David Bright came into the AV industry quite differently from most Hall of Fame subjects. While so many of those whose futures lay in AV were wheeling projector carts around their schools by day and building radios in their garages at night, Bright had only one obsession: baseball.
“I played all sports growing
up, but baseball was my real passion, and still is today,” says the current president of Kramer Electronics U.S. and former pitcher for the team at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
Bright exhibited another passion early on, too — making things happen. He made college happen himself, funding his education with a combination of high school and college jobs, a partial baseball scholarship and college loans.
In fact, in college, he worked two jobs, played ball, kept up with his studies (in a double degree), and became the go-to guy in his dorm. His dorm, a beautiful three-story mansion, housed all the school’s athletes and was often the center of campus activities. The force behind most of the activities was Bright. He was the dorm treasurer, the party planner, the team trip organizer. He also ran fundraisers.
“It was the ‘60s and ‘70s, a time of social consciousness,” he remembers, “so we always had causes. We sold Christmas trees to raise money for a local blind school, and for another organization, we would go and spend time reading to kids who were mentally challenged.”
College in those years meant learning a lot of things that weren’t found in textbooks. It was a time of political debate, social awareness, great music, and protests. Bright remembers a peaceful sit-in when they took over the Wilkes University administration building in protest of the Vietnam conflict, which Bright happened to avoid by having a very low draft number. He also remembers a time in high school during the riots, when his little town was under Martial Law with tanks and soldiers on every corner after a policeman was killed.
“All that stuff you heard about and saw in movies, I lived through at the time,” he says. “There was tremendous social turmoil. The Vietnam War was the first in American history that the public didn’t embrace, and there were more against it than for it, without being unpatriotic. It was when activism started, when women’s lib started. It was the best of times because not only was it a great education, but more importantly, it was a great life lesson.”
Personal changes came, too — the biggest being an injury to Bright’s pitching arm during his junior year of college. “It was the first time I ever thought of life after sports, and even then I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do,” he says.
So, as many new graduates do — or wish they did — he took off with a couple of friends and traveled for a year. Also as most college grads, he didn’t have a lot of cash, but he made it happen anyway.
“Most of the time, we worked with Avis car rentals driving cars from point A to point B,” says Bright. “That took us to the Bahamas, Puerto Rico – all over the islands. And we worked enough odd jobs in between to support the travels.”
Then, it was time to go back home and begin the job search. Armed with his dual degrees in marketing and management, he landed a job at a Montreal-based hydraulics company that built parts for British automobiles. In his four years there, he started as a buyer, became sales manager, and ended up running the business.
“It was my introduction to sales and marketing,” says Bright. “I was responsible for sales and distribution all over the U.S. and, by age 24, I had complete autonomy to run the U.S. operation. That really molded what my whole career was to become.”
As he tells it, being responsible for everything meant he basically had to learn to do everything, too. He managed about a dozen employees responsible for purchasing, shipping, forecasting, sales, warehouse management, and marketing. “I turned on the lights in the morning, swept the floor, and turned off the lights at night. It was a great experience at a very young age to be running a company lock, stock and barrel.”
Changes came – Bright married his wife Debbie, and at the company, rumors began to spread that they would be consolidating operations up in Canada. He and Debra decided to decline the invitation to transfer to the Montreal headquarters.
He landed in the purchasing department of the world’s largest manufacturer of home appliances. But that didn’t last long. He was soon promoted to the marketing department, and within a couple of years, he decided he wanted to become a national accounts manager by the time he was 30. But instead, he made it happen at age 29, when he became the youngest employee to hold that position.
“The time there was great,” says Bright. “In purchasing, I interfaced
with the factory and bought millions of dollars of electrical components. Then, when I went into marketing, I was selling not only our corporate brand but also selling JC Penney in New York and Sears in Chicago, Montgomery Ward and other huge brands. It gave me exposure to selling on a national scope and also to dealing with sales from the low millions to sales at hundreds of millions.” During his several years there, Bright says he worked for one of his best mentors: John MacMorris, who was vice president of sales and marketing. “John is the one who taught me everything I needed to know throughout my career,” says Bright. “Specifically, he taught me how to treat people, and he taught me relationship selling – which I did the rest of my career and which I still do today.”
Then, Mitsubishi came calling. A search firm was looking for a national OEM sales manager for the Mitsubishi Electronics division, specifically to sell VCRs to large national accounts and retail chains and to market the CRT technology. It was a tremendous opportunity, since the company was huge in consumer electronics, and had also become renowned for large-screen rear projection televisions.
“There was a wonderful Japanese executive from the company named Don Shimozato, who was a young star at the company and who ran the New Jersey office,” says Bright. “He basically let me run my own business at age 32. Then in my second year, he asked me to start a new division in my spare time to explore potential in the professional electronics business.”
Bright explains that in those days, the professional AV market mostly consisted of pro-sumer products – consumer electronics retrofitted and adjusted to install in schools, churches, hotels, stadiums, stages, etc.
“It was a one-man operation, me, with no products,” laughs Bright. “But then, we started developing new technologies, such as thermal printers, which opened a new market that didn’t exist before Mitsubishi introduced them in 1983. We sold the first ever such product to Yale Medical School, and history was born there.”
The division soon developed professional-grade projector and professional monitors – including the first ever 35-inch direct-view monitor. The products were manufactured with pro inputs and outputs and they sold thousands. By 1994, the little one-man division that Shimozato hoped Bright could make happen went from one to 35 employees, from zero customers to a huge national dealer base, and from zero sales to $100 million.
“For nine of my 11 years there, Don gave me full reign, which was unheard of in a Japanese company in those days,” says Bright. “He gave me such a tremendous opportunity at a young age. I brought in a bunch of young, inexperienced people who got on board with whatever ideas I brought to them and they, and the division, grew by leaps and bounds. We ended up as the most profitable and fastest growing of all the 17 divisions of Mitsubishi.”
Shimozato also taught Bright the value of accountability. According to Shimozato, if you bring a problem to your manager without a solution, all you’re really doing is complaining. It sounds simple, but it’s really the philosophy behind great leaders. And Bright never forgot that, practicing it himself and also passing it along to those who work for him.
Toward the mid 1990s, the economy, in conjunction with a highly competitive market, over-manufacturing leading to over supply, and eroding margins, sent a lot of companies into tailspins, Mitsubishi Electronics included. While the company problems were more on the consumer side, headquarters started tweaking all the businesses to try to compensate. They wanted to re-assign professional products to other divisions, and asked Bright to stay as executive vice president, but to bypass the dealer channel and go directly to distributors.
“I had built my career on dealer business,” says Bright. “I always told them I’d protect them, and now the company wanted me to go to them and say ‘never mind.’ I told the company this would destroy business – that we should keep the reputation and philosophy intact. Within a few years, it was all gone.”
Bright didn’t stay around for the fall. Rather than go back on his word, he took an executive exit package right away and left the company he’d worked so hard to build.
“It was a really good 11-year run,” he says. “It was the most dynamic electronics company on the pro and consumer side that I’ve ever seen, and being part of it was unbelievable. We had such talent and we worked like lunatics. Now, people from sales and marketing in those days are presidents and CEOs all over the industry.”
At the time he left Mitsubishi, his son was 10 years old, his daughter 8. “I looked at my kids and realized I was missing a good portion of their young lives and decided I wasn’t going to do that anymore. Then, my wife fell ill soon after, so I spent six months taking care of her and focusing on the kids and formulating plans to start my own business.”
Debbie soon recovered, and Bright went back to his first passion, sports, and began a wholesale and retail sporting goods company and, on the side, he ran a home theater company. He also immersed himself with the kids, coaching their baseball and basketball teams. When the sports company became too time-demanding, he sold it, with plans to return to the electronics industry.
By this time, he had established a reputation as a start-up specialist. This was attractive to General Video Corporation. They were doing about $2 million in sales using a couple of guys on the phone, and brought him in to expand the business. By the end of the first year, sales had doubled to $4 million and by the next year, hit $16 million.
After the contract expired, Bright was in the job market again. He yearned for the days when he could use his relationship marketing skills, and missed working with the dealer channel he had amassed in years past.
He was considering a job with a huge corporation, but long commutes and starting in middle management left him with an empty feeling. Then, seemingly out of the blue, Kramer happened.
“I actually wasn’t interested,” remembers Bright. A friend who was doing advertising work for the company recommended Bright when Kramer decided to grow the U.S. operation. Kramer had been doing business for 15 years, selling through catalog houses, and sales had stagnated.
“But I went ahead and did my due diligence,” says Bright. “I learned that the prices were good, but there was no brand recognition. And it didn’t offer the security of a big company. But the owners of Kramer convinced me to fly over to Israel for a weekend and they made it clear that if I joined, they would give me, within reason, complete latitude to build the company the way I wanted to. By then, I knew that not only were the prices good, so was the quality. That was on their side. The lack of brand and sales was simply a marketing and sales job. I could certainly do that. I accepted on those terms and here we are, nine years later.”
Bright became the first U.S. employee at Kramer. He had 100 products to work with, 80 of which were current, and most the result of Dr. Kramer, a chemist, building products in his garage. Today, Kramer Electronics has more than 600 products, and the U.S. division has never experienced less than 25 percent growth. Bright says the factory and management certainly kept up their part of the bargain with new products and technologies – these days to the tune of 100 new products a year. Bright also says that unlike many other companies, Kramer can bring a product to market in three to four months, and every product still has Dr. Kramer’s direct involvement. Dr. Kramer, being the ultimate risk-taker, isn’t afraid to try new ways of engineering products at the requests of OEMs or dealers, so the result is often an entirely new technology, to Bright’s great delight.
“It’s an adventure! The biggest challenge remains going to battle against 300-pound gorillas that I compete with, but we’ve used the same formula – putting the dealer first, relationship selling, and putting out good products,” says Bright.
He says one of his favorite things about the company is the way Kramer retains the small company feel, despite being one of the fastest growing companies in the industry.
“And one of the best things is that I was able to bring back some of the talented people who have worked with me in the past,” says Bright. “Alan Richards started as a young kid with me, Clint Hoffman was a sales manager at VCA and came with me to Mitsubishi, and Paul Bogan has been with me through three companies.”
Now empty nesters, with son Zachary studying sports management and daughter Casey studying mass communications, Bright and his wife of 31 years, Debbie, are enjoying travel whenever they can. Adventures have included whale watching, swimming with dolphins, a 26- mile ride down a Hawaiian volcano, ziplining over rain forests, and a cross-country train excursion. They also managed a vacation to California with the entire family for their 30th wedding anniversary, anticipating that it could be the last time they could all take a vacation together since the kids are approaching college graduations.
“Most rewarding by far is raising a good family,” he says. “A close second is the feeling of accomplishment when you put a team of people together to start something new, like the people I have here who have worked with me before, and watch that team grow together, see their families expand, their kids growing taller – seeing all this happen that didn’t exist before.”