Thinking Allowed

Employee empowerment gives serial entrepreneur and idea-man Charles Cartmill room to innovate

If he wanted, Chuck Cartmill could have a fancy office filled with business awards and framed photos of him shaking hands with senior politicians from around the globe. After all, the 62-year-old high-energy head of five manufacturing and sales companies jets regularly to Europe, Japan and the Middle East to meet with powerful bureaucrats while his innovative thinking has earned him repeated nominations as one of the Top 50 CEOs in Atlantic Canada.

Instead, the walls of his offices in Halifax and Amherst are bare, except for some pictures of grouse and salmon, and the furnishings might politely be referred to as Spartan. It seems the lone item that is not functional is a ‘For Sale’ sign sitting atop a credenza in the corner of his Amherst office. It serves as a constant reminder of the importance of persevering, he says. 
“The awards are wonderful recognition that we are on the right path,” he said in an interview. “But it is with failure, and near failure, that you really learn. I was ready to put the sign in the window of the Amherst plant in 2003 after 16 months of working day and night without turning a profit.”

He didn’t put the sign in the window and today the plant is an economic anchor for northwestern Nova Scotia, providing 100 well-paying jobs for local workers. It’s also the manufacturing centre for Cartmill’s biggest and boldest venture to date: capturing a share of the $500-billion street lighting market.

Cartmill grew up in an entrepreneurial environment in Northern Ontario. He remembers selling his mother’s fudge door-to-door, collecting copper from schoolmates to sell to a friendly scrap dealer and spending a summer picking apples and then selling them for a premium to neighbours.

He always knew he wanted to go into business for himself, but to ensure he had a fallback plan, he graduated from a local college as an electronic technologist. His first job was with electronics giant Westinghouse. They offered him a sales position in Moncton and within 18 months, he founded CSA Enterprises, a technical sales and marketing company he has operated for 38 years.

Other companies followed, including a technical sales and marketing company in Ontario, a Nova Scotia land development company, a lighting pole company and a thriving import-export business. It made for busy days, but by surrounding himself with talented people and focusing on strategic growth and data-driven approaches, he found he still had time to look at other opportunities.

As a lighting industry insider, he watched for two decades while some companies prospered and others failed as street lighting evolved from traditional mercury and metal halide to the more efficient high pressure sodium fixtures. With 500-million street lights in the world, he mused, wouldn’t a company that could predict the next evolution of street lighting be wildly successful?

Almost before the thought had gelled in his mind, he read about the development of the very first light emitting diode (LED) traffic lights. With their focus on long life and energy efficiency, he knew they could be a game-changer. “LEDs are a disruptive technology. They are more revolution than evolution. They fundamentally change the way lighting has been approached,” said Cartmill. “As soon as I saw the first LED traffic signal, I knew I wanted to build an LED street light. I knew it would be the next wave, a $500-billion opportunity that would begin to crest over the next 10 years. I wanted to be part of it.”

So he took a leap of faith and bought a 55,000-square-foot industrial building in Amherst, invested in state-of-the-art manufacturing equipment, and began hiring workers. C-Vision, which as of Jan. 1, 2011 was amalgamated into LED Roadway Lighting, started off as a contract manufacturer of electronics. It was the foundation for developing the expertise LED street lighting would require.

The C-Vision/LED Roadway effort eventually attracted $6-million in federal research loans and a $5-million equity investment by the Province of Nova Scotia, but in the beginning there was no government money and banks were unreceptive. Cartmill was forced to go it alone.

His wife, Irene, referred to the plant as a black hole and money pit, but Cartmill remained firm ‑ even after 16 months when he had the ‘For Sale’ sign printed as a potential Plan B. His patience was rewarded when design skills (C-Vision was one of the first in North America to move away from lead-based solder to healthier alternatives), speedy delivery and cost effectiveness combined to drive sales in 2004, which doubled in 2005 and grew by another 60 per cent in 2006.

With the plant finally stable and assistance from ACOA, Cartmill created Halifax-based LED Roadway Lighting. As a small team of researchers began working with Nova Scotia Power engineers on a commercially viable LED streetlight, he began criss-crossing the planet looking at the best emerging LED systems from Japan and California.

“We could have gone with a variation of the single-lens system already on the market, but our researchers – the best optical designers in the world by my estimation – said no and we went with a more efficient combination of reflector and lens system,” he said. “While our competitors focus on cheaper, cheaper, cheaper, we focus on smarter, smarter, smarter.”

In his pitch to potential clients, Cartmill coos that in addition to using up to 80 per cent less energy than traditional street fixtures, his LED lights last longer, contain no lead or mercury and with the right controls can be powered by solar or wind sources. They can also be rigged for security camera applications, Wi-Fi and to monitor their own energy use and performance.

It would be interesting to put a power meter on Cartmill himself. He has boundless energy and admits he doesn’t need more than a few hours sleep each night. His suit jacket pockets are filled with scribbled notes on bits of yellow paper about ideas he comes up with on airplanes or while eating breakfast. He golfs, but almost always with clients or board members and has had one week of holiday in the last four years. “I like being out on the street. My job is to bring the business to the door.”

Always careful to put team efforts above any personal accomplishments, he lauds his R&D and product development teams at every opportunity. He also has praise to for his sons, Ken (sales manager) and Curtis (chief information officer), who were recruited into the business after careers with Research In Motion and IBM.

Ken said he was surprised when the senior Cartmill asked him about joining the firm eight years ago. “I thought about it and figured that I could learn a lot from a successful entrepreneur,” he said. “Working with family is great, but it’s not without its challenges. There is a great advantage in that you can openly express your opinions and ideas and know they are being heard.”

LeRoy Riggs, an installation specialist who has worked with Cartmill since 1982, says the CEO is open to listening to ideas from anyone at anytime. “You can call him at midnight or five in the morning and he will take your call. (He) will find a way to make time.”

Dave Scott, a partner and manager of the Amherst plant, recalled installing a fax machine in his home just as C-Vision started up, and immediately wanting to rip it out because it Cartmill was constantly sending him a flood of faxes at 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. “I tried keeping up with him, but I’ve given up.

Cartmill’s efforts have resulted in pilot projects in Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, France, the Middle East and the Caribbean. His products have been tested on highway bridges in New York, the bridge to Prince Edward Island and at Stanfield International Airport. A 2009 Eco-Trust Nova Scotia pilot project saw 1,100-fixtures installed in Berwick, Antigonish, Canso and seven other Nova Scotia communities. Every one of the 1,130 light poles in Amherst will be converted to LED versions by the middle of the year.

Halifax Mayor Peter Kelly said the 53 per cent cost savings shown in the Eco-Trust pilot led to a $1.6-million deal last fall to supply  2,137 street light fixtures to the capital city. It’s one of the company’s biggest orders to date, but it falls short of the mega-order the company needs to prove it can be a global player.

“The market is taking off and we need a big win at home. No one that we get in to see in the Middle East or Brazil has any questions about the money. They want to know what you’ve done at home so they can have confidence in your ability to perform,” Cartmill said.

The company has 225 multiple-unit installations in 11 countries, but that’s a blip when compared to Beta Lighting, a Wisconsin competitor that caught the wave early and has reaped the fruits of the Buy American Act that has restricted the sale of products not made in the United States.

For Cartmill, spearheading a Canada-wide replacement initiative involving 4.3-million lights would be a big win. He pitched the idea to Prime Minister Stephen Harper personally, insisting it would create 8,000 jobs at little or no cost to the taxpayer. He has not heard back from the PMO, but he pushed the idea again in January during meetings with the Department of Environment to discuss LED options for government buildings and parking lots.

Due to higher energy costs and municipal ownership of street lights, it appears Europe it will be the first to move to a wholesale adoption of the technology. In North America, utility firms own most of the street light fixtures and they are traditionally slow to adopt new technologies.

While Canadian utilities drag their heels, other jurisdictions are busy trying to lure Charles Cartmill and LED Roadway Lighting to their part of the world. Cartmill says he’s had offers from the U.K., Cleveland, Europe and South America. For the moment, he’s content to contract some of his product assembly to North Carolina (it allows him to service U.S. orders while complying with the Buy American policy) and maintain his main facility in Amherst. “I like Nova Scotia and Canada. I’m confident the big break we need is just around the corner.”

Cartmill’s gut instincts have proven correct in the past, but if this happens to be the rare occasion when he’s wrong, the ‘For Sale’ sign is still there if he needs it.

Steve Proctor
About Steve Proctor

Steve Proctor spent 25 years as a reporter and editor with a Halifax newspaper. He is now pursuing his entrepreneurial dreams, running his own consulting company, The Culture Shift, working with Public Affairs at Saint Mary’s University and teaching business journalism at the University of King’s College. He is also writing a book about an overlooked Canadian hero.

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