Brownlee Story

How many businesses were started at the suggestion of the president of the United States? We were!!

Mr. Brownlee and President Ford
Thomas M Brownlee and Pres. Ford.

At the height of the energy crises in 1976, Thomas M. Brownlee was invited to the White House as a president of the American Chamber of Commerce Executives, along with 125 other national business executives, to learn first hand of the energy crisis. They were requested to contact their members across the United States regarding their meeting. Seven weeks later, they were invited back to the White House to report their progress. Mr. Brownlee had written 2,500 chambers of commerce and organized Orlando’s first area Metropolitan Energy Conservation Task Force…after his report; President Ford said to him (with a smile) "Mr. Brownlee, you should be in the energy conservation business yourself."

After extensive studying, thought and prayer Mr. Brownlee decided to give this brand new venture a try. In 1977, he left the Executive Vice Presidency of the Orlando Area Chamber of Commerce and, with his wife Olive Brownlee, formed a total energy management company, Brownlee Energy Management Company (BEMCO), which was later renamed to Brownlee Lighting.

Initially two bedrooms in the Brownlee home were utilized for office and storage space as BEMCO began selling 34-watt GE Watt Miser lamps, to replace the 40-watt fluorescent tubes currently in the marketplace and also sold 3M energy saving window films, silicone roofing systems and represented Honeywell Controls.

Later they built retrofit fluorescent units to fit into existing incandescent fixtures. BEMCO also contracted with a large air conditioning firm to receive commissions from referrals made while selling lighting retrofits to major accounts of 10-14 story high rise buildings.

Looking back over the past 28-years, Mr. Brownlee says, “the first few years were difficult; lots of studying, learning and selling. To make things tougher, in 1977 very few people were concerned about the need and benefits of conserving. Yes, lots of gas lines, but very few thought they could make money by investing in energy saving products. To paraphrase a famous country song, we were singing about conserving before conserving was cool.”

“Our first year gross sales were about the same as my Chamber paycheck, but with lots of expenses. The next year was better. The third year proved that we were going to be successful when we landed major retrofitting projects at Rollins College & Langford Hotel.

“Initially we tried a turnkey approach by offering low cost installation for the products we sold. This prevented tying up a property's maintenance staff or the necessity to hire outside electricians. Being short handed ourselves in those early days though often meant having to begin the installation after office hours and working until completion…not until 2:00 am on a couple of occasions.

“It was difficult to get firms to use the Securex Reflector and throw away a 150-watt PAR Flood. In speeches I was often asked what properties with lights on 12-24 hours should do. I said take it out and throw the energy guzzler away and I'd throw one to a friend in the front row. Sometimes it would take a flare of dramatics to get their attention when it came to learning about conserving.”

As knowledge and demand for services grew, BEMCO served as energy consultants for central Florida commerce focusing heavily on the hospitality industry. At this time, Orlando had more hotel rooms than any city in the world. All of the hotels were using the inefficient incandescent bulbs. It was a natural for the company to target hotels and motels for energy upgrades. Mr. Brownlee knew many of the hotel owners personally from his chamber days and found that his products were very well received once they were shown how they could lower their energy bills.

Over the next few years, business gravitated to the point that 80% of the work was in energy efficient lighting because the return on investment was better than any other phase of energy management.

Returns of 100% were common and 400-800% returns were available with the then, new Reflector Retrofit System. It allowed the replacement of a 150 watt incandescent flood lamp with a 60 watt lamp and business owners when shown the system were quick to react and gladly had us install them.

As business continued to grow more space was needed for storage. Brownlee first expanded into a three-car garage, using a pool table for assembly and a ping-pong table for packing. Later they built a shed next to the garage and stored lamps in the basement of their home and employed a college student studying electrical engineering to help. Their first large shipment, for an apartment complex in Pennsylvania, required utilizing the dining room of their home for storage while completing the order. It was at this point that Olive Brownlee, understanding wife and company bookkeeper, said "OUT".

Property located in the Orlando West Commercial and Industrial Park was purchased and construction of Brownlee’s own 30,000 sq. ft. building was soon completed. The grand opening was held in August of that year with the mayor of Orlando cutting the ribbon. A planned expansion was completed in June of 2012, increasing space to 50,000 sq ft.

Both of the company’s original founders are deceased. Thomas M. Brownlee, who was enjoying semi-retirement, passed away on August 7, 2014. Today, Brownlee Lighting continues to grow under the leadership of his son, President Curtis M. Brownlee, with the efforts of his grandson, J. Chapman Brownlee, in the Business Development department.

Brownlee Lighting World HQ in Orlando, FL
Brownlee Lighting World HQ in Orlando, FL



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