Ken Plumlee is not a household name in the design business, but his company is.
In just seven years, Plumlee has built his Sacramento-based Lumens Light + Living into a national force, besting many long-established companies by tapping into the potential of e-commerce and brand identity that drives the online business world.
This year, Lumens whose website is Lumens.com will ring up $30 million in sales. The company has thrived while many other retailers struggled in the recession and slow recovery.
Plumlee's foray into the lighting business began in 2004, when he bought a local boutique lighting shop owned by Bruce Benning of Benning Design Associates.
He had already shown he could build a successful business. In fact, by age 37, Plumlee did so well he retired from his first career, running a health care information services company called Access Health, which he took public in 1992. San Francisco-based McKesson acquired Access Health, with about 500 employees and $100 million in annual revenue, in 1997.
Plumlee banked enough money to be set for life, but he was too young to sit still for long.
After remodeling two of his homes, Plumlee gradually became interested in the lighting business. His partner, Peter Weight, was working at Benning's store.
"I started hanging out with Bruce, looking at the business and doing some informal consulting. I ended up buying the retail business, and that became Lumens," said Plumlee, 52.
Benning continues to be a highly regarded interior designer and is now a Lumens customer.
"I think Ken has taken my little baby child and nourished it, and it grew up and went to college and graduated from Harvard," Benning said with a laugh. "I don't think there are very many of us who are as bright and have the business acumen Ken has. He's out there a few years ahead of the rest of us."
At first, Plumlee didn't know what he wanted to do with the new business venture. It started out as more of a lifestyle than a multimillion-dollar vision. He and Weight are co-owners of Lumens.
"I always liked the idea of having a shop and thought it would be fun to ride my Vespa to work and have a dog in the shop," he said, sitting in his midtown office. "I liked the idea of being in Sacramento and interacting with customers and interior designers and architects. That was my naive vision of it. But my DNA is more to grow things and expand them. Within about a year, we started building out our website."
That happened at a key time. The Internet was getting faster and easier to navigate for retail customers. Businesses of all kinds were scrambling to create an online presence. Plumlee soon realized he was in a race to establish Lumens as a brand at the forefront of high-end lighting and design not just in Sacramento but throughout the nation.
There was just one problem. No one knew anything about Lumens and Sacramento was not exactly a hotbed of contemporary design.
"The Web was really becoming mainstream. Lumens entered that business at a time where things hadn't really shaken out as to who the retailers would be in the lighting industry. We threw our hat in that ring and learned as we went," he said. "The thing that we did that was most useful is we started promoting Lumens way before we probably deserved to be."
Lumens bought advertising in magazines like Dwell, Metropolis and Elle Décor. Gradually, the company made its mark, and sales grew steadily.
"The commitment to that, building your presence, is important," Plumlee said when asked what other entrepreneurs can learn from Lumens' success. "You can throw away a lot of money by trying this thing and that thing. But by choosing an audience and sticking with it, we've really been able to build a presence and a brand identity within those publications."
The brand identity has been lucrative. Sales are up 40 percent from 2011, Plumlee said, and while the company maintains a well-appointed retail store on K Street in midtown, most of the firepower is online and over the phone.
"They are amazing," said Melissa Cheney, a New York City interior designer. "I've been in business 25 years and I'm doing stuff online that I never thought I would do. There are so many places here in New York, but Lumens' customer service is why I do business with them. I call them up because I get information about the industry. They're a clearinghouse of information for me."
Lumens' call center is staffed with experts. About 30 percent of the business is devoted to interacting with and selling to interior designers and architects. It's the kind of specialized service that can't be replicated, Plumlee said, by an online behemoth like Amazon.
Local interior designer Cheryl Loben said the technical knowledge of Lumens employees is so thorough she likens them to "a second set of eyes."
"I'm not a lighting expert and I rely on Lumens' expertise," she said.
While Sacramento-area designers may take pride in a company that is thriving on the national retail stage, Lumens doesn't make a big deal about where it is, briefly mentioning its history via a link at the bottom of the website.
"The Internet presence has really flattened the playing field. Ken may be from Sacramento, but his website presence makes it look like he's in New York," said Kerrie Kelly, a Sacramento designer with clients throughout the country.
The well-stocked storefront on K Street, Plumlee said, gives the company a physical presence and serves as "the front door" for Lumens. New customers may notice the steep prices. Lumens carries some of the best names in the business and doesn't sell knockoffs.
"We try to be as democratic as we can about good design," Plumlee said when asked about the price tags. "Lumens sells products across a very wide range. You can find a well-designed table lamp for $100 or you can find one for $4,000."
Plumlee isn't resting on his successes and he's not about to retire a second time. In recent months, the company has invested "several hundreds of thousands of dollars" redesigning its website to dramatically enhance the online shopping experience.
"It's a big investment. But that's the excitement of any business," Plumlee said with a smile, "when you look for the game-changers that will take you to the next step."