Mar 18, 2019
By Blake Marchand
Toronto Lighting Supply owner/operator duo Russel Riklis and Jonathan Bayer [L-R] share a combined 50 years of electrical and lighting industry experience. This expertise, as well as the knowledge and expertise of their employees, have allowed them to established Toronto Lighting Supply as a successful independent lighting supplier.
Bayer and Riklis cut their wholesale supply teeth working for Jomar Electric, which was a family run business started by Bayer’s uncle that has since shut its doors. As Bayer was growing up, he helped out around the store and worked part time while he was in school. He studied commerce and economics at the University of Toronto. Following his graduation, he began working full time and took on a bigger role with the company. “Long story made short, they needed part-time help that ended up being full time when I graduated,” said Jonathan.
Riklis, an HVAC mechanic by trade, explained they got to know one another over the years through their business dealings as well as a baseball league they played in together. Jonathan and Russel had a business-related connection as Russel’s father owned a hardware store in Toronto and the two companies dealt with one another.
“I was doing a small little HVAC job and I went into Jomar to pick up some supplies, and I was talking to Jonathan and told him I was looking for more work, specifically in my industry, and he said there’s a position over here [at Jomar,” Riklis said, explaining how they initially began working together. “He introduced me to the owner and we discussed the position,” adding that, “I had just had my second child at that point and wanted a full-time secure position.”
So Riklis took a position helping out at the counter and working the order desk for Jomar. “From there, in slow times, I would go through the customer lists and started calling people who had accounts that were not very active and started to make appointments to actually go out on the road and see them, and so that position at the order desk eventually turned into outside sales rep.”
When Jomar closed its doors, the partnership between Jonathan and Russel was established. They decided to branch out on their own instead of looking for employment elsewhere.
“Everything just fell into place. Sadly Jomar’s out of business, but TLS is now in business, and because of the relationships Jonathan and myself had ascertained in the time we had been there — over 50 years combined dealing with a lot of the vendors and dealing with a lot of the customers, some of the vendors were on our side right away and opened us up and let us purchase material through them.”
With the relationships they were able to build while working with Jomar, they managed to expand their operations from their homes to a warehouse in about three months time. It was through one of those relationships they were able to secure their first, and current, brick-and-mortar location.
“We had a very, very good customer whot had been shopping at Jomar,” said Riklis. As a young man he had been afforded some goodwill by Jonathan’s uncle and ultimately remained a valuable customer. Russel explained, “the gentleman came up to Jonathan’s uncle and said, ‘I have a side job and I need to purchase some material but I don’t have the money. Would it be alright if you loaned me the material and I came back to pay you on Friday?’” Russel continued, “The man came back on the Friday, paid Jonathan’s uncle, and 50 years later we were still dealing with the same company.”
When Jonathan and Russel left Jomar to start Toronto Lighting Supply, the man offered them a building that is their current location on Roselawn Avenue in Toronto.
“We came down here, to this 5,500 square foot facility, and we said that we have no idea how we are going to pay rent on a facility this big. We just started our company, we have very little cash. He basically said, ‘For the first three months we’re going to subsidize your rent and after that we’ll see where you’re at.’”
When the three months were up in October 2015, it turned out that Jonathan and Russel had grown to a point where they needed more space, so they took over the entire building, “and we have been paying full rent ever since,” said Russel.
Jonathan explained that it can be challenging at times to compete with full-line suppliers from the outset, but they have found that their personalized service, expertise and full compliment of lighting products will often win customers over.
“More and more we’re finding once they know what we have, they’re willing to portion off the lighting material they need,” said Bayer, “There are a lot of guys that come in here and will go from here to a full-scale electrical distributer, even if they can get what they picked up here from that location, because they know that we’ll have it, they know we have knowledge, and we’re here. We’ll deal with them right away.”
Jonathan noted that there were a couple of challenges in establishing themselves in the industry, “One of the biggest challenges,” he said, “was getting all the lines we need.” Because they only handle lighting, to compete with full-line operations they needed to have a full complement of lighting products, which can be difficult while still establishing a company. Jonathan explained that their next biggest challenge was overcoming the convenience of a one-stop shop.
“So, we’ve established ourselves as a specialist. They know what we carry and that we carry a lot of those types of items,” and when it comes to lighting products, “a lot of distributors don’t carry as much as we do,” he said.
“We know what our strengths are and that’s what we’re trying to build on,” he added.
What has set Toronto Lighting Supply apart is their wealth of knowledge of the industry stemming from years of experience, their own experience, as well as the experience of their employees. Coupled with their hands-on approach as owners, they have managed to set themselves apart despite the fact that Toronto Lighting Supply has only been in business for three years.
“The one unique thing that we do have on our side is the guys who are working for us have been in the industry for a long time and they know everybody,” said Riklis. If there is a product that TLS doesn’t have on hand, they know exactly where to get it or exactly who to talk to.
“And it won’t take them a week or a month, they’ll do it right away.”
Riklis explained they are prepared to go the extra step to satisfy their customer’s needs. He explained their customers know, “we’re here from 7:00 in the morning to 7:00 at night; we’re here on weekends. I live close to the office, so if someone needs something I can run over here and open up.”
That’s what sets TLS apart from most suppliers. As owners, they are heavily involved in the day-to-day operations of the company. Customers can deal directly with them, they can even barter on pricing in certain situations. “We have the authority to be flexible that way, and we are,” said Riklis, “which is huge in this industry.”
As it was detailed in the story about how they came into their current location, negotiating in good faith has the potential to pay off in the long run, particularly for a small business. It is that philosophy which has ultimately facilitated the strong business relationships required to be a successful independent supplier. Many of Toronto Lighting Supply’s customers have been dealing with Jonathan and Russel personally for 30 and 20 years, respectively, first with Jomar and now with TLS. They have remained loyal customers because they know who they’re dealing with, they know they’re knowledgeable about the products they offer, and they know they don’t have to deal with long line-ups and constant turn-over of the large full-line chains.
“We’ll go that extra step,” said Riklis. “Instead of saying, ‘No we don’t have it,’ we say, ‘Yeah, we’ll find it, and we’ll get it for you.’”
Blake Marchand is Assistant Editor, Panel Builder & Systems Integrator.