Jim and Joanne Driscoll (nee Barber) were both born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and were married in 1964 while Jim was attending UWM as a speech major. Shortly after the birth of their son Chris in 1965 Jim began his career working for the General Electric lamp division as a company sales representative in central and eastern Iowa. Their second son Scott was born in 1966 as Jim developed the territory and forged strong relationships with the lighting maintenance and electrical supply companies he called on. When GE offered to move the family to Cleveland to work at the company headquarters in the late 1960’s he politely declined.
Through the friendships he made with owners and operators of his clients in Iowa along with a chance meeting with John Cooley during an auto breakdown a decision was taken to found Stay-Light Lighting, a lighting maintenance company, in Wisconsin. In 1970 Jim, Joanne, and the family moved to Madison while John remained in Milwaukee to establish and grow the business. From the basement of their west-side home Jim sold jobs during the day, used a hand crank aerial ladder truck to perform sign service and pole light service then worked evenings and weekends to install the jobs sold during the day. As with all start-up companies the early years were lean. Joanne helped support the family working nights at a local restaurant and watering hole named Mike’s Pizza Papa’s on the south beltline and there were many trips to the Milwaukee area to complete jobs sold there. It was during one of those jobs near Racine where Jim installed what was probably the first ‘energy saving’ fluorescent lamp in Wisconsin. The next few years were challenging and exciting as the business outgrew the basement and “the shop” was moved to Terrace Avenue in Middleton in 1973. The energy crises of the early 1970’s helped raise consumer’s awareness of energy saving products and lighting was no exception. Building on that first ‘low watt’ lamp installed in 1970 Jim recognized the value of providing lighting that actually paid for itself over time in energy savings and offered as many energy efficient lighting solutions as possible. In true family business tradition Chris and Scott spent many summer days at the shop ‘playing’ in the warehouse or helping on small jobs while dad and mom answered phones, sold jobs, and paid bills. Often the whole family would work together on evening or weekend jobs with Jim and Joanne on ladders and Chris and Scott being ‘go-fers’. The company flourished through the late 1970’s and continued to grow at a steady pace.
In 1980 through a series of events including Jim’s desire to expand the company to include light bulb and tube sales with free delivery the partnership with John Cooley was dissolved and the Madison portion became Stay-Lite Lighting, West and Light Bulb Sales & Supply. Chris worked in the field on aerial trucks, delivery trucks, and indoor repair trucks during high school learning the hands-on skills required for lighting service while Scott pursued alternate work opportunities and the company continued to slowly grow through the 80’s. Jim’s philosophy of providing the most energy efficient lighting solutions continued to drive the company and its offerings. As the early energy ‘rebate’ programs were established we became among the first to carry and install compact fluorescent lamps to replace standard incandescent lamps and install T8 lamps and ballasts to replace T12 systems saving our customers energy, maintenance costs, and replacement lamp costs. In the early 80’s we were also on the cutting edge of LED use in exit sign retrofits saving our customers thousands of dollars in energy and helping insure the safety of their employees and tenants. We also borrowed the concept of rack-job deliveries from the grocery industry and established a Lighting Inventory Control system for our customers that insured they would always have a ready supply of light bulbs without needing to carry full case quantities and pioneered the concept of free delivery with no minimum (although we still have not figured out how to deliver ½ a light bulb, yet).
The retail experiment
The next major set of changes occurred in 1989 when Jim, once again, decided to expand the company to include a retail residential lighting showroom. Lights, Etc. was opened on the west side of Madison and the main shop was also moved to its current location on Highway 14 in Middleton. Chris was brought back from a short stint as a sales rep with Research Products in the Chicago area to establish and run the showroom. It was also at this time our now service manager and Master Electrician Ron Volp was hired as an aerial service technician. The three years spent trying to learn the retail side of lighting sales was tumultuous and frustrating. A combination of inexperience and the housing downturn of the early 90’s lead to the closure of the store in 1993. It was time to lick our wounds and re-focus on our core strength namely helping other businesses save money and be more productive through the use of effective and efficient lighting. The company was re-organized to reflect not only our past success but also as a nod to future family generations and PKK Lighting, Inc. was born.
PKK Lighting, Inc.
Why the name PKK Lighting? The letters P, K, and K are the initials of the first names of Jim and Joanne’s grandchildren at the time of re-organization. Paderic and Kieran are Chris’s eldest sons and Kaylyn is Scott’s eldest daughter. There are now a total of seven grandchildren and four step grandchildren but it was decided early on that PKKCQCB… might get a bit bulky.
As the door closed on the debacle that was Light’s Etc. almost immediately another opportunity presented itself in the form of light bulb and ballast recycling. In 1993 Rick Portz approached Jim with an idea and, armed with the knowledge that landfills in Wisconsin would no longer accept anything containing hazardous materials such as mercury or PCB’s, the PKK Lighting recycling division was created. This was a perfect and immediate fit with Jim’s dedication to conserving energy and preserving the environment. Adding recycling services to the mix brought our shop ‘family’ to eight with Jim, Joanne (The Boss) and Teresa Baxter, who joined us in 1994, in the office, two aerial service trucks, one sales/delivery/indoor service truck, and one recycling truck. It was a sweet spot in size for us as we were all willing to put in long hours to complete a good volume of work. Having learned a lesson from our attempt to grow too fast with the showroom we returned to a much more conservative approach. Our staff and structure remained steady until 1996 when Dick Volp, Ron’s brother, was hired as an additional service tech. Chris moved from aerial service to delivery, indoor service and warehousing while the sales/delivery person was promoted to full time sales.
A new millennium
Slow and steady continued to be the watchwords as we entered the ‘aughts’. The continued improvements to spiral CFL’s coupled with a slight downturn in construction helped us push sales and service volume higher, often outstripping our ability to meet demand in a timely manner. By 2001, though, major changes were brewing at the production levels of lighting as Chinese manufacturers entered the US market and more regional competition started vying for our customers locally. To stay competitive we needed to grow so we added another aerial truck position along with an additional outside salesperson and doubled the size of the warehouse. We also expanded our coverage of emergency lighting battery testing and recordkeeping to help our customers insure the safety of their clients and employees. In 2003 we added an inventory control specialist and delivery truck to support our sales staff. By 2004 the import lighting manufacturers were having a serious impact on the US market and prices were in free-fall. A bulb that sold for $3.00 in 1999 was now going for $.99 and dropping. The entire lighting industry was experiencing true deflation putting a serious crunch on the regional service companies that tried to expand in the previous two years. Because we were firmly established and kept to a conservative growth strategy we weathered the storm slightly battered but intact. Prices and competitive pressures stabilized after about two years. Hard work during those years once again built a sales volume that exceeded our capacity. In late 2006 a third aerial service position was added and in 2007 a second indoor service position bringing our PKK Lighting family to 15.
40 years of conserving energy and preserving the environment
In September of 2010 we celebrated 40 years in business. A pretty good way to start a new decade and a testament to the drive and dreams of Jim and Joanne. The ‘hurrah’s’ were muted however by the economic conditions of the country. Even in insulated Dane county, 77 square miles surrounded by reality, few companies were spending money to do anything but barely maintain their facilities. Sales were stagnating and there was a growing sense of ennui. Change was needed to give us all a kick in the pants and get back to work. That change came mostly in the form of an outside consulting firm hired in early 2011. Weaknesses and strengths of the company were laid bare and a plan was developed to insure not only the survival of PKK Lighting but its growth. The most significant part of the analysis concluded that there needed to be changes made to the organizational structure and management team. Three critical decisions were taken to make it happen. First was to create a VP of Sales position to streamline and motivate the sales team, second was for Jim to step back from day-to-day operations and third was for PKK Lighting to become a full-fledged electrical contractor. During April of 2011 we interviewed and vetted a number of applicants for the Sales Manager position and in May 2011 John Kokott was hired as Vice-President of Sales. Ron Volp had already achieved the licensing of Journeyman Electrician and though diligence, additional schooling, and late nights pursued and attained a Master Electrician’s license. Jim, with some anticipation, semi-retired and turned the helm over to Chris, Ron, and John. It must be said, though, that no matter who might sit in the captain’s chair Joanne is still “The Boss” and continues to be at her desk every day.