Feb. 15 2012 12:59 AM
Rick Henninger is a turnaround specialist. A business veteran at 63, he loves to find companies that are on the decline but still full of potential. He’s worked his magic with companies in the arenas of telecommunications, defense support, and hazardous waste disposal. Now, he’s turned his attention to a new endeavor—revitalizing the venerable lighting firm, Nightscaping.

“Turnarounds are challenging,” he says, “and Nightscaping is no exception. However, I am very encouraged. We burnt some bridges and scorched even more, in our past, but I saw the product—more importantly, I saw the people working there. I knew it would be a challenge, but if we succeeded, it would be sweet success.”

Henninger is not new to challenges and hard work. He learned the hard way, by doing. The son of a career Marine, he was born in 1948 in Memphis, Tennessee. every time his father received a new assignment, the family went along. As a Marine brat, he travelled the world.

While in high school, he became a member of the ROTC rifle team, as well as the drill team. It was the Vietnam era and Henninger got caught up in it. When he graduated high school, he joined the Marines. At the age of 24, he became one of the youngest gunnery sergeants in the history of the Marine Corps.

After serving for nine and a half years, Henninger decided to try civilian life. The experience and knowledge in electronic technology he gained while in the Marines helped him make the transition. He was able to leverage his experience as an electronics technician and took a job with Rockwell. He worked on the Polaris submarine and travelled the world as a technical support representative on subs. Along the way, he went back to college, but kept changing majors because his career kept getting in the way.

Henninger then moved to Computer Automation as a product manager. eventually, he got his first management position. Soon after, the president walked into Henninger’s office and said, “Gee, we don’t have managers at this company without degrees,” and walked out. Henninger took the hint; he enrolled at the University of Redlands and got his B.S. in business administration, with a concentration in marketing.

The subject of his thesis was a business plan for his company, showing how it could become a dominant player in the defense testing industry. The president of Computer Automation saw the thesis and told him, “Go execute your plan.”

That changed the entire company from a predominately telecommunications company to a defense support company, and revenues doubled in 18 months. When the company decided it wanted to move its headquarters to Texas, Henninger decided not to move with them.

In 1993, he took a position with Norris Industries, to execute a startup in the hazardous waste industry.

This was a new area for Norris; they were charting new waters. Henninger managed and created the largest liquid hazardous waste recycling facility in the state of California. He was promoted to president and general manager of Norris environmental Services.

But in the corporate world, businesses are like property; after building up a division, sometimes it is sold. Norris sold this division to U.S. Filter, then Siemens bought U.S. Filter. Shortly thereafter, they decided to put in European management.

Henninger left the firm, went back into the electronics industry and became a consultant. In this role, he encountered an opportunity to take over a company that was failing. He managed to turn it around, and his reputation spread.

During this time, the founder of Nightscaping passed away. Bill Locklin was acknowledged to be the ‘granddaddy of landscape lighting.’ He started making landscape lighting fixtures out of tin cans and electrified them with low voltage.

Locklin saw the future; he envisioned where landscape lighting was going. From nothing, the landscape lighting market has grown to a $500 million business.

Toward the end of Locklin’s life, he delegated more authority to others, and the quality of the products—as well as the marketing strategy—changed. Competition came into the market; Nightscaping began losing market share. With Locklin’s passing, Nightscaping was floundering.

Locklin’s wife, Lavesta, investigated the possibility of selling the company. At one point, she was so stressed, and business was so bad, she was thinking of closing its doors. However, she really wanted to keep Bill’s legacy alive. Realizing the circumstances, the staff volunteered to work for a month without pay. By cutting the overhead, the company was able to survive.

Lavesta Locklin was then introduced to Henninger. After a number of meetings, Henninger decided to take the challenge and try to turn this company around. “When I met the people and saw the products, I said to myself, ‘This just can’t die.’ I thought the company could be turned around, and I want to be the one to bring the Nightscaping brand back to the forefront again,” Henninger remarked.

“Although the competition has increased 20-fold since the heyday of Nightscaping, I know we can get back there. We have to manufacture more robust products and get away from the tinker-toy mentality that was here before,” said Henninger. “We look at the competition, and although their products look nice, when we open them up, they’re not so nice. If we can offer a competitive line in price and quality, we’ll achieve the successes we’re striving for. The real challenge is, can we do that without bringing it in from China?” “We are totally committed,” Henninger continued. “We’ve just introduced a new line of products, manufactured here in the u.S., made of the best quality—both in materials and workmanship.”

“I believe the marketplace wants us to come back.”

Can Rick Henninger turn Nightscaping around? With a background of starting at the bottom, and touching all the bases along the way to reach the top, Nightscaping could be a home run.

Henninger sees the future and loves the challenge.