Few companies have a devoted a customer base as Paul C. Buff, Inc., the United States’ leading manufacturer of studio lighting equipment. In fact, “fan base” may be a more accurate description! Though many of my readers may not have considered purchasing lighting equipment before, most Buff products are so reasonably priced that anyone wanting to experiment with real lighting equipment can easily afford it, and with the growth of digital SLR sales I can see a lot of people wanting to take their hobby to the next level. I also knew the company would likely prove to be of interest to many of my fellow photographers, so for my latest field trip I decided to take a trip to Nashville to learn more about this unique company.
On the flight down I was wondering how photographically interesting a factory direct sales operation was likely to be. Upon my arrival I found any possible fears were unfounded and I was completely blown away by the entire experience. Though the company makes studio lighting equipment, it is far more appropriate to call the company Paul C. Buff, Inc. rather than, say, “White Lightning Studio Lighting, Inc.” because the entire operation reflects the sensibilities, intelligence, and style of the founder more than any company or organization I have ever experienced.
After being picked up at the airport and treated to lunch by Buff IT Director Robert, we arrived at the Buff building in Berry Hill, Tennessee. This brings us to the first amazing discovery: this nondescript commercial building was never meant to be so ordinary, as Paul apparently has architecture and design as one of his many self-taught talents. If it were not for governmental interference and red tape, I would have been greeted by the art deco masterpiece, depicted below!
As an art deco fan myself, it was disappointing that the project was never completed, and what a project it was. Paul tells the story, below:
“The story with the building is that we did many months of designwork, hired a builder, then got stalled by the builder’s “architect” who proved not to be an architect at all – just an assistant. There was a period of professional jealousy – the “architect” kept fighting us and wanted to do it his way. These renderings were generated by myself with help from a product designer (Eric Rogers) who worked for me at the time.
I had generated complete 3D interior plans – down to the spacing of studs, etc.. This was a complex building with 5 interior levels alternating in half stories, with catwalks, balconies, overlooks, etc, all with open ceiling about 30′ high. The plan included the lighting company sales and demo areas, the art gallery, coffee shop, boutique and even a small hair salon. It was conceived as sort of an urban experiment that combined all these unlikely elements into an art deco showplace.
The lighting company offices and manufacturing areas remained in the present building to which the new building was attached. The whole complex was about 27.000 square feet and would have cost about $2,500,000 to build. Bank financing was in place and we worked out enough stuff with the “architect” to proceed.
After several go arounds with the fire marshall and codes in general over elevators, fire exits, handicap access, etc. the city of Berry Hill changed their water drainage rules (forced change by the EPA) and our previously approved building plans were suddenly disapproved and we were asked to redesign the plan.
At this point we had become so disgusted by all the government blockages that I pulled the plug on the project – basically telling the city if they didn’t want this truly progressive project enough to help us get it built, that I didn’t want to invest my money and time in the city (Berry Hill is a very small city within Metro Nashville.)
Thus is the saga of why entrepreneurs no longer build exciting projects and we have nothing but “conforming” malls and Walmarts (sp) around.”
Paul was tied up with another appointment when I arrived, so I used the time to take some photographs and meet the staff. As you will see from the photographs that follow, the interior is a far cry from the exterior! The front of the building is divided between White Lightning and Alienbees. I started with the Alienbees side.
A clever Alienbees carpet greets visitors. Branding and theming was ever present throughout the building.
Check out the little aliens under the sign!
Alienbees customer service, directly through the door after entering the building.
Lori , Queen Bee and Director of Customer Service. Anyone ordering Bees is likely to have spoken with her before!
Jenna, Alienbees customer service. Check out the antennas on both of them!
Bernie, Alienbees customer service. No antennae?
The whole company has a lot of fun with the bee theming, as shown by Natalina Marlow’s “to be a bee” artwork. All of the employees have a bee character. I was impressed by the artwork and the obvious thought, heart and soul that went into it.
More fun bee theming. Speaking of fun, one thing I heard repeated by a LOT of employees was “it’s a lot of fun to work here” and “it’s a great place to work”. Everyone seemed to be in a great mood and happy to be there. Given the high morale and Paul’s dedication to customer service, it is not surprising that the company’s customers tend to go a step further to become fans.
Next I stepped into the Alienbees demo room, where the complete line of products was on display.
Alienbees B800 in Alien Green with barndoors.
Alienbees ABR800 Ringflash. This product has been a huge hit, bringing studio ringflash to a whole new price point, and the power is built in to boot!
One of the coolest light modifiers I have ever seen, the Paul C. Buff Moon Unit for ringflash.
Lori showing the Moon Unit Interior. Note diffusor mounted over flashtubes.
Control panel for the Zeus, Paul C. Buff’s first foray into pack/head studio lighting systems. The pack is assymetrical, comes in 1250 and 2500 ws versions, and is compatible with Dyna-lite heads. This product is the source of a lot of discussion on lighting message boards, and one has to wonder what Buff’s competitors are thinking, given the way Buff dominates the monolight market. Now studio shooters who need the power and flexibility of a pack/head system have a new choice that undercuts the competition dramatically, backed by the promise of superior, personal service.
The Zeus power pack housing was plastic, which may not be received favorably among shooters who are hard on their equipment. Few will find anything to gripe about with the heads, which have aluminum bodies and exhibit excellent fit and finish. Flashtube is quartz, modeling light is 250w. Shown here without reflector.
Zeus flashtube shown with standard reflector.
Rear view, Zeus head.
Zeus ringflash head. Reflector exhibited excellent interior finish.
Zeus ringflash with diffusor.
Rear view, Zeus ringflash.
Vagabond II battery pack. With a Vagabond, any of your Paul C. Buff lights can be used on location without AC power.
Having completed my tour of the Alienbees side, I moved on to White Lightning. The theming was not as intense but the offices were definitely still decorated to be fun and lively.
White Lightning customer service counter.
White Lightning gear on display, along with Zeus system.
Melody, White Lightning customer service.
Carla, White Lightning customer service.
Barbara, White Lightning customer service. Big smiles all around! Notice all the people answering phones and emails? Paul C. Buff Inc. prides itself on always having a real person answer the phone… NOT a machine or extension directory (“For sales, press one. For Service, press two.”)
Paul’s original art decorates the walls of the White Lightning office. If you think this is cool, wait until you see what is coming up soon…
Speaking of Paul, at this point he and his wife Debbie arrived to show me around and provide an interview (which will be recounted in an upcoming post.) I had already gotten a taste of his progressive (some would call it old fashioned) human resources and customer service philosopihies, it was intriguing to learn about his manufacturing and business philosophies.
We were joined on the tour by Phil, Vice President/Production Manager.
First came the assembly area, where Alienbees and Zeus flash units were being assembled.
Newly hatched bees, waiting for their colorful housings. Note fan units. Fan cooling is usually unavailable on flashes selling at the Alienbees’ price points.
B800 units in Star White.
Zeus heads awaiting assembly.
At this point Paul picked up a circuit board. (Note buttons to the right, modeling light socket on left.) “We used to have these assembled by independent contractors,” he explained, “who assembled them by hand, one by one. With our increased volume, we now subcontract them to a plant in Kansas that uses a robot with a tape and reel system, the boards are now completely assembled by robots. Robots are very consistent soldering and they don’t make mistakes as can happen with hand assembly. We now have a lower reject rate, less than 1%, and it makes for improved reliability in the finished product.”
Reverse side of Alienbees circuit board, showing perfect soldering.
Alienbee housings… colors are Alien Green, Martian Pink, Star White, Mello Yello and Deep Space Black. About 50% of units ordered are black, the difference is split among the other colors.
A classic hanging out in the assembly area… a White Lightning 5000 flash unit, circa 1982! Notice the Paul C. Buff text under the velcro strip? It’s an art deco font developed by Paul himself… remember his affection for art deco design?
Next came the repair room, where I learned more of Paul’s business values as he said, “We consider repair and shipping to be incidentals to our business. I’ve had these kids with MBAs come in and look at our business and say, “repair, this can be a profit center, replacement flashtubes, that can be a profit center, shipping, that can be a profit center… we only aim to break even on them. We make a good profit on our base product and we are happy with that. If someone has a unit break down and need repair, or a flashtube that goes bad, it’s kind of a kick in the teeth and the last thing you want to do is make it worse by hitting them with a big bill. For example, the flashtubes… the tube used in the Zeus heads is quartz and should be at least $140, based on industry standards. We only charge $79, which is basically our cost. I think our low replacement tube and repair costs reflect in our customer satisfaction. As for why we do things this way.. it is not a philosophy, or a mandate… it is just the way I am. People are people and we follow the golden rule, treat them as we would want to be treated.”
Near the repair room was a stockroom filled with parts inventory. “We have $500,000-$750,000 worth of small components here so we always have what we need to service the units. We’d have even more if we weren’t using subcontractors for the circuit boards.”
Next up was the burn-in room, a closed room with black walls and racks for mounting dozens of flash units which are triggered automatically. (Note White Lightning unit firing on the right of the frame, Alienbees ringflash in the rack in front of it, and cart with White Lightning units in the center aisle.) “This room is usually filled with flashes firing,” Phil said. “We are in-between batches now and about to fill the racks.” Paul continued, “Whenever a unit fails, customers will ask, ‘Don’t you test these things before you ship them out?’ As you can see, we do test every unit, and we burn in each unit for at least several hours… sometimes for even longer, if time and our shipping schedule allows it. Still, even with testing and burn-in, as with any product occasionally a unit will fail, even though it doesn’t happen very often.”
Next came shipping, where an employee was applying serial numbers to White Lightning units. (Note standard reflectors stacked behind.) Ahead of him were boxes upon boxes of Buff gear, from lights to accessories.
Debbie, Phil and Paul in the shipping department.
“I bought a new building not far from here and we are moving the shipping department there,” Paul said. “Since I built this building in 1988, we are doing seven times the volume we did back then. We currently ship 450-500 packages a day. We estimate, based on flash capacitor sales figures provided to us by Seimens, that we currently have about 65% of the US market for studio flash. The remaining 35% is split up among everyone else… all the Europeans, the Chinese flashes now sold here, and plus the other American manufacturers.” Speaking of other manufacturers, there is currently something of a rivalry and a “flame war” on studio lighting message board, carried on between Paul’s enthusiastic and loyal fans in response to proponents of European lighting systems, who bash Buff products. Paul was a regular poster on the dpreview.com message boards until he was recently banned by Phil Askey, former owner of the site, which was recently sold to amazon.com. I’ll be commenting on the competitive atmosphere when I wrap up this feature, which is composed of two parts, the tour and my interview with Paul and Debbie. Speaking of which, at this point of the tour we retired to Phil’s office, where I interviewed Paul and Debbie and learned many fascinating things, such as Paul’s background in professional audio, his marketing instincts, the genesis of the Alienbees concept, theme, and name, Paul and Debbie’s unique work environment in their home, and how the buisness started and grew with the original White Lightning flash units.
After the interview, Paul and Debbie paused for a quick photograph before we moved on to Different Strokes, the Buff’s art gallery a short distance down the street from the Paul C. Buff, Inc. building.
The gallery is Debbie’s brainchild, but both Buffs are artists… Paul can’t draw and does his art on a computer… not only can Debbie draw, it was in fact her idea to produce the Alienbees in a range of bright colors, which has proven to be very successful for the company.
Art by Andrei Protsouk, a Ukrainian artist, who moved to the United States in 1994, currently has his own gallery, Andrei Art Gallery, in Stroudburg, Pennsylvania.
Original art by Paul C. Buff.
Original art by Paul C. Buff.
This room features giclees of original art from a group of Ukrainian artists: Georgy Pyatigorets, Gennadiy Pisearev, Oleg Shigolev, Andrey Shwidki.
Top two images: more art from Ukrainian artists listed above.
More art by Ukrainian Andrei Protsouk.
Original animated clocks by Nashville artist Norris Hall.
These belong in every dentist’s office!
This is an image of Debbie done by Paul!
White Lightning 10,000s making a cameo as track lighting in the gallery… way cool! These White Lightning units are circa 1983.
The visit to Buff headquarters and Different Strokes made me realize how lacking in color my life is!
Well, one of my cars is silver with a red interior… but that is about as wild as I get at the moment! May have to break out some paint at home… thanks for the insight, Paul!
Coming soon- my interview with Paul and Debbie Buff.