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Business Observer Friday, Aug. 9, 2019 2 weeks ago

New CEO lights the way as firm changes course

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For a venerable Tampa lighting technology firm, steady business wasn’t good enough. To ward off stagnation, it jumped into new markets.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

Tampa tech firm OttLite made a name for itself with floor and desk lamps outfitted with special fluorescent lighting technology suited for architects, musicians, sewers and crafters — artists and artisans who needed to see the finest of details and match colors and hues exactly as they appear in daylight.

John Ott, a photobiologist and pioneer in the area of natural light research who worked for Walt Disney, founded the business 30 years ago in Baltimore. OttLite moved to Tampa in the 1990s; in the ensuing years, Prism Capital Partners, a Chicago private equity firm, acquired the company. But the market for its products began to stagnate.

Enter John Sheppard, 62, a savvy business veteran whose extensive resume includes a 19-year stint with Coca-Cola as well as experience with Tampa-based beverage and foodservice company Cott Corp. and consumer brands like Oneida and SodaStream.

“When I got here, I knew our market was constrained,” he says. Realizing the company's initial market was dimming, Sheppard sought new opportunities. He found it in health and wellness, in combating eye strain.

“They brought me in to come up with big ideas that would triple our revenues.” John Sheppard, CEO of OttLite

Three years into his tenure as CEO, Sheppard has since successfully guided OttLite into the health and wellness sector. Although it continues to produce products for the craft market, it has ventured into the office renovation industry. That's where it created overhead lights that feature its patented ClearSun LED technology, an innovation that closely approximates the spectral output of the sun and has been proven to reduce eyestrain by 51%.

The next challenge, Sheppard says, is akin to growing out of a startup phase: Reduce costs, get the word out, and fight off copycats. 

“Craft has been a great market for us, and we love our craft customers, but I knew that for us to expand, we had to do something different,” Sheppard says. “They brought me in to come up with big ideas that would triple our revenues.”

So far, so good. Although he declines to disclose specific annual revenue figures, Sheppard says the company has historically been a $30-$50 million business. Looking ahead, he forecasts 22% annual growth. Also, margins are up because Sheppard has brought costs down by dealing directly with the factories that produce the LEDs that power OttLite’s lamps and bulbs.

To penetrate the lucrative market for health and wellness products, Sheppard delved deep into Ott’s research to figure out how to create a lamp that would replicate natural daylight as much as possible. Consulting with a scientist the company keeps on retainer, Sheppard realized a reduction in blue light, which is overrepresented in traditional LED light but less prevalent in sunlight, would spur a breakthrough in eyestrain-reducing office lights.

Sourcing the LED chip technology to do that, however, was not cheap.  

“The first version was very expensive,” he says. “A light that should have retailed for, say, $79, would cost three times that much, and so the key problem was how to get it to market. Now we are on our third version [of ClearSun], and our costs are almost equal to typical LEDs.”

Sheppard has used his experience with trendy consumer brands like SodaStream to secure national media exposure for OttLite’s ClearSun products — which not only reduce eyestrain but can also charge USB devices and sync with Amazon Alexa and Google Home. The launch of the Ottlite Wellness Series, for example, was featured prominently on the TV program “Extra,” hosted by Mario Lopez.

“Three out of four people suffer eyestrain daily,” Sheppard says. “So we knew that if we had a light that could specifically address that, it would do great as soon as we could tell people.”

OttLite’s products have also been featured by Steve Greenberg, the “Gadget Guru” on NBC’s “Today” show, news website The Daily Beast, “Good Morning America,” HSN and Newsweek, among others.

With all that attention comes a potential problem: imitation.

“There are people trying to copy us by saying they offer ‘healthy lighting,’ we’ll call it,” Sheppard says. “It’s not healthy lighting; it’s differentiated lighting,” he explains, referring to lights that offer different color temperatures. Color temperature “is easy to replicate. What they can’t replicate is the chip structure.”

Overhead and task lights for office workers, meanwhile, isn’t Sheppard’s only big idea. He says OttLite is working on a ClearSun makeup mirror that should hit shelves by Christmas.

“You might not want to," he says with a laugh, "but now you’re going to see how you really look in a natural daylight environment."

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