In show business, there are three key words everyone knows: “Lights! Camera! Action!” One of these is more important than the others. Without lights, performances wouldn’t be seen, actors wouldn’t be highlighted, and the execution wouldn’t be the same. For more than half a century, innovative Altman Lighting has operated under the principle that light can change a scene, improve exposure, and move people. Read more on how they “bring imagination to light.”
The year was 1969. Musical acts from all over the country were slated to perform. Artists ranged from Santana to Joe Cocker to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to The Family Stone. The hype, the electricity of the crowd, and the incredible performances are all remembered well by those who attended or watched the 1970 documentary of the famous Woodstock Music Festival. What most don’t realize, though, is that hidden high up on the rafters there were customized light fixtures shining down on each performer, shedding the perfect amount of light on this historic event.
This is just part of the storied history of Altman Lighting, a family-owned, New York-based light manufacturer and innovator whose résumé spans the globe. From highlighting performances at the Sydney Opera House to illuminating Shanghai Disney to providing The Rolling Stones’ stage lighting, Altman Lighting has had a hand in lighting many great experiences. And to Bob Altman, CEO and son of Altman Lighting founders Charles and Alice Altman, it feels as if the company is just getting started.
“It’s a 63-year-old company that feels brand new,” Altman says. “We compete with the best of the best.”
Creating Custom Solutions
From a modest beginning on Broome Street in Yonkers, where Altman’s father would work in the basement to create widgets and little fixtures to spark the company forward, Altman Lighting has grown to international renown. It’s also one of only two remaining U.S. lighting firms that still manufactures all of its products on American soil. Despite offers to sell the business to larger corporations, Altman Lighting has maintained its family-oriented, family-run business practices.
Their success and charm stems from their lifetime commitment to customizing lighting solutions to meet the needs of each client and opportunity.
“We are one of the last small, custom, flexible lighting manufacturers,” says Julie Smith, general manager at Altman Lighting. “It’s about a constant commitment to change in order to meet customers’ needs. We’re a manufacturer who provides products and solutions.”
From the beginning, custom work was the goal. By proving to clients that Altman Lighting could deliver above and beyond what was asked and help clients make their dreams a reality, they established a rapport with lighting designers and consultants.
“We developed good relationships and loyalty because we cared when others didn’t,” Altman says.
Part of Altman Lighting’s product strategy outlines that once a custom job is complete, the company adds the new technique to their repertoire. This enhances Altman’s offerings, highlights their capabilities, and proves to new prospects their range of proficiency.
Adapting is the Only Way Forward
In the 1960s, Altman Lighting was producing custom dimmer racks for NASA’s Gemini Program. These racks—which ran power to the instruments being controlled in the shuttle cockpit—were the size of a Smart car and very heavy. Altman Lighting was manufacturing the items on the 2nd floor of their offices.
When the military came with an envoy of flatbed trucks to load the racks, it was quickly discovered that they were one inch too large to fit into the building’s service elevators. Over the weekend, Altman Lighting brought in a contractor to break a hole in the side of the office building. They had to bring in a crane to remove the racks from the property and load them onto the trucks.
“We got them out. It worked and everyone was happy. From then on, we measured stuff first,” Altman laughs, explaining the hole in the wall was a small issue to deal with in comparison to conducting work with NASA.
It’s this level of flexibility, creativity, and adaptability that Smith believes makes Altman Lighting who they are. They’ve reflected these ideals internally, recently reorganizing their structure to promote more cross-functional work among teams. The company strives to maintain a sense of community and ownership, wanting employees to feel involved in all the processes with the potential for growth and advancement. Smith says they achieve this by approaching work as if they’re on a journey together, listening to employees and making them part of the solution process.
To stay competitive in the marketplace, Altman Lighting’s engineers and designers have had to adapt to new technologies and materials. For many decades, they happily worked with traditional light sources, offering the same products as their competitors for half the cost. When they started using higher quality materials, they would continue offering lower prices. Lighting designers and consultants learned that they were getting high-quality products from Altman Lighting, along with customized solutions and a family-style customer service experience. This earned them repeat customers and large jobs with vast exposure.
The biggest change in the industry Altman Lighting has had to deal with took place relatively recently with the emergence and popularity of LED lights.
“It was a culture shock,” says Altman. “It was something new and we realized if we didn’t get into it, we wouldn’t survive.”
LED lighting offered the opportunity for Altman Lighting to branch into the software game—the latest enhancement in lighting. The company had to learn how to navigate intellectual property protection, intricacies of heat management, and continued customization with these new technologies.
“The shift to LED was more of an evolution than a revolution,” says Smith.
A Bright and Smart Future
Altman Lighting’s future is set to involve a shift to software and smart products. Currently, people use computer consoles to control light fixtures, but as technology shifts away from computers to smart phones, Altman Lighting will need to adapt. The next generation of lighting involves smart products people can control by talking, without even pushing a button.
“One of the big things that led us to increase our relationship with Sterling is that these smart products involve a great deal of investment. You’ve got to invest in labs, machining, tools, ways to produce this product, and processes. So, there is a lot of money there to be spent because you can’t just keep doing things the way you’ve always done them.”
To Altman, success is not found in any one product. It’s found in the big picture: catering to different markets, customizing solutions, and not being afraid to explore something new. When he looks at his team, he sees a wealth of knowledge and experience and knows the opportunities are there for the company and products to move forward as the team rolls up their sleeves and has fun.
“When you talk about innovation, you have to be on the front end but you can’t strictly be everything that’s a trend because there’s so many old-school people. You have to balance it,” Smith says. “We’re trying to find the next great lighting engine. If it’s not LED, and it’s not lamp-based, what will it be? We have to balance keeping our current product portfolio going and being profitable [along] with some crazy ideas about what’s really out there and what lighting will really look like in 5-10 years.”
LED leads on
From your television to your phone and holiday twinkle lights, LED light sources are taking over. What makes LED more preferable than its traditional incandescent and fluorescent counterparts?
For one, it’s the most efficient lighting technology on the market. Their lifespan is also 25 times longer than that of conventional bulbs.
In a time with ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ as a common theme, companies and institutions jump at the opportunity to light homes and buildings, enhance digital screens, and highlight shows and performances with these energy-saving and waste-eliminating bulbs.