April 15 2014 03:13 PM

“All I ever wanted to do was manufacture something that I could sell, and to see it say, ‘Made in U.S.A.,’” said Dan Cunado, president of Vista Professional Outdoor Lighting. “I’m overwhelmed; this is a dream come true.”

Cuban-born, he, his parents, and his two sisters were granted political asylum and settled in New York City. To help support the family, Cunado recalls that his first job in the United States was working in a restaurant, washing dishes. He was 14 years old. In 1969, the family moved to Southern California. When Cunado finished school, he became an electrician and went to work for an electrical contractor. It was during this time that he befriended Ron Smith, a landscape architect. Only two manufacturers specialized in low-voltage landscape lighting back then, and not many contractors knew how to install it. Smith asked Cunado if he would take on a lighting project. “I was always fascinated with the idea of manufacturing or building something that I could sell,” he said.

Cunado went to a wholesale electrical supply house to price out the materials.

It came out to $21,000, which Cunado thought was pretty steep. He felt that he could make it for less, and asked Smith if he would submit some samples; Smith agreed. Cunado went home after work that day and cut some tubing in the garage of his home. That was in 1984; it was the beginning of Vista Professional Outdoor Lighting.

Cunado now had a part-time business. After four years of working out of his 600-square-foot garage, his wife Martha protested that she wanted the garage back. Always the conservative, Cunado rented 800 square feet, an area not much bigger than his garage. Coming from an electrical background, Cunado called on electrical supply stores. “Somewhere along the way, I thought that perhaps I market. That’s when I decided I was taking the product to the wrong should look into the irrigation and landscape market. At that time, I was working on a project and every time I went to that job, I saw a sign that said, ‘Irrigation Supply’ or ‘Landscape Supply’.

“Every day I went by, I thought to myself, well maybe next time I’ll bring samples to see if they’d be interested. One day, while I was on my way to work, I walked in there and brought in my samples. That’s where I met John Theisens from Carson Supply. John was very upfront with me and said, ‘I like your product. It’s nicely built, but you have to understand, we’re already carrying three other lines. I won’t carry another line, but I’ll tell you what: if you leave your samples, and if anybody asks, I’ll let you know.’ I left early in the morning and by the afternoon when I got back home, I had several messages from John, saying, ‘Where are you? I have people asking about your product.’”

“You can imagine what that meant to me,” said Cunado. “John just said, ‘Yeah, you know, people walked in here and saw your lighting product; I’ve got a little order here for you.’ And that was the real, true beginning of Vista Lightning. Carson Supply became the first distributor that Vista had.” By 1992, Cunado finally quit his day job, and threw himself into his new business. He had to succeed; there was no turning back.

Around the same time, Cunado met Cruz Pérez, an undergrad in college who loved working with wood. When they met, “We came up with an arrangement where I was making displays for him,” said Pérez. Vista became one of Pérez’s first clients when he graduated from law school.

“I was outside counsel for Vista for about five years,” Pérez said. “One day, over a glass of wine, I ended up joining the company as general counsel and vice president of sales and marketing. That was twelve years ago. I’ve been there ever since.”

When Pérez started to make the fixture displays, he caught sight of, and later married, Cunado’s sister-in-law, and they became brothers-in-law.

So how does one go from lawyering to marketing?

“When I started my law firm, I focused on small to medium-sized companies. Dan’s was probably an ideal type of firm,” said Pérez. “We focused on the business development side, so we did a lot of stuff with long-term planning and longterm vision. That, to me, was very important. I saw the marketing failures of other small companies, so the opportunity of going into marketing here was more exciting and more interesting to me than anything else.”

All during this time period, Cunado was raising his family. Like any family business, the children grew up in the business by virtue of listening to the conversations at the dinner table. Daughter Sandra, 33, graduated from California State University, Northridge, with a degree in business administration, and has been with the company for the last eight years. She heads up the human resources department, overseeing Vista’s 240 employees.

Son Danny Cunado is also involved in the business. “Actually, it’s been a part of my life since I was a kid. The only time I got to hang out with my dad was when I went to work with him. I remember that every summer vacation during high school, I was here working some job or another. So over the years, I’ve worked in almost every part of the company. It wasn’t until I graduated college that I started full time, getting really familiar with every step of the business.”

Danny graduated from the University of Southern California in 2011, with a major in economics. He is currently a project manager.

The proud father beams, “He’s also fascinated with the company. This has been part of his life all along; he loves this. And when he finished college, first thing he wanted to do was to come and be part of the company.” His youngest daughter, Rebecca, is still in school.

So where is the future for Vista?

“Pretty much what we’ve been doing for the last thirty years: providing this industry with products and solutions,” Cunado says.

Cunado doesn’t consider himself a workaholic, but he still goes into the office seven days a week. Although he loves classical music and opera, he says, “My hobby is my vocation; my passion is my company. I live, eat and breathe landscape lighting, and dream of how I can contribute to make it better.”