The company sells state-of-the-art, American-made industrial lighting at a competitive price point.
Charlie Szoradi wants to shine a light on American manufacturing. His mission is to provide a solution for lowering America’s energy costs with lights and fixtures manufactured right here in the United States.
Szoradi is the chairman and CEO of Independence LED, a fast-growing American manufacturer of industrial light-emitting diode (LED) ceiling lights and housings.
The company began in 2007 as GREEN and SAVE, a value-added reseller of LED lighting manufactured in China. But numerous quality and logistical problems persisted.
Szoradi decided in 2010 to try to build a better product in America while keeping a competitive price point.
After five years of producing Made in America LED lighting and housings, Independence LED engineers designed a top-quality lighting system at a price even less expensive than the flawed Chinese imports.
“It was a combination of patriotism to make something happen in America and create jobs and some fundamental math,” Szoradi says. “The product is shipped closer to the end user, we maintain quality and we reduce operating expense. There were lots of good reasons to bring it on shore.
“We explored multiple options with Chinese LED manufacturers and shopped for value but the quality and reliability did not meet our expectations. Now we have direct control and are creating jobs for Americans.”
Bringing Made in America to Light
When Szoradi was deciding where to base his operations in the United States, he searched through nighttime photos of the earth taken by NASA astronauts. He discovered the brightest spot on our planet was the Northeast corridor between Washington, D.C. and New York.
So Independence LED production landed in Boyertown, Pa., about two-and-a-half hours from both the nation’s capital and the Big Apple.
In Boyertown, Advanced Electronic Assembly employees make the heart of the final linear tube product, placing about 15,000 diodes per hour onto circuit boards. Independence LED also has its own facility in the Philadelphia suburb of Norristown, where diodes are also placed on printed circuit boards by state-of-the-art machinery. The module housings for the LED bulbs come from partner Lamar Lighting in Farmingdale, N.Y., and the military-grade aluminum for the company’s patent-pending beam angle adjustable deep-fin heat sinks is manufactured by Tri-State Aluminum in Bridgewater, N.J.
“We explored multiple options with Chinese LED manufacturers and shopped for value but the quality and reliability did not meet our expectations. Now we have direct control and are creating jobs for Americans.” Charlie Szoradi
It is the innovative heat sinks that propelled Independence LED into a major player in the LED lighting industry. The deep fins of the heat sink are more reliable and last longer than other LED fixtures.
“Our heat sinks do not require active fans to keep the diodes cool,” Szoradi says. “Ours have passive cooling which is ideal for non-air conditioned warehouses in southern states and helps reduce air conditioning loads across commercial properties.”
Independence LED offers a variety of lighting options. In additional to the traditional ceiling tube lights, Independence makes tube lighting products that range from bulbs focusing on specific objects to lights that can evenly illuminate a large area such as a parking garage. Its lighting systems are available with sensors that can turn on and brighten aisles in a warehouse when a forklift driver is searching for stock.
The company has a sales network of more than 150 resellers. When you combine the manufacturing, administrative, packaging, trucking, sales and distribution employees, Independence LED directly and indirectly provides jobs for more than 500 Americans.
The majority of Independence LED’s business is industrial-type lighting. The daily job of the Independence LED sales team is to convince owners of factories, warehouses, distribution centers and large office buildings why they need LED lighting.
“Twenty to 30 percent of a building’s energy use is illumination,” Szoradi says. “This is a multi-billion-dollar market, but unfortunately almost all of the light bulbs and fixtures in the U.S. are made in China. Factors such as currency manipulation play a role in giving Chinese exports a competitive advantage in the U.S. marketplace.
“It’s a nuance in that not only do we bring the cost down, which is interesting for the whole concept of manufacturing, but we’ve been able to do it because we are not incurring the cost of shipping aluminum and components for certain things 10,000 miles across the ocean. And we’ve done the engineering specifically for the high stress, high heat environments.
“In steel facilities you will find that heat is a massive issue relative to lighting and specifically to energy efficient lighting because the driver, which is like the actual starter to a car, is vulnerable when it comes to heat. We have the most advanced thermal management, which means we are an ideal choice for heavy duty production where heat is an issue. At 140 degrees Fahrenheit, we can still run full throttle.”
Giving the Green Light
Independence LED lighting has been installed at locations nationwide, including an Anheuser Busch distribution center in Hatfield, Pa.,. that is larger than a football field; the 209,000 square-foot distribution center of Davis and Warshow, a Maspeth, New York dealer of luxury kitchen and bath fixtures; the Time-Life Building at Rockefeller Center; and the Morgan Stanley headquarters in Times Square.
The retrofitting at these large facilities have reduced energy costs and, in the long run, pay for themselves. A typical retrofit for an industrial facility costs approximately $1 per square-foot. If the building is 300,000 square-feet, the LED retrofit cost will be about $300,000.
But the annual savings on energy use will be more than $100,000. After three years of use, the energy savings will have paid for the cost of the installation.
Independence LED offers a 10-year complete, unrestricted warranty on all of its fixtures. The initial installation cost is subsidized by energy utility company and tax incentives.
Independence LED’s largest project was completed just last week at 24 buildings in New York that are owned and operated by Newmark Holdings. It was one of the largest commercial LED-based building retrofits of its type in the United States.
The project qualified for nearly $1 million in incentives and is expected to generate an energy cost savings of nearly the same amount annually for Newmark Holdings. The return on investment for the entire project is more than 65 percent, with an operating cost savings over the next decade of close to $10 million.
“As a company, we always look to maximize the value of any asset we acquire,” says Brian Steinwurtzel, co-CEO of Newmark Holdings. “This was an opportunity to cost-effectively reduce our operating expenses through state-of-the-art, American-made LED lighting technology.”
Electric utility companies across the U.S. also are offering incentives for those who wish to install LED lighting because it greatly reduces the amount of energy needed. Buildings that require 24/7 illumination such as lobbies, exit stairs and mechanical rooms get the most benefit of switching to LED lighting.
“If your company or facility requires 24-hour lighting, it only makes financial sense to switch to LED lighting,” Szoradi says. “Our products are perfect for hospitals, parking garages, two- and three-shift factories, shopping malls. Anywhere continuous illumination is needed. We don’t do lights at football stadiums because the lights are on only during the games.
“The analogy would be if you want to get a hybrid car, it will pay for itself if you have a long commute. You are getting the value every hour you are in it. With our LED lighting, you are saving money every time the lights are on.”
Seeing the Light
Szoradi and his team have learned valuable lessons since the days of selling lighting manufactured in China.
“China’s quality was all over the map,” Szoradi recalls. “The color of the lighting was incredibly inconsistent. There were engineering failures. So we said, ‘let’s do it better.’ Let’s not race to the bottom of price, let’s race to the top of performance.”
When Szoradi finished his master’s thesis on energy intelligence in 1993 at the University of Pennsylvania, he realized that for many years America had been building properties, factories and other facilities without ever considering the energy costs because energy was so inexpensive.
"The market is going to go from 4 billion to over 40 billion in the next four years. Chinese LED makers are chasing our technology now.” Charlie Szoradi
“We had lots of coal. We had nuclear. We had so many hydro resources. So only in this last decade did all of a sudden energy efficiency become something that could mathematically work. We were able to cut it in half so you save 50 percent more,” Szoradi says. “So the instinct was academic at first, then very practical. Which was ‘wow, we can solve this.’
“Once we could really get our hands around the quality control and engineering, it was about then focusing on the American-made story.
“Moving steel or aluminum half way around the world is a crazy concept and we do not want to be beholden to another country for something we use every day. It’s the same with the components made for lighting. If none of these are made in the United States and something happens, what are you going to do? A light’s going to go out, so how are you going to get a new lightbulb. If we want to build a new building, shopping mall, community or town center and we don’t make steel, we’re screwed. Are we going to go back and build everything out of bricks?”
At the age of 49, Szoradi realizes his mission is not just a story about a lighting company. A Washington. D.C. native and a graduate of the prestigious St. Albans prep school, Szoradi understands the importance of federal government policy and the Made in America movement.
“It’s a metaphor of how we can take, at a self-reliance level, this opportunity to build the things we use,” Szoradi says. “Some portion of the things we use should be made in America. It doesn’t have to be everything but the things that are kind of mission critical – lights, steel, military equipment – would be good examples.”
In addition to providing lighting to many of the Fortune 100 companies, Independence LED has outfitted more than 25 Navy Ships with interior lights. Its lighting can also be found in multi-family residential buildings, schools, automotive facilities and even at your local Burger King.
“We made the classic entrepreneur stop and pivot,” Szoradi says. “We started something and we learned from it. Then we took it and advanced it.
“The challenge now is adoption. Only four or five percent of the lights have been changed to LED in the United States. The market is going to go from 4 billion to over 40 billion in the next four years. Chinese LED makers are chasing our technology now.”