Persona Non Grata in the Landscape lighting industry

Persona Non Grata in the Landscape lighting industry

By Mike Gambino

Best revenge is massive success


The simple definition of Persona Non Grata is an unacceptable or unwelcome person.

I have always felt a responsibility to give back to the industry, although some may disagree, in my own way I feel that I have. Going back 15 years or more I started publishing articles on my website (a few got picked up in trade mags) which are still on my website today geared towards helping the fellow tradesperson and the industry as a whole. I have continued that theme for the past 5 years  with a new blog post every week although most articles are geared towards conditioning the consumer to be more aware (which helps trades too).

Unlike others who continually lace self promotion throughout their content I very rarely do any of that.

I have also been very vocal about my disapproval and discontent with the state or condition of the landscape lighting industry.Frankly I could just not bother and go about my business and not care but I don’t like giving up and I feel that if I did things would probably be even worse than they are now. I know that no matter what I do I will never be accepted in this industry. I have spoken out too often and too loudly against manufacturers , distributors and contractors that are tied in with them and they have done a pretty good job of spreading the word that I am a toxic cancer in that regard or in their opinion.

I will give you an example or two.

When I went to the AOLP industry conference for the last time in Phoenix about 6 or 7 years ago (I hadn’t been for many yrs or since) I was pretty much avoided like the plague. Those that either didn’t know or pressed forward anyway to interact with me confided that they thought I wasn’t such a bad guy after all they had heard such bad things and couldn’t understand what all of the fuss was about. A major manufacturer who some years earlier had made an investment and big move into landscape lighting had done a great job of smearing me mostly because I had produced my own fixtures and transformer and they were deathly afraid a trend would start which would by-pass them. They were chasing a ghost as not one contractor has followed in my footsteps and done the same even right up to this day. Yet still to this day whenever I am published in a trade article they contact the editor and threaten to pull their advertising.

I was told that a product reseller once gave a presentation about sales at an AOLP conference. Someone raised their hand and asked about what he thought about what I had wrote about paid consultations on my website. He mockingly replied oh that guy, nobody should be listening or doing anything that guy says he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. More than one person confirmed to me that this actually happened.

I have faced strong resistance my entire career, perhaps some or much of it, is because of my own doing. I have always tried to be a straight shooter honest and upfront and direct. I guess the line from that famous movie with Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson is spot on – “I want the truth” -“You can’t handle the truth”.

I used to be very angry and disappointed by the actions of manufacturers and distributors but then I realized it’s the architect, designer and or contractor who supports them who are bringing this industry straight down. Many of these guys have sold their own soles and the rest of us down the tubes (pardon the pun) with their Youtube videos promoting products to the do it yourselfer trade, secret back room deals they have with manufacturers or resellers to use their products which get them discounted products, free exotic vacation or day long fishing trips , free dinners and such. Or getting a project featured on the manufacturers promotional materials or in a trade magazine when they wouldn’t otherwise qualify because the work is just not that good. Then you have some landscape architects and designers that do not install but are paid a spiff, gratuity, finders fee, kick back or whatever you want to call it by the product manufacturer or reseller. The practice goes like this-they specify manufacturer name and model number on a plan that goes out to bid and make sure that the specification is not changed without their approval ensuring the product gets sold. This is very rarely or ever disclosed to the property owner (who is paying for it) when rolled into the cost of the purchase. You think you’re getting the best products for your project meanwhile that isn’t always the case. You’re getting the products that puts the most money in your architect, designer or specifiers pocket. This is not to say this is going on in a wide fashion. However it does go on.

A manufacturer that I started my business with using their products, that has now gone under, typifies what goes on today in the real world of landscape lighting sales. For years they touted how they were contractor centric giving 100% dedicated support to help them succeed. Seminars, product customizations, marketing materials, trips, education etc. Well it turns out that they were undercutting as much as they were benefitting the contractors by selling product literally out the back door secretly to do it yourselfers but it went even further. They were doing free designs and provided technical support to the do it yourselfer to bypass using a professional and save money. This practice continues on today with many product resellers, some secretly some not so secretly. Many have their main websites that cater to designer/builders and then also have secret websites for direct sales to consumer end users where they also attempt to provide technical support.

A week doesn’t pass where I don’t get an e-mail from a do it yourselfer looking for parts that are not available anymore from this extinct company. They reach out to me because in a google search my blog pops up as I’ve written several articles mentioning their brand name. I will not mention it here in efforts to not reinforce that practice. I can’t get them parts and nobody else can either as the company ceases to exist.

Today there are only a few actual product manufacturers but mostly product importer/resellers calling themselves manufacturers or factory direct which is a very deceptive practice. Relationships are already starting off with a lie. For liability purposes they will state- “We highly recommend you use an electrician or industry pro” or whatever. Wink , Wink but sure no problem we will sell to you no problem and supply support give you a lifetime warranty no problem. Whose fooling who?

A few years ago a friend and colleague took up the position of speaking out against the degradation of the industry and the rampant practice of selling what is touted as so called “pro” products direct to the end consumer.  He even left the AOLP organization after they failed to hear and act on his position. For his efforts he has also been put on the Persona Non grata list alongside me and even received a legal threat from a product importer/reseller. To quote him-

” I know I look at today’s industry/profession and am disenchanted by what I see happening–there’s a huge lack of caring or passion for what it is we are trying to achieve or to preserve. Those who fight for what is right or best for the industry get chastised more than respected….it’s a frustrating uphill battle with relatively no real support.”

How has it affected my business

These practices only put more poor and failing or failed landscape lighting systems in people’s yards. Does nothing to promote quality of design and product build and creates a qty and not quality mentality. Those Consumers who desire a quality end result are confused about who they should hire as there is very little to no overall industry promotion of the landscape lighting design/build specialist. Why is that ? Well it’s a matter of economics and pure common sense. When one of these product sellers is contacted by a consumer (and some have bought their way to the top of a google search) who wants a custom build they will want a recommendation for an installer.

Most every time there will NOT be a specialist who will specify their product at all or their product only. So to ensure that they sell their products and get them 100% on a project they will offer to sell the consumer the product direct to save them money ( or so they think so) and then put the onus on the buyer to find their own or only then get a recommendation to a local installer after the products have been sold. And this is a recipe for a real poor end result.

I know I would never accept a project like this neither would any other respected high end project builder. Too many potential problems and very low profit margin. So who does that leave, the gardener, landscaper, handyman or the property owner themselves to design and install? Good luck with that.

This scenario is what leads to so many failed systems.

A double standard exists- It’s OK for product sellers to sell consumer direct but not OK for contractor to buy actual manufacturer direct? Personally, Over the years I have had deals killed when vendors were pressured by manufacturers or resellers to stop doing direct business with me under the threat that if they continued they would pull their business with them. This obviously is a violation of free trade however it is very costly for a small business to defend against this legally so they are able to get away with it.

Overall the state of the industry is detrimental to the end consumer and landscape lighting specialized designer builder. The power to make change is in the hands of both. Awareness is the first step. I hope this article has been enlightening to some.

Facebook-ice-256This landscape lighting blog is published by Mike Gambino of Gambino landscape lighting inc. all rights reserved. Mike is a professional landscape lighting system designer/ builder and has been designing, installing and maintaining landscape lighting systems for more than 20 years. Mike resides in the Los Angeles area with his wife and 2 sons. To visit his website go to . To inquire about hiring Mike please click here .

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