San Francisco, California
Industry: Built Environment
Products: Custom lighting fixtures and metalwork
Tony Brenta's family-owned company has fabricated high-end custom light fixtures since 1850. Its future has never been brighter.
There aren't too many family-owned companies that have been continuously operating for more than 167 years. Phoenix Day is an exception. San Francisco's venerable lighting company remains a go-to provider for interior designers looking for unique lighting pieces that are made in the U.S.A. "Our mission statement is to design and manufacture high-end lighting fixtures and provide the design community with custom lighting, furniture, and hardware," says Brenta.
Brenta is latest in a long family line that's owned the company since its inception in 1850 as the Thomas Day Co. It began in the cutlery business, then moved into plumbing, manufacturing gas fittings and coal oil lanterns. The company manufactured all of the gas lanterns for San Francisco until the devastating earthquake of 1906 changed the city -- and the business. Joseph Guglielmo took over the company when founder Thomas Day retired and renamed it Phoenix Day, symbolizing its re-emergence after the devastation and fires from the earthquake.
Guglielmo's niece and nephew, Pat and Lawrence Fambrini, took the reigns in the 1950s until their nephew, Brenta, and his wife, Joan, took over Phoenix Day in 2008. "I started here when I was about 12 or 13," says Brenta. "I always needed a summer job and I approached my aunt and uncle for work. I got exposed to the shop after a stint in the hotel and restaurant business. I came back and have loved it ever since."
The company's approach to lighting design is still the same as it was in its early days, manufacturing all of its custom pieces by hand. "This is what makes Phoenix Day unique," says Brenta. "We are still a hands-on company who work with great craftsmen." Many of the company's employees have been with them for 10 years, he adds. "I typically recruit people with various strengths. Some are welders, others specialize in sheet metal or machining. I try to keep them trade-specific and eventually they'll all learn from on-the-job training."
While the custom manufacturing side hasn't changed much, the company's foray into high-volume production pieces has challenged Brenta and his team in recent years. "One of our biggest challenges is having a shop that does custom work, and another side that works on some mass-production pieces," says Brenta. "We have to juggle people around at times, taking some off projects on our custom side to help with the production pieces. It's always a challenge."
Nevertheless, the company sees growth in both sides of the business, and is developing enhanced capabilities for each. In the meantime, Phoenix Day continues to work with designers, allowing them to come into the facility with an idea, then check on the progress and make changes along the way as the product is manufactured. "In the Bay Area, there are so many great designers," says Brenta. "They come in with a concept and we take their inspiration to make a CAD drawing. The designers have the ability to make changes along the production process, so they tweak things here and there until they end up with a piece we're all happy with."
As with the move away from gas lamps, the company has adapted as lighting technology has changed. "Definitely lighting has changed over the years," says Brenta. "For example, incandescent bulbs are on the way out and more user-friendly LEDs are in. For us to design around LED is exciting, and we feel we're at the forefront. I think we have an edge on everybody else because of our past. We have a history of building great lighting fixtures and we can adapt new lighting technologies to our designs."
The future looks “bright”, and Brenta looks to his son-in-law and the company's creative director, Landon Gellert, to someday carry on its traditions. "I hope I can stay on to work on my little bench and play around the shop," says Brenta. "My son-in-law sees how we do production and has lots of ideas. We've survived, however, because of our capabilities. We're successful because of the diversity in our custom line. So in the end, we're confident we'll have the capabilities to do both."
Challenges: Managing the shift to high-volume production. "Phoenix Day's history is a great story and the marketing and advertising have allowed us to last and thrive in this market," says Brenta. "As we determine the company's future direction, I know we'll be able to cope with increasing mass-production pieces and continue to thrive on custom pieces, too."
One of Brenta's production challenges is using the same employees working on custom pieces to finish other production-line products. "Sometimes they get caught up in one of the departments such as finishing." says Brenta. "Things can get jammed up."
Opportunities: Phoenix Day is also providing restoration services on original pieces made over the years, such as the lighting fixtures in San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House, the Palace Hotel, the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite Valley, and other prominent buildings across the country. "We just finished restoring some of the original pieces in the Ahwahnee Hotel," says Brenta. "It was so much fun to work on those original fixtures."
He also sees growth potential in the mass-production sector, where many designers look to special and high-end pieces that can be made in large quantities. And many don't like to purchase items made overseas.
Needs: With a future that may include creating high-end pieces in larger production runs, Brenta sees a need to move into a larger facility at some point. For now, the company is thriving with its current facility and a host of designer showrooms across the country.