Keeping the lights on in South Carolina
Bob Rosenzweig is a businessman through and through, always looking for an opportunity to make more money and not afraid of a little controversy.
He quit his first job, selling light bulbs for General Electric in New York City, when he heard his friend was making more in Philadelphia. When he learned he could import and sell a British light bulb that his new company was not, he started his own company, Aamsco Lighting, on the side — without telling his boss.
Decades later, when powerful politicians and developers wanted to build high-priced condominiums on the site of Aamsco’s New Jersey facility, he accepted a buyout offer and moved the company south to an out-of-the-way corner of Summerville.
Rosenzweig seized the moment again when the opportunity arose this year to make incandescent light bulbs, the kind the federal government recently banned in favor of more energy-efficient compact fluorescents, in the U.S. — not China.
“We’re going to make Ferrowatt, these light bulbs here, in South Carolina,” said Rosenzweig, 69, holding one up in his neatly appointed office.
Incandescent bulbs fell out of favor in recent years because they aren’t as efficient as fluorescent or light emitting diodes, also commonly known as LEDs.
The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 banned production of most standard bulbs starting this year, but it exempted certain special-application bulbs, such as those that light the tops of TV towers, microwaves and cars.
An effort by the state Legislature to exempt all bulbs made and sold in South Carolina stalled, but Rosenzweig says his commercial-grade bulbs are exempt under the federal law.
Sitting before a massive photograph of the Flatiron Building in Manhattan near Aamsco’s former showroom and beneath fluorescent lights that create a skylight effect, Rosenzweig explained his big idea with an accent still intact from his childhood in Queens, N.Y.
He said Aamsco’s South Carolina-made bulbs have a brass base and will glow for 10,000 hours, as opposed to the compact fluorescent lamps, or CFLs, that last a third as long. Aamsco’s bulbs will go for $1.59 each, whereas CFLs, which have some mercury in them, he noted, sell for considerably more at big-box stores.
He’s studied the Energy Act and declared his lights are “absolutely legal.”
“There is no law that the consumer can’t buy these light bulbs,” he said. “It’s a free country.”
“I’m not going to kid you,” Rosenzweig said minutes later. “It’s a loophole.”
But he’s not concerned it will close.
“Are they going to say we can’t make commercial-grade light bulbs?” he asked. “I don’t see the government saying, ‘You can’t buy these light bulbs.’ ”
“If they come, they come,” he said. “That’s the way it is. If you die, you die. ... Plus I’m 69 years old, so I’ll take my chances.”
The new supply chain officially kicked into gear this month.
The first run of 10,000 100-watt bulbs were produced at a small Aerotech factory in Mullins and now sit in Summerville, waiting to be slipped into their cardboard boxes.
The boxes bear the Ferrowatt logo that dates back to his great-uncle’s factory in Europe. But they, too, were made in South Carolina, at Amspak’s cardboard packaging plant in Hartsville. Rosenzweig said his bulbs “would feel more comfortable living in American boxes than Chinese boxes.”
“They’re not so cheap anymore,” he said of Chinese workers.
Once paid about 65 cents per hour, he said the rate now is around a dollar an hour. And then there’s the freight costs and time.
“China’s getting pretty expensive, and South Carolina’s still pretty cheap,” Rosenzweig said, explaining the handful of workers in Mullins earn $10 to $12 per hour.
This is just the latest light-bulb maneuver for Rosenzweig.
After working for GE and while working for Commercial Lighting Products, Rosenzweig decided to launch Aamsco, which stands for Anglo-American Sales Company, with just a post office box. That was 1975.
“I was always looking for something better,” he explained.
With the fall of communism in Europe, Rosenzweig traveled to Prague to see if his great-uncle’s old Ferrowatt factory could be reclaimed. That didn’t work out, but he did end up buying bulbs from an old Czech company before moving production to China. And the Ferrowatt logo now decorates his office as well as his bulbs.
Over the course of 2000 and 2001, he moved with his wife, who had retired after working for decades for the city of New York, from New Jersey to Summerville.
Rosenzweig said there are now 10 people at the offices at 100 Lamp Light Circle, an office in Tampa and 25 sales reps in North America.
Aamsco sells dozens of different types of bulbs in 24 countries, supplying San Francisco street cars, movies including “Titanic” and “Cider House Rules,” locomotives, the popcorn industry and Charleston restaurants, including Closed for Business.
He even sells dud bulb batches to artist Annika Newell for a nickel apiece.
“I’m the kind of guy who can make lemonade out of lemons,” Rosenzweig said.
So as the politics and economics of off- and on-shoring — and light-bulb production — continue to evolve, he’s trying to stay ahead of the curve, supporting domestic manufacturing and his bottom line.
“If it can be done, one by one by one, we’re going to change it from China or Mexico to South Carolina,” he said.
Contact Brendan Kearney at 937-5906 and follow him on Twitter at @kearney_brendan.