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Lutron Electronics gives 69 News rare inside look

By John Craven, Reporter, JCraven@wfmz.com
Published On: Oct 09 2012 07:00:00 PM CDT
Updated On: Oct 10 2012 09:10:26 PM CDT

Lutron Electronics gives 69 News rare inside look

COOPERSBURG, Pa. -

It's created lighting for everyone from Oprah Winfrey to the Statue of Liberty, but how much do you really know about Lehigh Valley-based Lutron Electronics?  69 News got a rare inside look inside the company and the man behind it all.

While most 85 year-olds are enjoying retirement, Joel Spira still makes it into work every single day.

"It's fun," he said.  "It's too much fun."

Spira invented the light dimmer, which led to what is now one of the world's largest lighting companies, based among the farm fields of Coopersburg, Lehigh Co.

"He enjoys it; it's fun," said Spira's daughter, Susan Hakkarainen, who is also Lutron's vice president of marketing. "He's more interested in the fun of doing what's interesting, what's new, what's different, what's better."

Lutron did not start out like this.  It all began in the 1950s, with Spira testing equipment in his tiny New York City apartment.

"It was a switch for radars," he said, "and I saw that it could control large amounts of energy. And I said, 'Well, gee whiz, why couldn't it control a light bulb?'"

Spira moved the company to the Lehigh Valley in 1961. His father-in-law was publishing magnate J.I. Rodale, who donated a small warehouse in Emmaus.  From those humble beginnings, Lutron has grown into a global powerhouse with a presence in almost every major country in the world, and manufacturing facilities in several countries.

But it's still based here.

"As time went on, we found this to be a very good place, very welcoming business community, great community with local colleges," said Hakkarainen.

Today, the company's focus is on energy efficiency.  Lutron is currently retrofitting all the lights inside the Empire State Building.

"Our goals were to achieve a minimum of 60 percent energy savings," said Lutron president Michael Pessina.  "We actually achieved 65 percent."

That's partly achieved by using battery-operated wireless motion detectors.

"Twenty years ago, we would have never guessed that wireless would be so big, but it is," said Hakkarainen.

You don't have to be one of the world's tallest buildings to save money on your energy bill, though.  For less than 25 dollars, you can replace your own light switches with small motion-detecting ones.

"When it sees somebody come into a room, the lights come on to a pre-set level," said Pessina.

For Spira, who went from lighting one of New York's smallest spaces to one of its biggest, the secret to success is simple.

"We're really too dumb to know that it can't be done," he said with a laugh.

With 10 percent growth in a tough economic year, Lutron is "doing" quite well.