Neither one of us had any background in owning our own retail store,” Kathie Knapp said one recent Saturday afternoon while juggling an interview and waiting on customers at The Lite Company.
Kathie and her husband, Mike, have owned and operated The Lite Company lighting and furniture store, located on North 4th Street, for nearly six years.
Mike Knapp, an engineer by training, was a 20-year veteran of W.L. Gore & Associates when he was approached by The Lite Company’s former owners about coming to work for them with the intent to one day sell him the business. Mike’s entrepreneurial spirit kicked in and he made the leap.
He served as the store’s general manager, learning the retail ropes, for four years be- fore purchasing the mainstay Flagstaff business, established in 1979, in October 2005.
“It’s probably a lot harder than I thought it would be,” said Mike of the experience. Yet, he also believes as a business owner he is “able to make a difference.”
The couple’s original plan was that Kathie would continue her work at Northern Arizona University because "one of us was going to keep a higher salary and benefits," she said, laughing.
But soon after they became owners, Mike realized he needed her on board , too, because their skill sets complemented each other's: Mike knew lighting and lighting design but Kathie had the "creative side" – the eye for buying furniture and designing a showroom and also how to manage employees. They quickly became a husband-and-wife team with the goal of creating the kind of work environment that's respectful of its employees -"they don't work for us, they work with us," is the company's philosophy.
The Knapps are also deeply committed to giving back to the community, motivated to lend financial and in-kind support “where there is great human need,” Kathie said. To that end, they donate to a number of nonprofits.
Since they took over the company, the couple has expanded the showroom to include more furniture and home décor. Kathie describes the store’s aesthetic as a “rustic elegance.”
“If something’s big across the country, it won’t go over well in Flagstaff,” she added. The Lite Company’s clientele are looking for a “timeless beauty,” not trends.
Much of the furniture in the 10,000-square-foot showroom is American-made, and lots of it by the Amish, who are known for their simple, elegant designs. Kathie said the store strives to sell pieces that owners are going to pass down to their grandkids.
The lighting business caters to individuals as well as contractors needing solutions for entire homes. It is a full-service operation: the company also handles repairs. They work with more than 80 different lighting vendors and products range from simple light- ing for track homes to high-end, custom products.
The recession has hit The Lite Company as hard as it has other construction and retail-related businesses. The Knapps haven’t had to lay off any employees, but they also haven’t replaced those who have left.
This past January, during one of the biggest snowstorms to hit Flagstaff in years, a good portion of the business’s roof collapsed. The store was closed for two and a half months while repairs were made, and the Knapps were fearful that they might not survive.
But the Flagstaff community stepped up. Contractor Tom Ramsey helped prop up the roof the day of its collapse and was the contractor hired by the building owner to make repairs.
And customers returned to the store’s grand re-opening sale.
“It’s still tight and it’s still really hard, but after that first 60 days, we realized we’re going to make it,” Kathie said.
“And everybody’s kind of in the same boat,” said Mike.
Kathie added, “It has been very humbling to see the support of the Flagstaff community. It was enough to make you cry.” FBN