Golden years: Barbizon Electric celebrates its 50th anniversary with a look back and a look ahead


It all started with a corned beef sandwich.

Back in 1946, Sam Resnick and Sidney Bloom were on the battleship America with over 10,000 officers and enlisted men, heading home after the war. The men were acquaintances, but not really pals--they knew each other because their brothers were friends. But they struck up a conversation, and soon the talk turned to the future. What were they going to do when they got home? Eventually a light bulb went off over their heads: light bulbs! Or, to be more specific, the electrical supply business. Sounded like a good idea.

As the ship pulled into Boston harbor, the two men were famished, but because there were so many people on board, it would take a while before they could disembark. As Sam recalls, "There was nobody there to greet us, but then suddenly Sid's brother Jerry, who was in the Coast Guard, yells up at us from the dock. He said, 'Can I get you anything?' And we yelled down, 'Get us a corned beef sandwich!' And an hour later, wouldn't you know, these corned beef sandwiches were passed down the ship, hand over hand, by all these enlisted men, until they got to us. Best corned beef sandwich I ever had."

A year later, Barbizon Electric was born. Though they first set up shop in lower Manhattan, Sam and Sid quickly moved Barbizon to a storefront on 10th Avenue and 53rd Street, and it was in that midtown location that Barbizon began making its mark as a supplier of lighting equipment for the film, television, architectural, and theatrical markets.

Much has changed in the following 50 years. The main office has moved twice more, first to 55th Street, and then last year to its current 26,000-sq.-ft. (2,340-sq.-m) space just down the block. Today Barbizon boasts a staff of over 100 (many of whom have been with the company 15 years or more), spread out over seven locations: New York; Boston; Washington, DC; Charlotte, NC; Atlanta; Denver; and Miami. Since the 80s, the company has offered not only a full range of lighting supplies, but a full-fledged systems division. And Sam and Sid have passed the torch to the second generation: Sam's son Jonathan works out of the New York office and runs the company with Case Lynch (Sid's son-in-law), who's based in the Boston office.

In those early days, the company's product line was rather diverse; toaster ovens often sat next to light bulbs. "We were in the mail-order business originally," Resnick says. "But I said, 'You gotta be there for the people and serve them.' I was in charge of the finest bomb squadron in Italy, and by the time I left overseas I had learned that when you work with people you've got to show them the best that you can, and let them decide what to do with it. You've got to be there with the goods."

The elder Resnick served as Mr. Inside at Barbizon, minding the store, ordering the goods, keeping track of what came in and what went out. "Stan Miller [of Rosco] used to say, 'Before there were computers, there was Sam,' " says the younger Resnick. "Because he could tell you how much was in stock, he could tell you your discount, he could tell you anything. My dad was a whiz when it came to numbers. He could just tell you all this stuff."

Bloom was Mr. Outside, the salesman, meeting with the users and finding out what was new and what was needed. "Sid is the consummate salesperson," Jonathan continues. "He knew more people--and still does!--in the city of New York than anyone I know. He could walk into any building--any building--and be greeted by somebody who knew him. First he'd start with the engineer at the bottom of the building, then he'd meet the purchasing manager, then he'd meet this person or that on up."

Still, it wasn't until the 50s that Barbizon started to successfully court the film and television community. "We got into the TV and motion picture business when CBS moved into the area," recalls Bloom. "One of their head men came by our place one day and said to me, 'I'd like to know if you have any pin plugs.' I said, 'What the hell are you talking about? Pin plugs? Never heard of them.' He said, 'Come with me and I'll take you over to CBS and show you what they look like.' So I did, and we started stocking them, and that got us into the motion picture and television business."

"We were situated across the street from the 20th Century Fox/Movietone Studios, which was the biggest studio in New York at the time," Resnick adds. "They experimented a lot with stuff we brought them, played around with them. They used to deal a lot with ordinary lights, but I remember when Sylvania brought out the 5,000W quartz lamp--we gave them one, and they were amazed. Ever since that they started coming to us."

The introduction of the quartz/halogen lamp was big news to Barbizon; they became one of the first supply houses in the nation to stock the lamps. Still, it took a while for some in the industry to realize its potential.

"I was thrown out of more places than you could believe when I first presented it," Bloom says. "I'll never forget when one of my network guys said, 'It's a fad, it'll never take. Don't bring that around here, it's a waste of time.' Ten years later at his retirement dinner he said to me, 'What a great lamp.' So they loved it once they got used to it."

"One of the things I understood fairly quickly is that Sam and Sid tried to bring a business sense to the film and TV industry, which hasn't always had that," says Lynch. "The entertainment industry doesn't always have very good business sense, but Barbizon as distributors in the business needed to maintain good sound fiscal policy and good business practice."

"They basically brought up two generations' worth of film gaffers," says Jonathan of the company founders. "You should see the old gaffers when they come in here; it's unbelievable. Dad and Sid taught them things they didn't know, and they in turn taught dad and Sid things."

The young Jonathan learned a few things too. "When I was young I used to come into the place and do stuff, torment people--and my dad would tell me to go across the street and play in the ball yard there: 'Come back when you're tired.' But then in college I worked here for a couple of summers, driving, doing stock, selling over the counter."

Still, the younger Resnick's mind was on journalism and not the family business; after graduating from college he went into TV news, working in Boston and eventually landing at CNBC. Around the same time, Lynch and his wife, after spending a short time in Chicago, had moved back to New York, but were looking to move elsewhere. "I had arrived in New York looking for something to do, but at the same time the city was dragging on me and my wife, and we felt we wanted to move either to Washington, DC, or New England," Lynch explains. "So I asked Sid if I could see what the business was all about. We ended up in New England, and opened Barbizon Light in 1979."

That first branch office specialized in television and theatre, but eventually also found a niche in the specialty lamp market for medical research. Business was good in both locations, but by the 80s, Sam and Sid were looking to slow down and enjoy some of the fruits of their labor. Ira Goldman and Mike Lieberman were tapped to serve as general manager and purchasing manager, respectively, and Lynch, under Sid's tutelage, was being groomed to run the operation. At the same time, Jonathan was growing weary of broadcast journalism.

"At CNBC I was sort of at a crossroads of deciding whether to go further up in management, but that involved getting more into the politics of what was going on, which I didn't really like," Resnick says. "Then my dad came to me and said, 'Look, I'd like you to come into the business. I'm getting older, Sid's getting older, and Case needs to know.' So over the course of six months, we all had discussions, and eventually I came on board. And what was interesting to me is that dad never felt he had to leave a legacy in the business, and I think Sid feels the same way. I think they know what they did, and they feel good about it. But they feel even better that the business has survived."

Obviously, the relationship between Lynch and Resnick is different from their predecessors; they don't even work out of the same office, though Lynch does visit New York at least twice a month. Lynch oversees the Miami, Dallas, Denver, and Chicago offices besides New England, while Resnick handles the others. "It was much more definable with Sid and Sam, because it was all the same store," explains Resnick. "Now the divisions are a little bit different because we're bigger, so we have to take on more responsibilities."

The past few years have seen Barbizon open up its Charlotte, Miami, Denver, and Dallas offices, as well as the aforementioned move into the new space in New York last year; it is now considering overseas ventures. "What we've tried to do, with limited resources, is decide where we need to invest our capital and direct our focus, whether to expand the New York office, or look into the Rockies region or the Latin American market," explains Lynch. "And we are continuing to look at other areas to expand in. We are looking at Asia, and we are looking to expand the export offices in Miami and Chicago."

Resnick and Lynch are quite proud of the company's half-century mark, and in celebration Barbizon is serving as sponsor for the Kennedy Center's American College Theatre Festival, a lighting design scholarship offered through USITT, and the New York Short Film Festival. "Our managers in all of our offices get together with us on a quarterly basis to discuss the management of the company, and we go over all sorts of issues," Resnick explains. "In our last meeting, at the end of January, we were talking about what we should do for the 50th anniversary--stickers, ad campaigns, parties, this or that. And it was the general consensus, I am happy to say, that we decided to give something back. It has always been the tradition of dad and Sid to give something back, and we wanted to continue that."

Let's make one thing clear, however: Sam and Sid have not retired. "And you know what? That's okay," Resnick says. "Remember, you're talking about Depression kids and World War II [adults]. My dad is on the phone to me every day: 'What's doing? Did you get enough money in?' Sid's more of the big overview guy; he spends six months of the year in Florida, so he stays close to the Florida office."

"I'd be surprised if I didn't talk to Sid every day," adds Lynch. "And I do run into problems that many times he's got a very simple solution for, and other times I just need to bounce my woes off him, and he gives me a little shot in the arm that helps me through."

So what do the founders think of their successors? Sam, typically, speaks like a proud father. "He's marvelous," the elder Resnick says of Jonathan. "He's the same way we were: It must be quality, and it must be done right."

And Sid--well, Sid speaks like a businessman. "It's a little early to judge, but I think that given some time, they'll do well," he says. "I think they're learning fast and doing a nice job. But they've got very progressive ideas; I'm a little more conservative. Us old-timers, what can I tell you?"