Patrick Harders gave up a lucrative sales job to start Enlightened Lighting in Virginia. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)
Reporter

There are people who love their jobs (count me among that fortunate group) and there are those who just love the money.

Patrick Harders, who owns a couple of Northern Virginia outdoor lighting companies, made a choice between money and fun 15 years ago.

He was a college dropout around the year 2000, pulling down $100,000 a year selling high-end Cutco kitchen knives in Charlotte.

It was pretty good money for a 25-year-old.

He lived in a nice apartment, drove a new car (a modest Taurus), had a trophy case of sales awards, flew to the Caribbean and the Rocky Mountains on junkets, and was ascending the corporate ladder.

The sky was the limit.

Then Harders walked away.

“Selling knives wasn’t my passion,” he said. “It was a means to an end. It wasn’t something I found purpose in.”

So he took his earnings, said “adios” to the knife circuit, and went back to school at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in finance.

Fifteen years later, the 41-year-old co-owns Enlightened Lighting, an outdoor lighting installation company based in Sterling, Va., that grossed $649,772 last year and is on pace to hit $700,000 in 2015. Enlightened installs outdoor lighting systems at about 200 homes a year.

“We make all our money on the installs,” Harders said.

He also owns Sterling Lighting, which sells its own line of outdoor lighting fixtures (manufactured in China). It grossed $766,976 in 2014 and should reach $1 million in revenue by the end of this year.

Although Sterling has lower margins than the installation side, it has better growth prospects. Harders expects Sterling to gross $2 million next year and upward of $10 million in four to five years.

Man-made moonlight doesn’t come cheap. Enlightened’s installations cost from $2,000 to $50,000, depending on size and complexity. The typical job is around $4,000 or so, with the price based on the number of lights.

Everything is wired underground, and Harders said his fixtures tend to be made from high-end brass.

“I love lighting,” said Harders, who perks up when he talks about his subject. “I love the creative part of it, going out, working with my hands, setting something up and transforming the way your entire property looks.”

I know nothing about lighting, except I need it to see, especially the older I get.

The key to good lighting is hiding the source of the shine so there is no glare.

“You don’t want direct light and you don’t want to see the light source,” Harders said. “You can have 100 lights, and if you don’t see the light source, you can’t tell where it’s coming from. You just want to see what you are lighting and not where it’s coming from.”

Harders grew up outside Chicago, where his mother was a homemaker and his father worked at a Nissan plant that manufactured forklifts.

He spent two years at Eastern Illinois University, studying chemistry and business, with an eye on entering the food industry.

But after two years, he ran out of money and went to work for Cutco, a privately held knife manufacturer in Olean, N.Y.

He started off in sales and eventually ran Cutco’s territory in Charlotte.

“I actually think I’m a terrible salesman,” Harders said. “But I’m a nice guy. I don’t lie. I try to be honest. I think I build a good rapport. I’m not pushy.”

The “aw, shucks” factor worked for him. He was giving motivational speeches to hundreds of Cutco salespeople by age 20, and was in line to run the company’s Georgia and South Carolina territories.

But he wanted to finish his degree, so he quit Cutco to go back to school.

He began moonlighting for an outdoor lighting company, and fell in love with it.

“I was working five to six nights a week for two years, and I got the satisfaction of designing something and seeing its effect on people. Their home and property is their number one investment.”

Over the two years, he designed 500 lighting systems. After graduation in May 2001, he paid $65,000 for an outdoor lighting franchise in Northern Virginia and moved there by July. He had never been to Northern Virginia, but he knew the demographics: thousands of suburban, upscale households and new ones sprouting up every day.

He ditched the finance career, tapped into his savings to buy a used Dodge Ram pickup truck, and began driving around Arlington, Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun counties, sticking 500 outdoor lighting fliers a day on doorsteps.

The first phone call came in at his apartment a month later. That August, he grossed $38,000.

Marketing was based on neighborhood “light envy.”

“It wasn’t around, and once people saw it, the word of mouth — neighbors, friends and family — made the business spread quickly,” he said. “Once one person saw that a house on the street had outdoor lighting, they wanted it too.”

Over the next decade, he grew his franchise into one of the parent company’s top producers, grossing $740,000 in sales his best year.

His interest in lighting grew with it. Harders began suggesting better ways to build lights and fixtures, some of which were adopted by his suppliers. But as part of his franchise agreement, he did not receive revenue from the new products that were created out of his suggestions.

After the parent company was sold around 2009, Harders decided to break out on his own, allowing his franchise contract to expire. Meanwhile, he fell into the manufacturing side of the business while searching for new products on Alibaba, which is China’s version of Amazon.com.

“I went on Alibaba looking for an LED bulb,” he said. “That led to contacts, and we started talking to factories. From there, we found opportunities to design our own fixtures.”

Harders got in a two-year court fight with his old franchiser, who sued him to enforce a noncompete clause that would have kept him out of the lighting business in the United States and several other countries.

After two years and $120,000, Harders won the case in 2014.

Harders is pushing the manufacturing business hard. He has one full-time supervisor overseeing his manufacturing, which is done in a sole-source factory near Shanghai so competitors can’t copy his designs.

“We made mistakes left and right,” he confesses, but the business is growing fast.

There are 3,500 outdoor lighting installers around the country, each one a potential customer.

He has 18 patents pending on products that he and his engineers have invented.

The two businesses, which have nine employees in all, collectively turned a profit in the neighborhood of $250,000.

Harders takes home a low-six figure salary. He probably would be making more than that if he had stayed with the knife company. But he is betting that there is huge upside ahead.

I asked him if he had any regrets.

No, he said, then added, “I threw the sales trophies in the dumpster.”