Going Global

Fourth-generation specialty lighting manufacturer Kirlin sees success with an aggressive new international sales strategy

By Susan Bloom

Founded in 1895 in St. Paul, MN, The Kirlin Company’s roots hark back to the late 19th century commercial introductions of electricity and incandescent lighting.  Nearly 125 years later, the now Detroit-based manufacturer has remained a leader in lighting innovation, with specialties in turnkey LED lighting systems for commercial and healthcare applications and a proactive new plan for penetrating a variety of global markets.  Below, lightED caught up with fourth-generation Kirlin CEO Jana Kirlin Brownell to learn more about the company’s unique products, exciting growth opportunities in a range of international markets, and collaborative efforts with electrical distributors to help drive their strategy forward. 

lightED:  Tell us about your company’s history.

Brownell:  The Kirlin Company was founded by my great-grandfather, Otis Kirlin, an entrepreneur who built electric power plants in the Upper Midwest with a partner.  Faced with a public that often feared this new form of power and illumination given its potential to cause fires or shock, he left the power plant business and formed lighting fixture manufacturer The Kirlin Company in 1895.  At a time when some lighting components were made of combustible wood, he began making light sockets of heat-resistant metals and light bulb bases of pastel-colored, floral-shaped non-combustible porcelain with materials imported from France and created not only a demand for beautiful lighting and chandelier designs but also for electric power itself.  His son, Ivan, the company’s second-generation leader, used his background in electrical and mechanical engineering to patent recessed lighting fixtures in 1941, charting the future of Kirlin in a new direction of timeless and sleek styles suitable for commercial, institutional, and residential architecture.  My father, John, also educated in engineering, led the company for 30 years beginning in 1963 and developed niche lines of lighting fixtures which meet the unique needs of healthcare, education, transportation, hospitality, and other markets.  I joined the company in the late 1980s and brought a background in international medical sales and marketing. 

lightED:  Please discuss your company’s signature lighting products for healthcare settings and your desire to grow Kirlin’s global sales footprint.

Brownell:  Our expertise in medical lighting is highly-regarded in the U.S. and Canada as well as in some international markets and I felt that we needed to invest additional resources into international sales efforts because the demand for high quality lighting is global; essentially, any markets that place a strong value on human life recognize that the quality of lighting can dramatically improve patient outcomes.  Towards that end, our INFRALED® recessed LED patient lighting system with controls provides adjustable attenuation of the direction and intensity of light for ease of use by medical clinicians; it also eliminates risk of infection, features 60-degree illumination (an unprecedented amount of tilt), and offers a very high CRI and great visual acuity to help practitioners make accurate diagnoses and take appropriate corrective medical action.  Our recessed, non-ferromagnetic lighting systems for MRI technology represent the healthcare industry’s only turnkey MRI lighting solution in that our drivers, luminaires, and filters eliminate any stray electromagnetic signals and help ensure clean, accurate imaging results.

lightED:  How and where do you plan to roll out your international sales strategy?

Brownell:   About 10% of Kirlin’s current sales are international, but part of our 2018 strategic plan is to increase our international footprint by 20%, so we’ll now have an aggressive ramp-up.  Thanks to a program we recently participated in called ‘ExporTech Detroit’ -- a joint collaborative sponsorship by The U.S. Commercial Service, Michigan Economic Development Corporation, and The Detroit Economic Growth Corporation that’s designed to help Detroit-based companies create a roadmap for international sales, connect them with overseas partners, research and vet potential distributors and sales representative, and sponsor trade missions – the stars really aligned for Kirlin.  It was a fantastic program that helped us identify priority markets for Kirlin, especially hospitals in the Middle East and U.S. military bases throughout the world.  We’ve sold to U.S. government facilities and specific international projects in the U.K., Italy, and South Korea and are working to strengthen our presence in the Middle East.  We provided the ICU lighting for the Cleveland Clinic in Abu Dhabi and know that other hospitals in places like Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. hold American quality like ours in great esteem.

lightED:  How do you see distributors playing a role (or not) in your international growth?

Brownell:  We’ve sold directly to hospitals and military bases overseas, but the majority of our international business will be going through traditional electrical distribution because that structure still adds value to the financial transaction of a specified product’s life cycle.  The process of getting products reviewed, specified, vetted, bid out, and ultimately selected can take a year or more but then requires a very fast turnaround time – we can usually ship within two weeks due to the efficiency of our plants.  We don’t want to get tripped up on the monetary end of things and would rather focus our efforts on product design and innovation, so to us it’s highly valuable to sell a specified product through a distributor.

lightED:  From your decades of experience in the lighting industry, what advice would you offer electrical distributors to help them remain successful in today’s fast-paced market?

Brownell:  If distributors want to continue playing a valuable role in the lighting industry, it’s important that they’re not strictly a financial transaction house.  The role of an electrical distributor in selling is key.  International distributors who are involved in the selling process are the most beneficial partners for manufacturers like us; we use Kenclaire Electrical Agencies in New York and California and they call directly on specifiers in international markets where specified lighting plays a role, such as in the Caribbean, Middle East, Central and South America, Singapore, Israel, Australia, and our international embassies – all areas where we want to grow.  I think that successful distributors are also ones who support a quality, American-made product line and help to control the purchasing and bidding process by deciding which line they’ll promote and defend against unequal substitutes by competing distributors.  Based on their proximity to customers/business owners, distributors should educate owners and contractors early in the process about the value of a high-quality, easy-to-install product line like Kirlin’s that’s delivered on time and will meet the owner’s objectives.

lightED:  What final thoughts would you like to share regarding Kirlin’s international sales objectives and partnership with electrical distributors?

Brownell:  Kirlin has established preferred distributors in many U.S. markets who have earned that status based on timely payment, accuracy of orders, and volume.  They receive a higher credit limit, preferential processing of orders through our plant, etc. and we’re looking forward to growing and establishing that same network of preferred distributors internationally.  Overall, elevation in the standard of living and communications globally has boosted demand for American quality in virtually every country and we see lots of opportunities developing internationally for our lighting products; decision makers are realizing the advantages of a quality product and shedding nationalistic tendencies.  At Kirlin, we’re confident in the steady growth of our international sales once customers are introduced to our superior medical lighting innovations, our network of satisfied customers, and the exceptional service offered by both our internal team and distributor partners.

Article source: http://lightedmag.com/small-manufacturers-go-global/