It was 2011 when Bryan Johnson had his light bulb entrepreneurial moment.
He was working as an investment banker in Richmond at the time, helping line up deals for the acquisition and sale of small and medium-sized businesses.
Until, one day, he realized he no longer wanted to be the middleman.
“I got the (entrepreneurial) bug bad and I kind of wanted to be in the driver’s seat operating a company,” Johnson said.
Putting that inkling into action that year, Johnson and a business partner acquired Richmond-based lighting and lamp retailer Shades of Light, which had been run by Ashton Harrison since its founding in 1986.
It was a leap, Johnson admits in hindsight.
“I didn’t know a thing about lighting and I hadn’t run a business before,” he said.
But what he lacked in experience running a business day-to-day could be supplemented by what he learned as a deal broker.
“When you’re an investment banker you have to be able to explain what makes companies tick to be able to sell it. A company truly is a living organism.”
Now, a decade later, the leap has paid off.
The company has grown from 44 employees in 2011 to 200 today. Last month, it earned a spot on the RVA 25 list of the Richmond region’s fastest growing companies — despite being the oldest firm in the rankings by far.
Johnson said the firm’s revenue has grown ten-fold since 2011, though he wouldn’t disclose specific dollar amounts.
“We’re now in our 11th year of double digit revenue growth,” Johnson said. “It’s not for any one major new initiative. It’s because we’re kind of hitting on all cylinders.”
Those cylinders include building upon its original model as a brick-and-mortar and catalogue retailer, as well as the increasingly important online sales and marketing using its own website, Google and social media.
Johnson said the COVID pandemic proved to be another boost to its business.
“When COVID hit, we had a couple of sketchy weeks of ‘Hmm… is this going to be good or bad?” he said. “But it was a couple of weeks. Not months. Then everyone was staying at home and nesting and our business took off like a weed.
“You work from home and in Zoom calls you’re looking up and thinking ‘my chandelier is looking a little tired,’” he said.
With that growth has come the need for more real estate.
In 2016, the company built an 83,000-square-foot facility at 14001 Justice Road in Midlothian. But it outgrew that space quickly and added on 32,000 square feet to the building last year.
But again, pandemic demand pushed its seams closer to a bursting point. Johnson said the company had to acquire the building next door. It paid $3.48 million in June for 14121 Justice Road, a building occupied by Richmond Alarm Co.
The acquisition gives Shades an extra 10,000 square feet of office space and 15,000 square feet of warehouse space, while Richmond Alarm Co. will stay on the building’s first floor.
Those two buildings add to its decorating outlet on Midlothian Turnpike and its highly visible store at Willow Lawn, for which Johnson said the company is best known in Richmond.
“For most folks from Richmond that’s how they know us — as the lighting store in Willow Lawn. That store is just a couple points of our business. We do more business in California than we do in Virginia.
“People don’t realize how big we are,” he said. “We have been a national company for years.”
And while it mails millions of catalogues nationwide every two months and spends a “ton of money with Google” to market itself online, Johnson said the company is making a conscious effort to increase its visibility in its hometown.
Participating in RVA 25 and putting itself out there as a fast-growing company in the region is another part of its evolution, and a way to flex some of its muscle locally.
“We’re trying to come out of the shadows a little bit,” he said.