For almost 60 years, Jack Zukerman has been a well-known fixture in the architectural lighting industry. A side of Jack never expected was revealed today in an article by an ex-employee. The concept of ‘Pay It Forward’ seldom hits the lighting industry. In an age of outsourcing, reduced benefits, and a disconnect from old school values - it’s a good thing that Jack is still with us. There’s a reason why Jack has such a loyal following in architectural lighting. Most architects, lighting designers, reps and even his employees know Jack as a lighting industry executive whose attention to detail and relentless pursuit of quality is second to none. Why are his employees so loyal, and why do they follow him from company to company? Give this article a good read. Humanity in the lighting industry is still alive.
30 years ago, I was working an entry-level position at a mid-level advertising agency in a high level market – Los Angeles. Every day I sat a drafting table and dreamt up advertising concepts and designs for a company that made lighting fixtures. Not lamps – these were architectural fixtures that utilized new technology, made to exacting specifications. ‘As exacting as the client’ was the mantra of my boss. With every layout that I submitted, the account exec would feverishly say “No! No! That’s not gonna work for Him!” With every galley of ad copy that I wrote, he’d read it quickly, shaking his head as if he was reading a writ of his own execution…
I finally came face to face with ‘Him’ when I personally delivered an ad proof.
“Here’s the genius who designs our advertising!” Those were the first words I heard from Him, who is really a guy named Jack Zukerman. He motioned for me to sit, and he went over every design that I had, nodding, looking up and smiling. I thought, this can’t be the same guy … and then it happened.
He caught it. A typo! He leaped to his feet and screamed … “Are you kidding me? Is this how you were taught to spell? My granddaughter can spell better than this!!”
I was caught totally off guard. The compliment that greeted me when I walked into his office had lulled me into a false sense of complacency. I averted my eyes from his, and looked around the office - the photos of his children, grandchildren, friends and celebrities began to blur. I felt my head spin. I faintly remember Jack moving to his office door and slamming it shut. With a knot in my stomach, my attention turned back to him. He was now smiling. He looked down at me and uttered these words…
“How’d you like to work for me?”
I thought for a second and said…”sure”.
I joined a group of Jack’s employees who had come to Jack’s company thinking that it was enough to punch in and punch out – not only at work but also in life itself. The word ‘work ethic’ was as foreign as ‘unemployment’. In those days when there still was some fortune in Fortune 500, we all had jobs, and we believed in the ‘gold watch’ at retirement.
I would later discover that my new boss, whose greatest influence was his mother, and greatest pride were his four kids – all professionals, would became a mentor to many of us. Having lost his father at an early age, Jack stopped searching for role models and instead became one. I can imagine that most people didn’t live up to the lesson that his mother taught him.
“To become silver, you must first become gold.”
A lot of us did become gold mostly due to Jack’s iron will. If you performed to Jack’s expectations, you had a job the next day. If you didn’t, you could very well be looking for a job the next day.
We were all witness to Jack’s ups and downs – in temperament and in business. He wasn’t always ‘flush’ as he called it. There were weeks that he struggled to make payroll. We were also aware of those who came to him facing hard times and eviction, and walked out of his office with his personal check to cover food or rent.
I once asked Jack what he was most proud of. I was expecting him to tell me about the day that he sold his business to a Fortune 500 company. Jack looked at me and simply remarked, “…when our 4 kids graduated from their respective professional schools, and when my wife graduated from law school”. Those kids and their kids still marked his walls and sat perched in frames on his desk. His son Steve, a doctor. Two sons, Jeff and Mike, attorneys – and his daughter Marti, a teacher.
Four success stories. Why wasn’t I surprised? He was demanding of both families, both biological and the family who surrounded him at the office.
Jack had not only built up a motivated and loyal following within the company, he had also inspired a community of architects and lighting designers who followed his lead and specified his products. Cooper, a Fortune 500 conglomerate, had Jack’s company on their radar, and they came knocking on his door.
It was close to Christmas when Cooper was sold to Eaton, a Fortune 100 company. Employees who had worked with Jack for years made an exodus to his office. Jack was slowly making a decision that would scuttle any thoughts of retirement.
There was one problem. Jack was now on the other side of eighty years old.
In only 24 months, LF Illumination, LLC has grown from a ‘pay it forward’ dream to being a dominant force in the architectural lighting field. Over 185 employees come to work every day for new challenges that redefine the words ‘work ethic’.
Jack’s son, Jeff, recognized a quality in his father that his employees continue to bank on, even to this day.
“My father taught me that if you give someone your word you had better honor it, and I have lived my life that way as well. The best way to teach a child how to live their lives is by example.”