MONTEREY — Seventy-five years ago, it would not have been surprising to see an assembly line of workers, busy at their jobs on Cannery Row, but today?
And yet, amid the hotels, restaurants and other tourist attractions, at the north end of the street at 300 Cannery Row is Light & Motion — manufacturing high-end lights and camera housings for divers, cyclists and other adventurers.
Machines are melting down metals and plastics and molding them into parts, dozens of hands are soldering and screwing them together and others are packaging and preparing them to ship. All inside a once-abandoned sardine cannery that, not long ago, had no roof and was only housing Seagulls and varmints.
Running the operation is CEO Michael Emerson, a soft-spoken man, about 6′ 3″ and the very picture of health. Dressed casually in a polo shirt, shorts and sandals, he also wears his devotion to the environment, as well as keeping jobs in America, on his sleeve. Emerson is a mechanical engineer who holds a second degree in English. He then went on to get a masters degree in manufacturing systems at Stanford. He recently provided a tour of his company to the Monterey Bay News & Views, and said Light & Motion’s commitment to his core beliefs are what drew him to the company.
“Can we build a sustainable business that can produce, that can create value for the community and the people who work here?” he said. “Anybody can make money — just making money is not really interesting to me.”
Founded in 1989 as a student project by Stanford graduates Barrett Heywood and Michael Topolovac, the little company at the end of the row makes a strong argument that it makes the very best rechargeable lights in the world; it’s growing sales, consumer reviews and satisfaction certainly back that up. Light & Motion’s Sola dive light, is a rechargeable light that fits in your palm and shines 600 lumens strong. It’s no surprise, said Emerson, that it is the best-selling dive light in the world, as well as the company’s top seller.
In one hand, Emerson holds one of his rechargeable dive lights, it’s a 4,000 lumen model, about 3.5 times brighter than a car headlight, and it’s smaller than a large Coke at McDonalds. With the other hand he picks through some of his competitors’ stuff piled in a box and pulls out a long, clunky light that takes eight D-sized batteries. It’s about five times heavier and puts out less than 1/10th the light.
“Look at this stuff,” said Emerson. “Beating the competition is like shooting fish in a barrel.”
Lighting the way
According to Sales Manager Paul Barnett, the company has always been a step ahead. Topolovac, the original engineer and designer, was an avid photographer who took up diving. And in order to take good photos under water, you either needed a camera crew or to invent something.
“So Michael developed a portable underwater lighting system he could use by himself, which in 1989 was unheard of,” Barnett said. “And to be obtainable by the average diver was pretty significant.”
One of Topolovac’s innovations was his use of dimples inside the reflector. It creates, not only a brighter, but also a softer light.
“Nobody else knew how to do it,” Barnett said. “What you want for video is nice, soft light. Typical lights have a hot spot, but not these, and this was something we excelled at early on.”
Barnett said the decision to start making bike lights seemed natural, since the company already had the technology, the equipment and materials on hand.
Today, the innovations continue both above ground and under water. For instance, Emerson said the new TAZ bike light has 10-pages of computer code running it. Barnett said that LED technology has revolutionized the industry.
“They just keep getting more powerful — like microchips,” Barnett said. “So this is a really exciting time for us. Every 18 months LEDs double in power, so the products we can come up with are just that much better. A little bitty light can put out 2,000 lumens — and that’s only going to accelerate.”
Emerson said that advances in battery technology are also helping. With a huge jar filled with AA batteries in front of him, the CEO points out that the new TAZ light’s rechargeable battery will outlast them. Still, he is not completely satisfied.
“At the end of the day, it’s still a disposable product,” he said of his light, even thought it can be recharged 500 times. “But it’s a lot better than putting hundreds of batteries into a landfill.”
Both Emerson and the company as a whole strive to be as green as can be. The company has been recognized by the statewide Waste Reduction Awards Program and has received other green business awards. It was also the 2008 California Small Business of the Year.
Thriving after a fall
The products are not cheap. While a 200-lumen bike light is just $99, a SunRay 2000 underwater video light costs $3,800. But despite the current recession, the company is doing extremely well. Emerson said it grew 36 percent in 2011 and has a 42 percent growth rate this year. It was in 2007, however, that the company faced hard times.
Until then, Light & Motion had a harder focus on camera housings, which can be a difficult business, Barnett explained. Light & Motion could spend a lot of time and money creating a product that fit the latest Cannon or Fuji, but the company might change its model soon after. Attempts to communicate with them were not very fruitful.
“They don’t care about the diving community; it’s probably less than 2 percent of their business,” Barnett said. ”And they are Japanese companies. It’s an enormous barrier — they are across the ocean, but it’s also cultural.”
In 2007, the Titan D200 was the pinnacle of all camera housings and company had invested heavily into the product, Emerson said. But when it wasn’t a commercial success, it hit the little manufacturer hard. The price tag of nearly $5,000 was just too much for too many people.
“It was a technological marvel, but too expensive for most people,” Emerson said.
Emerson, new to Light & Motion, decided the company had to restructure itself into a lighting company and stop concentrating on camera housings.
“There’s no synergy between camera housings and bike lights,” he said. “So I moved us in the direction of being a lighting company. Lighting is now our core business and we now have tremendous synergy. We use the same electronics; our research, manufacturing — everything fits together. LED lighting is dramatically changing the whole game. It’s a much more exciting place to be than scrambling to build a housing that fits the new Sony camera.”
“Excuse us,” says Barnett as we squeeze by two of his co-workers in a narrow hallway. Barnett admits he couldn’t remember their names because they were just hired.
“It’s crowded in here with all the new people,” Barnett said. “I can’t wait until we get to Marina.”
His boss, Emerson, said the company has hired 17 new workers in the past few months and may add more in the near future. That’s why, he said, the company is planning a move to the Marina Technology Cluster at the Marina Municipal Airport.
But both Barnett and Emerson said they would also miss the current site. It had no roof and needed a floor before the company could move in. A few years ago, part of the first floor flooded, but the site still has a lot of charm. Since employees can walk behind the building, put on a wetsuit and tank, and test the products underwater, it’s basically the perfect location. Monterey has more than half a dozen sites where one can dive.
“People come from Sacramento and San Francisco, stay overnight and dive. … The kelp here sustains the marine environment. There are four dive stores here in a town of 35,000. It’s a pretty special place,” Barnett said. “We still test our dive lights right outside.”
Emerson said the new site in Marina, while far away from the water, will be closer to the wonderful mountain biking trails in the former Fort Ord. He said he rarely has the time to dive anymore, but still bikes every day. He was raising one toddler already with his wife, and recently returned from China with a newly adopted 2-year-old. He said he loves visiting China, but would never move the company’s manufacturing there.
Before he came to Light & Motion, Emerson worked at K2 Skis and helped move its manufacturing to China. He said there was little economic benefit in it, but he did learn some new techniques, which he uses at Light & Motion, most of them aimed at eliminating needless middle management positions.
“I had fun in China, but the end result was sad,” he said. “I still see some of the people who worked at K2 and they say it was the best job they ever had. There’s a social consequence to a move like that. It shouldn’t be just a cost decision. Building things is good for society. You bring all walks of life together into a common purpose, under one roof. A lot of CEOs can live their whole lives and never rub shoulders with regular society. This brings all classes together towards one objective — and that’s important.”
On the first floor of the current location, workers are busy melting and molding parts. At one station, a computerized machine crafts a piece of aluminum into a mold for a camera housing, drilling holes, cutting, bending and shaping. On the second floor, an assembly line of workers put the pieces together. Off to the corner, a small team of engineers designs new products and in another room, another team prepares the merchandise for shipping.
“We have the engineering, design and production all right here,” Barnett said. “I still find it pretty funny that we’re right here on Cannery Row, the largest tourist destination in Monterey County.”