A family-business leader shares the importance of developing a customer-centric culture.

Bulbrite, my family business, was started 50 years ago by my father. It is hard to imagine what it must have been like to immigrate to this country, empty handed, not proficient in the language, and not understanding American culture. Nevertheless, my father, Andrew, had a dream to create something that would be more than a way to make a living and support his family. He started with what he knew — lighting — and began Bulbrite by calling on lighting stores on the Bowery, with bagels and bulbs in hand. Little did I know that the founding principle, the secret to his and our company’s success, started with the letter “A” (not so coincidentally, so does his name).

I started at Bulbrite in 2001 with nearly a decade of experience, which included working at one of the Big 6 accounting firms while getting my M.B.A. at night. Perhaps it was my bravado that led me to think I would start at least at a mid-management position. The first day of work, my father handed me a little white handbook on lighting, pointed to the cubicle in the middle of the office, and told me to answer the phones. Mind you, I knew nothing about the products or the customers. When I challenged my father on why I had to start in customer service, he barely acknowledged me and simply said, “You will see.”

Cut to a few weeks ago when I had the privilege of watching my father be interviewed for a major publication, where he shared his story of starting the company and what led to his success. It was a full-circle moment when I heard him say, “It’s all about the relationships you build, especially with your customers.” As the saying goes, I had a light bulb moment.

Over the last decade, I have been leading the organization, driving for growth — of people and profits. I have always talked about how important our customers are and how they should be at the center of all decisions we make. This has been challenging to keep top of mind, especially as we scale the business and new team members join. Staying connected with our customers was particularly challenging over the last year given the inability to travel due to the global pandemic. Knowing this, my leadership team and I set our No. 1 priority for 2021 as building a customer-centric culture. At the core of this focus is our company behavior that intentionally starts with the letter “A.”


Look at things from the customers’ perspective, strive to understand their challenges, opportunities and frustrations. Anticipate customers’ needs and find solutions that exceed their expectations and align with company and business objectives.

To make our No. 1 priority actionable, our entire team, regardless of what department they belong to, makes calls to customers every week. The goal of making the calls is to learn more about our customers, gain insights and develop relationships. This learning is critical to our ability to truly understand the customer’s perspective and make daily decisions that put the customer first.

This is easier said than done. Just the other week, I was dealing with a major supply-chain issue that is creating backorders for key items. The solution that was presented to me was to air ship an obscene amount of product to keep the flow of product moving. When thinking about the impact to our bottom line, it was an easy decision to make: air ship the least amount possible to not get customer complaints. However, if I looked in the mirror and practiced what I preached about advocating for the customer, the right decision became clear. I had to air ship the full amount and not view the cost as an expense, but rather an investment in customer retention.
Why is this important, and what is the leadership lesson? First and foremost, as leaders, we must always challenge ourselves and our teams. I am a firm believer that either you grow or you die — both as individuals and as an organization. In this case, it took a global pandemic for me and my leadership team to realize that our No. 1 priority for this year is to return to the fundamental principle that the company was founded on, focusing relentlessly on the customer.

Second, it is our responsibility as leaders to engage our teams and create opportunities to practice, practice, practice. Talking about an initiative is one thing; doing the work is another. We are doing this through the company-wide customer calls, and the process is uncovering a lot of areas of opportunity — both in training our team and in creating process efficiencies.

Finally, I am constantly reminded that as the head of the company, I must always lead by example. It has been a long time since my daily job was to pick up the phone and talk to customers. It would be so easy for me to forget to advocate for them, especially as I make decisions based on information presented by my team in Excel documents and PowerPoint presentations. While these are important tools that help me see the issue and/or opportunity at hand, I must remind myself that behind the numbers is a customer — a person who has their own set of challenges, opportunities and frustrations. A customer that I talked to everyday during my first few months on the job. A customer that my father met door-to-door on the streets of New York City five decades ago. A customer that I must “Always Advocate” for. I guess my father was right; the alphabet (and his name) starts with the most important letter, “A.”

Cathy Choi M.B.A.
President at Bulbrite

is President of Bulbrite, a family-owned business whose vision is to empower people to “turn life on.” Choi is on a never-ending journey of learning, especially when it comes to leadership. She has served as an Advisory Council Member for the Stillman Business School Leadership Program since 2016 and is proud to be contributing to this issue.