By Linda Scherer
WINSTED, MN Driving through a Winsted parking lot, once owned by Sterner Lighting Systems for more than 40 years, is like taking a stroll down memory lane for anyone who was employed there at one time.
Throughout the parking lot, now the property of Five Star Direct Mail, are approximately two dozen Sterner prototype lighting fixtures that had been put on display for visiting lighting consultants and architects to view.
Other lighting systems designed and created by Sterner continue to illuminate landscapes, buildings, and walkways all over the world.
Examples of some of the prestigious lighting projects Sterner Lighting Systems was part of during its manufacturing days in Winsted include the Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Launch Pad B in Florida, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Washington Monument in Washington, DC, and closer to home, the Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis.
Tom Brossard of Mound has a long-time history with Sterner Lighting. For more than a dozen years, until his retirement in 2004, he worked as its custom manager.
“I was the manager and coordinator, but everything was done as a team,” Brossard said. “There were several engineers and a talented prototype shop.”
Brossard, who grew up in Winsted and graduated from Holy Trinity in 1964, began working part-time at Sterner in 1966, while he was still in college.
Three other college students who worked along with him were Bill Wiemiller, Larry Biske, and Steve Hahn.
They worked on weekends, vacations, and during the summer.
“We worked 32 hours straight once to get this project out to Utah because of a specific deadline,” Brossard said. “It was for underpass sign fixtures for a freeway.”
They were employed by Gerry Sterner, one of three brothers who began the lighting business in 1960, when a man by the name of Ken Guggemos approached Sterners offering them his patented hinge-based pole.
By pulling a few bolts out of the pole’s base, it could be lowered to the ground for ease in servicing.
The idea was too good for Leander, Joe, and Gerry Sterner to pass up, although the brothers also owned another company, Sterner Industries, which designed, manufactured and installed stainless steel process units used in dairy, cheese plants, and other industries.
“So, I think when they first started, they were manufacturing a simple globe light and they were actually manufactured at Sterner Industries,” Brossard said.
In September 1961, Sterner Lighting Systems was incorporated.
“At that time, they built a building just for Sterner Lighting,” Brossard said. “It was approximately one-third the size of the building out there now.”
The company hired its first president, George Nye, and Gerry Sterner remained an active part of the lighting industry.
“In the early days, we were specifically a local company,” Brossard said. “We made all kinds of different lighting configurations.”
Plastic globes made out of butyrate, a type of plastic, were very resilient and could actually bounce off of the pavement without breaking.
“We have old brochures of guys swinging these baseball bats at the globes. It was a marketing thing. They were practically unbreakable,” Brossard said.
“About 90 percent of them were probably white, but they also had clear. They could put colored butyrate crystals on the inside surface and just sort of melt it in the globe’s form,” Brossard said.
“Almost everything was sold in a hinge form,” he added.
Another selling point offered by Sterner was an aluminum pole, which came with an anodized finish (which is actually a chemical change to the aluminum surface), making the aluminum surface very hard, and it wouldn’t rust, Brossard explained.
“Everybody else had been using steel tubing,” Brossard said. “Aluminum is strong if it is engineered correctly.”
The anodizing to the aluminium was done in Minneapolis, so that meant daily trips, with trucks going back and forth.
To improve the manufacturing and distribution of operations within the company, between 1968 and 1972, a number of businesses were purchased by Sterner including a trucking company.
In the early ‘70s, when Brossard began working at Sterner fulltime, Nye retired.
A new president, Frank Feeney, was hired from another lighting company out of Texas, with a lighting manufacturing background.
Brossard attributes much of Sterner’s successful growth to Feeney.
“Frank really turned the company around,” Brossard said.
“That was when most of the real financial changes took place, and a lot of the business purchases,” he added.
Sterner Lighting ventured into custom lighting in an attempt to build anything for anyone.
“At first, custom meant just making a different shaped lantern that wasn’t in the catalog,” Brossard said.
The requests for lighting came to Sterner from a lot of different sources but much of the time, requests for custom lighting came to Sterner from a lighting consultant or architect.
It was Brossard’s team’s job to make sure that the lighting served its purpose and was not just a decorative element.
Many times architects and lighting consultants were more interested in designing signature lighting that would identify the job, making it unique, for their own personal recognition.
“They (lighting fixtures) are a lighting instrument first and foremost,” Brossard said. “Most architects don’t understand that. They just know that it has to light something. The architects look purely at aesthetics.”
It was also Brossard’s team’s job to remind customers unfamiliar with costs that designing something out of bronze and brass was something they could do, but bronze is five times more expensive than aluminium.
“Parts were rugged, very commercial, and they were expected to be a 30-year fixture if they were put in a public place,” Brossard said.
From beginning to end, the process to design and produce a custom lighting system would take a minimum of 18 weeks, and probably more like 24 weeks, according to Brossard.
One of the main reasons Sterner’s custom lighting was successful while other companies bidding against them failed, was the extensive testing that Sterner did before the product left the factory.
“The worst thing that can happen is to have field problems once you have shipped,” Brossard said. “Then, you have to send your crews out after you find the fix. That comes off the bottom line and it killed a lot of companies.”
In August 1989, Churchill Industries, a financial holding company, bought Sterner Lighting.
“The first thing these financial guys looked at was where can we streamline this company and how much can we cut the inventory back,” Brossard said. “That was when they found out that Mr. Feeney ran a pretty lean company.”
Hubbell Lighting purchased Sterner Lighting from Churchill Nov. 12, 1999.
When Hubbell Lighting purchased the company, Sterner employees hoped they would keep the business for its custom capabilities.
“But as the budget kept slipping, more and more of the standard was going away,” Brossard said. “We were relying more and more on custom, which is much harder to budget for because you never know your lead times.”
In the end, Hubbell made the decision to forget the custom lighting, and took some of Sterner’s standard roadway fixtures and its floodlighting line, and moved the production to South Carolina.
Even today, almost five years later, Brossard will occasionally get a call at his home in Mound asking a question about a past lighting project.
Does he miss the custom lighting business and working at Sterner?
“Yes it was fun,” Brossard said. “If I hadn’t retired, I would probably still be doing that, but my blood pressure went down about 15 points once I retired.”
“That probably wasn’t so much the job,” Brossard said. “That was more because we knew what was going on with the company. Once you start downsizing, everybody pays for it.”
A favorite project of Brossard’s?
“I don’t think I really developed a strong favorite,” Brossard said. “As Mr. Feeney would say, ‘The one that made us the most money is my favorite,’ and I guess I could go along with those lines.”
The lighting for the Nicollet Mall project hit $2 million by the time numerous upgrades were made, and it was the biggest project that Brossard worked on as custom manager for Sterner.
The last day of official business in Winsted for Sterner Lighting Systems was Dec. 17, 2004.
In a company that once employed as many as 250 people at one time, when there was a night shift working to meet deadlines, only 11 employees remained to clean up the facility, closing its doors Jan. 31, 2005.
The last 11 employees were: Mike Naylor - president; Marcie Tuma - payroll; LuAnn Ollig - accounting; Dale Maus - computer technology; Larry Biske - shop supervisor; shop employees Dan Brossard, Mike McGhee, Dean Schermann, and Jack Wiemiller; and maintenance Frank Kerkvliet and Jerry Wemhoff.
Sterner business acquisitions
• Electro-static, in 1968, a Minneapolis metal and plastic finishing company, to offer a variety of finishes to poles.
• In 1968, the purchase of BMD&R Lighting, Minneapolis, custom interior lighting manufacturer.
• Sternlite Transportation Company, in 1970, which controlled the receiving of raw materials and delivery of finished products.
• Simes Company, a New York manufacturer of marine, underwater, and fixtures, in 1971, increased the variety of distinguished standard products and custom lighting design capabilities.
• Infranor was purchased in 1972, which provided Sterner with a whole series of various reflector systems that went into floodlights.