Built to Shine

As Australia’s largest lighting retailer, Beacon Lighting, celebrates its 50th anniversary, Business State checks in with its executive director and visionary, Ian Robinson, to learn about the company’s history and how it grew from one humble store to now 103 across the country.

By Jamuna Raj. Photography by Marija Ivkovic.

At Beacon Lighting’s massive store in Burwood, Melbourne, the doors have just opened for business. It’s a quiet morning; there’s no one in here apart from the two ground staff on hand, the photographer and two others – Beacon Lighting’s executive chairman Ian Robinson and me.

While we are setting up for the photoshoot, and with no customers in sight yet, Robinson takes the opportunity to do some overdue shopping. He turns to me and says, “My wife has been asking for new light fixtures for about three months. I’ve some time now and can get around to it.”

Robinson is no doubt a busy man. Not only does he serve on the board for Beacon Lighting and oversee a number of responsibilities, but he is also the director of the Lighting Council of Australia, a director of Indice Ecotech Pty Ltd and the president of the Large Format Retail Association. He is also a family man, and all four of his children hold various roles within the Beacon Lighting group.

Despite this, Robinson is himself still heavily involved with the day-to-day operations and fully committed to the specialist lighting retailer’s trajectory. And how could he not be? Under his management, Beacon Lighting has grown from one humble store along Chapel Street in Melbourne to become one of the biggest players in a market that is worth $3 billion nationally, with over 103 stores and counting.

The beginning

The wheels of Beacon Lighting’s evolution started turning in 1969 when Robinson worked as floor staff at the original store in the inner Melbourne suburb of Prahran. .

“I have always had a passion for interior design and, back then, I thought lighting would pave an excellent pathway for me into the field,” he says.

His role grew; he moved into a management position and, five years later, took a huge gamble and bought the store. He has been at the helm of the group ever since, but four years ago, in 2013, he moved away from his role as the chief executive officer, and passed that baton to his son, Glen.

A year later, the group decided to float the company on the sharemarket – a decision that was a necessary step in the right direction, says Robinson.

“It’s been very advantageous for us. We had picked up a variety of businesses in the past four years that we wouldn’t have if we were still privately owned. The disciplines of a public company are very, very strong, with shareholders and analysts putting in their knowledge and expertise to propel the business forward,” he adds.

Today Beacon Lighting, which has a $377 million market capitalisation, employs over 1000 people and has expanded its focus to include e-commerce, innovation and design in energy efficiency, specialist consultation services and more – all within the niche specialisation that is lighting.

Sailing through troubled waters

It has been quite a journey for Robinson, who shares that, while the business has enjoyed a number of highs, there have also been a fair share of lows. He singles out the 1989 recession as one of them.

“It was a wake-up call for all business in Australia. Property prices crashed, in some cases by 50 percent overnight. It impacted us badly,” he says.

Then, Beacon Lighting had 13 stores and was forced to shut four of them to stay afloat. “I had to simplify the business, but I needed to learn from the best retailers, not just in Australia, but in the world.”

He went on a retail study tour – something he continues to do today – with Monash University, and studied some of the best retailers in the US, such as Home Depot and Best Buy.

“Back then, most businesses were looking at what their competitors within Australia were doing, but we were interested to know and learn what was happening outside of Australia, particularly in the retail sector.

“We have a strong specialist understanding about lighting, but we wanted to be more than just lighting experts. We wanted to be an excellent retailer,” he says.

Robinson took home all that he learned and applied it throughout the business, from its management structure to the floor displays in each store.

“I also learned from experts in business, and I read a lot of books,” he adds. He swears by the book (and calls it his blueprint) Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies by Jim Collins adding that he pored over every page, highlighting tips and making notes. His proactiveness, sharp business acumen, and keen eye for design and detail helped the business pull through some rough times and continue to help the business on its journey.

But, beyond all of that, it is the culture that makes the business so successful, he says. A firm believer in empowerment, Robinson and his upper management team members encourage staff to take ownership and have involvement in the day-to-day operations and decisions of the business.

As a lover of sailing with over 20 years of experience, Robinson uses an aquatic analogy to describe the business.

“Each boat usually has about 10 people, battling high seas. A great race result, or getting from one point to the other safely, depends on each member on that boat – whether you’re steering or on the radio or manning the sails.

“Likewise in our company, the success of each department, and ultimately the business, is dependent on each individual making decisions, and doing great work.”

New reins

The lessons that he’s learned along the way are not unfamiliar to the current chief executive officer, Glen Robinson, and his three siblings – who all hold upper management positions across different departments within the group.

The Robinson children have seen and experienced the growth of Beacon Lighting first-hand. There were countless dinner table discussions, recalls Robinson.

He adds that it was a natural progression for all of them to join the company.

“I’ve been very privileged that all four of my kids are involved in the business. We have such a great dynamic,” he says.

There is a lot more to look forward to from Beacon Lighting, including the company’s foray into renewable energy under the Beacon Solar brand and opportunities to expand the primary brand’s chain across Australia.

With a new focus and a new generation at the helm, it looks like Beacon Lighting’s success will continue to shine brightly.