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Reprinted from Upstate Business / The Greenville News
Reprinted from Upstate Business / The Greenville News
Sunday, January 25, 1998

Finding the light

Greenville businessman John Huebner has found success with a concept that almost broke him
By JEFF BENNETT
Business Writer
      A blue trash bin stands in a downtown Greenville alley.
      For the surrounding businesses and apartments, it's just a place to dump useless leftovers.
      But for John Huebner, the trash bin is a reminder of where his career as a small business owner once sat in a pile of torn pieces.
      The year was 1989 and Huebner's hope was gone. For two years, he had tried to market the idea that installing reflective material around fluorescent lighting could help companies cut energy costs.
      It was a sure moneymaker Huebner had thought. The concept was being used in the West where energy costs were high. But in the Southeast, electricity was less expensive and the technology was unknown.
      After trial demonstrations and 80-hour work weeks, Huebner knew only exhaustion, frustration, maximum creditcard debt and $30,000 worth of other bills.
      “One time I had to choose if I was going to pay the telephone or the gas bill,” said the 53-year-old Huebner, who still shakes his head in disbelief. “I couldn't pay the rent. My neighbor let me take showers in her unit after she had gone to work so I could pay the phone bill.”
      Huebner felt he had reached the end.
      On that day, he left a meeting and drove his old Rambler station wagon out of the First Union parking lot. With just $1 in his pocket and the gas gauge near empty, he drove to his downtown apartment and parked.
      “I took that one dollar, tore it up and threw it in that Dumpster on the other side of the wall,” Huebner said, motioning toward the alley. He remembers he returned to his apartment.
      “I came in and sat down. I will never forget that day as long as I live.”
Huebner said he thought his business dream was over. But the next day, Huebner got a call from an electrical contractor working at the Winn-Dixie grocery store on Wade Hampton Boulevard.
      Winn-Dixie had issued a company-wide decree that all of its stores had to install energy-efficient lighting. The contractor had heard of Mor-Lite Inc., which Huebner owned, and asked if he wanted the job.
      Huebner drove to the store, picked up a $15,000 purchase order for lighting reflectors and used it to get a cash advance from the bank.
      Since then, Huebner hasn't thrown away another dollar in frustration.
      The company went on to retrofit 50 area Winn-Dixie stores.
      A short time later, Mor-Lite shifted its focus to the textile industry when a 1987 investment began paying off with more job opportunities.
      That year, Delta Woodside's Furman textile plant had become the first major Southeastern US textile plant to install Mor-Lite's fluorescent lighting in a section of its plant. But it had been on a test basis only.
      Finding that the lighting saved money, Delta Woodside began retrofitting the entire plant. The company then hired Huebner to install his fixtures in two other plants.
      Other textile industries became interested and wanted the technology. The companies gave Huebner a call.
      At the end of 1997, privately held Mor-Lite had reached more than $1 million in sales. More than 150,000 reflective light fixtures operate in about 250 textile plants in the United States, Mexico and several South American countries.
      Huebner is now recognized as a textile plant lighting expert and recently won the Lighting Design Award of Merit from Energy User News, a trade magazine.
      Huebner plans to take his company global by setting up Mor-Lite affiliated companies in other countries.
“We are on a launching pad here,” he said.
      A friend, Bob DeGarmo — a former senior vice president of Fluor Daniel and now the owner of his own consulting business — started the company in 1987. DeGarmo had returned from a business trip to California with reflective materials he had seen used in some West Coast business offices.
      The material helped boost and concentrate light to specific areas within the office buildings, while saving on energy costs.
      In textile plants, Mor-Lite uses single-lamp fixtures with the high-powered silver reflectors to re-direct light to specific production areas. Delta Woodside officials say the technique saves the company $162,052 annually in lighting costs at its Beattie plant in Fountain Inn.

“This is what the
American dream is
all about and I just
happen to be in it.”

— JOHN HUEBNER

      DeGarmo, who was friends with Huebner, hired him to handle the installation and design.
      “I had known him for a while. He was very disciplined, a good businessman and focused on the opportunities,” DeGarmo said.
      DeGarmo decided to turn the company over to Huebner and pursue other interests after unsuccessfully trying to market the idea for two years.
      He said it comes as no surprise that the company is prospering and has the potential to expand in overseas markets. DeGarmo said the idea just needed time to catch on.
      “Huebner worked hard during the lean times and never laid anyone off,” DeGarmo said.
      “While he might be a new, successful small business owner, he has a long history with Greenville and the Upstate.


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