After eight years at her father’s company, Cathy Choi felt confident in her ability to lead as president in 2009.
She now had to convince her team — and her father, Andrew Choi — that her distinctive leadership style was key to growing the business.
Choi’s parents immigrated to the United States from Korea in the late 1960s to start Bulbrite — a family-owned manufacturer and supplier of light bulbs for the residential market — in New York City in 1971.
It was her father’s decision to relocate the business to South Hackensack in 1988 and again to Moonachie in 1999.
Her father, she said, made all the decisions.
“Bulbrite was a culture of family and my dad was king,” Choi said. “He had been the business owner, the creator, the entrepreneur — and so all decisions were made by him.”
When Andrew Choi transferred his leadership to Cathy Choi, she quickly realized she was not her father’s daughter — at least not in business.
“I knew that I had to focus on building a new set of expectations,” she said. ”So one of the first things I did when I became president was to build an intentional culture.”
One that would encourage the majority of decisions to be made by those most well-versed in the subject matter.
“A manager came to me once with a customer service issue and said, ‘What should we do?’” Choi said. “I had been president for (maybe) a day. I said, ‘What do you think we should do? You talk to the customer every day — I want to do what you think is right.’”
Welcome to Bulbrite 2.0 — where the idea is to crown the company, not the leader.
In order to create the new generation of Bulbrite, Choi brought in a culture consultant, Kenneth Majer, at the advice of her network within Vistage Worldwide, a peer-to-peer membership organization for CEOs, business owners and executives of small to midsize businesses.
Choi also shut down the company for half a day — a decision Andrew, who remains chairman of Bulbrite, was hesitant about.
“The phones weren’t being answered and we weren’t shipping any product, but I knew it was important,” Choi said.
The tricks of the trade
When major environmental legislation was put into effect in 2012, Cathy Choi had to find ways to reinvent Bulbrite’s products.
“We had been selling analog light bulbs that burned out after 2,000 hours,” said Choi, the company’s president. “We planned and strategized for five years how we were going to evolve our business. We invested more in R&D and focused on not losing the quality of light while providing something that was energy-efficient.”
The result? LED technology.
“The adoption of LED lighting in the residential market is still not as high as it has been in the commercial market,” Choi said. “However, the technology has stabilized, so the market penetration of LED lighting will continue to grow as more customers adopt the technology.”
Cathy Choi thought she was attending Cornell University to study math. Instead, she graduated with a degree in theatre arts.
“There is no straight path to success,” she said. “Success is how you define it.”
Choi spent a year working for a diversity training group via the theater department at Cornell before transferring to a role at PricewaterhouseCoopers while earning her MBA at New York University.
She was then presented with an opportunity to move to California to work as an assistant to a film producer, learning about marketing, sales, production and all aspects of running an independent film company before taking on a customer service role within her father’s business back home.
“I’ve used so many theater arts skills in my job as president of Bulbrite — interacting, communicating, reading people, performing and connecting with an audience, being authentic,” Choi said. “Everything happens for a reason and it’s how you use all of the things you have learned that make the whole ‘you.’”
Cathy Choi’s advice on being a successful businesswoman:
Whatever that may be for you. There is a lot of judgment: You should do this, you shouldn’t do that, you should be at work, you should spend more time at your children’s school. … Just find out who you are as a person and what’s right for you.
Communicate; speak one’s mind:
This can often be misinterpreted as being the loudest in the room or always saying something for the sake of saying something. It’s more about finding what to say, when to say it, how to say it, who to say it to, that makes an effective communicator.
If you don’t love what you do, what’s the point?
Majer explained that the first step in creating a company culture is defining a set of values.
“As a company, we asked, ‘Which principle, belief or value drives you?’” Choi said. “We then white-boarded all patterned, collective values.”
The result was B.E. B.R.I.T.E., or an acronym for what would become Bulbrite’s values statement:
“Bulbrite is people driven by values; people who are committed to excellence in everything we do; people who are continuously looking for a better way of doing things; people who value relationships, who have integrity, team spirit, and who educate ourselves and others so that we can all reach our full potential,” Choi said.
These values have become so important to the company, now, that employees pick a personal favorite to represent on the back of their business cards as a conversation piece.
“We also went down to the level of defining what (each value) means at Bulbrite,” Choi said.
Excellence in the sales department, for example, means all quotes must be responded to within 48 hours.
“I didn’t set that rule,” Choi said. “The sales team set that rule.”
After translating each value into behaviors for each department, Choi embedded the new culture into Bulbrite’s hiring process.
“By the time I interview someone, I know they can do the job — I want to make sure that they are aligned with our values,” Choi said. “The way I figure this out is by asking them, ‘What do you love to do when you’re not working?’ Most people will say, ‘Spend time with family and friends,’ so you can’t say that.
“I don’t care what the answer is; I just want to know what is behind it. What do you like most about doing that? Do you do it by yourself or with others? How do you feel when you’re doing that? Why is it important to you?”
Choi views her role in the company not as the sole decision maker, but as a leader that must create, communicate and sustain the culture in order to set the vision and drive business forward.
“I like to ask for help,” Choi said. “I know that I don’t know everything and can’t do everything.”
Not everyone agreed with Choi’s leadership style when she first became president.
“A lot of people struggled with the change in culture because they didn’t want to make decisions because they didn’t want to make mistakes,” Choi said. “Some of those people no longer fit into our new culture and therefore ended up self-selecting out of the company.
“It just wasn’t the right culture for them anymore.”
Choi understands that values are personal and unique to each individual.
She also believes that the new values-based culture at Bulbrite has helped her increasingly diverse staff better understand themselves and, just as importantly, the customers.
“For example, a millennial who has been with us less than a year enjoys meditation, so she asked to bring it into the company by hosting Meditation Tuesdays for a half-hour during lunch,” Choi said. “She feels like she’s still doing her job, but that is how she is making an impact on the business.”
Bulbrite’s staff has grown to nearly 50 in Moonachie, nearly 60 others throughout the U.S. and Canada and about 10 in Shanghai, China. Choi, having doubled the business’ sales since 2009, would like to again double the business in 2021 for Bulbrite’s 50th anniversary.
“We, as executives and professionals, spend a lot of time talking about business strategy, customer acquisition, marketing, optimization of resources and more, but the strategy doesn’t matter; values are the foundation of your company,” she said. “From there, you can build your mission, vision and strategic plan.
“Most work backwards.”
Choi feels accomplished in having created a sustainable culture for Bulbrite, but also in having felt grounded enough in her own personal values to create a balanced life.
Married 20 years to her college sweetheart, Choi is a working mother to two daughters, ages 8 and 12, and an avid practitioner of yoga.
Choi also somehow manages to spend time with her parents, sister and brother and serve on a leadership council at Seton Hall University for undergraduate students in the business school.
“People judge you not on what you say, but what you do. Your behavior and actions speak louder than words,” Choi said. “By my actions of what I love to do when I’m not working, you know something about my values.”
E-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
On Twitter: @megfry3