Glow of achievement: Brett Kingstone builds Super Vision one project at a time

(Rolling Stones, Bigger Bang Tour, photo courtesy of Showco)

Next time you're in Orlando, drop by the home office of Super Vision International; you can't fail to be impressed. The fiber-optic lighting company occupies a spotlessly maintained 80,000-sq.-ft. (7,200 sq. m) space, with a staff of 60 hard at work creating new products. The office walls are decorated with photos of Super Vision products in action, ranging from typical entertainment applications to the less expected, including swimming pools and gas stations.

Talk to Brett Kingstone, the company's bigger-than-life founder and a tireless evangelist for fiber-optic lighting, and he'll tell you that Super Vision was one of the fastest-growing technology companies in the US in 1997; it was also one of the 50 fastest-growing companies in the state of Florida. With an extensive product line that is about to get bigger, one can only conclude that Super Vision is, by all accounts, a highly admirable achievement.

And it all happened because Brett Kingstone wanted out of a final exam. "I got involved in fiber optics at the tender age of 19," says Kingstone (who, above all, knows the value of a good story), "while I was a student at Stanford University. My purpose was to avoid a final exam in my industrial engineering class. I was competing in karate and didn't think I had quite enough time to study. So I convinced my professor that I could do a final project instead." The result of the project was a letter A, "what I thought at the time was the world's first fiber-optic sign. I drilled holes into the A, placed fibers through it, bundled them together, and patched in the equivalent of a Kodak Carousel projector lamp, with a motor and a color wheel."

The project rated an A from the professor and, Kingstone says, "I wasn't going to stop there. So I strapped the letter A to the back of a motorcycle with a bungee cord, and rode down the Coast Highway from the San Francisco Bay area to Walt Disney Imagineering, near Los Angeles. I parked the motorcycle behind the building, changed into a jacket and tie, unhooked the bungee cord, and put my little letter A in a white box. I had business cards made at a copy shop that said, 'Brett Kingstone, Engineer.' I walked in and, to my shock and amazement, walked out with a purchase order and the promise of a four-week delivery. I went back and told my professor, 'I think I'm in a lot of trouble.' "

Indeed he was, since he had no employees, no factory, and no equipment. Now the fun really began. "I hired all my classmates. We used the cafeteria in my dormitory; I also slipped into the Stanford machine shop at night to use the lathes and the drill press. And we delivered two weeks ahead of schedule. The purchase order was for $50,000, with a $25,000 deposit. So I invested in our first corporate vehicle, a 1969 Plymouth Valiant that cost $400." Kingstone was in business.

That first job, by the way, was to fabricate fiber-optic circuit boards for the Sperry Univac pavilion at Epcot Center; the year was 1979. "After that, we got a $250,000 purchase order to do the fiber-optic work at Tokyo Disneyland. Now I was really in big trouble: Disney informed me that they were going to send a couple of engineers to inspect my factory. Well, there was no factory to inspect, and I doubted that they'd think too much of the dorm at Stanford. So I got a loan against a purchase order--one of my professors co-signed it--and we were born." The company was named GeeKee Fiber Optics and went on to provide effects for Disney, Universal, and other amusement park companies.

With this experience behind him, Kingstone went on to write The Student Entrepreneur's Guide, published by McGraw-Hill, and with an introduction by no less than Milton Friedman. GeeKee lasted until 1989, when he sold the company to a Japanese firm and moved to Orlando. When asked why he chose Orlando, Kingstone cites the obvious reason, that the city had become a hub of the themed entertainment industry. However, he is a man of passionate and sometimes unorthodox opinions, so he adds, "I do believe, and you can quote me, that Orlando will eclipse Los Angeles as the entertainment capital of the world. With groups like the Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync, and Take 5, the music industry is being created here and it's going to grow. We have a growing movie industry here. If you add all the square footage of the parks here in Orlando, they eclipse the amusement park space in California."

Super Vision was incorporated in 1989; the company went public in 1994. "One of our most crucial periods came when we went public and received $7 million," says Kingstone. "That gave us the capital to really invest in engineering and automation." The money, he adds, was necessary to facilitate Super Vision's continuing growth from entertainment applications into the architectural market. "We invested in tooling, extrusions, injection molds; we now have a $2 million fiber-optic cable extrusion machine. We couldn't do that against a Disney purchase order--that required real investment. Once we were able to do that, we were able to sell fiber-optic cable at less than a third per foot than we were selling it five years ago, simply because automation increases volume. Five years ago, we were doing $1.1 million in sales; we're running at a $12 million annual rate right now, after $8.4 million last year."

Some of the projects are on a spectacular scale. "We produced the Coca-Cola bottle in Times Square, which used to be the world's largest fiber-optic sign, until it was displaced by the AT&T sign, which Super Vision also built in Times Square. We produced the fiber-optic lighting for the Victorian Arts Center in Melbourne, Australia; it's the world's tallest fiber-optically lit tower, a 1,000'-tall [305m] spire."

Interestingly, when asked about future strategy, Kingstone doesn't talk about other fiber-optic companies. He has a bigger target in mind: Kingstone wants to start replacing neon as the lighting application of choice. "We anticipate in the next 24 months to have fiber optics that are not only as bright as neon, but also equal in cost. Worldwide, neon sales were close to $30 billion last year. When people start understanding the huge commodity that neon is worldwide for signage and lighting, they'll realize what a huge opportunity fiber optics provides."

The crux of the issue, says Kingstone, is efficiency and, more important, safety. "Very few people realize that the second biggest cause of restaurant and hotel fires in the US is from neon transformers arcing and burning down the building. The other great opportunity that fiber optics provides is energy efficiency. It uses less than a third of the electricity needed for comparable neon or cold cathode units. Also, if you drop a neon tube on the floor, it breaks into a thousand pieces. You can back a tractor trailer over fiber-optic cable and nothing will happen."

The first major step in this expansion plan took place last year when Super Vision partnered with Cooper Lighting, the Elk Grove Village, IL-based architectural lighting colossus whose brands include Halo, Metalux, Lumiere, Lumark, McGraw-Edison, Sure-Lites, MWS, and Fail-Safe. Cooper Lighting is now Super Vision's exclusive distributor for architectural fiber-optic lightingthroughout North America, under the name Optiance by Super Vision. (Another partner, Hayward, handles Super Vision's line of fiber-optic swimming pool and spa lighting, while worldwide sales and entertainment projects are still handled out of Super Vision's headquarters in Orlando). Speaking of the partnership, Mike Bauer, vice president of sales and marketing at Cooper Lighting, says, "Fiber optics is an emerging technology that is going to be one of the fastest-growing aspects of the fixture business. It's leading-edge."

The next step involves Super Vision's two newest products, coming out this spring: the SV2100 and the SV3000. The SV2100 boasts a powerful 170W metal-halide lamp with a life of 4,000 hours which, says Kingstone, "will be brighter than any comparable light source on the market." Similarly the SV3000 is a 270W metal-halide system that, he says, "will outshine even the brightest 400W metal-halide system available right now. We're also coming out with an enhanced Sideglow fiber-optic cable that will be 40-50% brighter than our current Sideglow cable. The resulting cable will have the highest lumen-per-dollar efficiency ratio on the market, making us the best value in sidelight-emitting illumination."

Super Vision has extended its reach around the globe. "We sell in Reykjavik, Moscow, Kuala Lumpur, Buenos Aires, Santiago, and elsewhere," says Kingstone. "The Pizza Huts in Kuwait use our fiber-optic cable. Our projects include gas stations in Iceland, shopping centers in Hong Kong and Jakarta, and retail stores in New Zealand and Australia. A third of our gross sales, about 35%, are outside the United States." Of course, the company has plenty of projects right near home; Universal CityWalk, the nighttime dining-and-dancing venue at Universal Studios Escape in Orlando, makes extensive use of Super Vision products.

Despite his obviously bullish attitude about the industry, Kingstone is realistic about what fiber can and cannot do. "Unlike some people in the industry who claim that fiber optics will be all things to all people, we're going to be honest. We're not going to chase pipe dreams and tell everybody that fiber optics is going to replace every kind of lighting. It's not. That's why sometimes you have to say no to certain orders, when you know a disaster is in the making and you certainly don't want to be part of it. The way we hope to win the respect and confidence of the lighting specifier community is by being very consistent in our recommendations. There has to be credibility, an equal amount of talk about where we don't apply as where we do."

Fortunately, Kingstone adds, he can afford to be candid about his product. "There are thousands of applications, many of which are in mainstream traditional downlighting, spotlighting, cove lighting--everywhere neon is--for fiber optics. The well-defined applications, where fiber optics really make sense, are huge enough to make fiber optics a billion-dollar industry." Kingstone may have skipped that engineering test 20 years ago, but, these days, he seems more than ready for the tests his company will face in the years to come.