate officials wanted to create a comfortable environment for their associates and a new image for the company. They also wanted to achieve LEED silver certification.

     The 120,000-square-foot space blended a two-story open mezzanine area with workspace cubicles below a 26-foot ceiling. The challenge was to integrate natural daylight with electrical lighting to create an interesting and comfortable space. The project also included a visitor’s lobby, conference rooms and a cafeteria.

     “It was a very complex project with a client that was very cost conscious,” says Cami Dreher, senior interior designer at Little Associates. “Bagby was great; they brought so many different things to the table, including an understanding of how to achieve the most efficient lighting systems. They were partners with us all the way through the project.”

     In addition to providing the foot candle calculations, Bagby worked closely with the subcontractors and integrated the work with the engineers and designers.

    “We were able to act as a facilitator,” says Morgan. “The client wanted to bring its retail ambience to the corporate center, while maintaining Food Lion’s values and its mission statement.”

     Redesigning the lighting for the Hearst Tower Parking Garage in uptown Charlotte posed a different set of challenges. The 1,400-space parking garage needed to be more efficiently lit in order to provide a safe and bright environment for users. In addition, the facilities managers were having to replace the lamps in the old system every six months. Bagby was able to recommend a new system that provides more light and uses half the power of the old one. As an added benefit, the lamps only needed to be replaced every three years.

     “We were able to show the market a new way of doing something,” says Casabonne. “We were also able to save them 45 percent in energy costs and even more in waste disposal.”

     An entirely different approach was required when Bagby worked with Gantt-Huberman Architects on the new Friendship Missionary Baptist Church on Beatties Ford Road. The church needed a new facility that would accommodate its rapid membership growth. At the same time, they wanted to preserve their 40-year-old history, along with the openness and warmth of their original building.

    The open feel of the large sanctuary was created by a central clerestory to make effective use of day-lighting during daylight hours. For night use, indirect fixtures were installed to light the vaulted ceiling. Additionally, wall-mounted fixtures were used for indirect lighting of the sloped wood ceiling to provide uniform lighting with a soothing warm tone.

     In keeping with tradition, the church felt it was important that the stained-glass windows tell a story to reflect their history and beliefs while adding color and beauty to the space. Of particular significance was a large 20 foot by 30 foot stained-glass window set above the baptistery facing the parking area. To create a bright, uniform lighting, wall fixtures were used to light a wall behind the stained-glass. The reflected light from the wall lends the window a gorgeous luminosity.

    “This was a huge church and a very complex project, larger than most retail projects,” says Casabonne. “Stained glass is very difficult to light, but this turned out beautifully.”


Lighting the Way

     Both Morgan and Casabonne agree that much of the success Bagby has achieved is based on the code of ethics the two have adopted and the people they have hired. The code finds its inspiration in the ‘Golden Rule’: “Treating others as we would have them treat us” and it extends to clients, manufacturers and, particularly, employees.

     “The biggest driver is respect,” says Casabonne. “We respect our people; we are nothing without them.”

     Early on the partners joined Renaissance Executive Forums, an international company dedicated to helping executives accelerate positive changes in their business. At the Charlotte chapter, headed by Tom Jackson, they learned about team building and work delegation.

     Bagby hosts lunches and special events for employees both to help them learn about the latest in lighting technology and to participate in team building exercises. They share the latest sales figures with employees, help them develop leadership skills, and encourage them to join organizations that contribute to the greater community.

     “It’s a very positive work environment,” says Allison Farrar, director of marketing and events. “We all know where we’re going, thanks to the open communication that Jay and Johnny encourage.”

     With a good business plan in place, good employees and the ability to attract good customers, Bagby’s future appears extra bright in continuing to lead the lighting industry in new endeavors. Morgan cautions, however, that the company’s future success depends upon maintaining its values.

     “We have to continue to be hungry to learn, and through our learning be willing to educate,” he says. “As we learn new technology and sell those products, our revenue will not only increase, we can also effect change. Our vision is for a brighter, greener, more sustainable future.”

Casey Jacobus is a Lake Norman-based freelance writer.
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