Bright idea: Illuminations rebuilds in Uptown district

Turning a former fruit and vegetable warehouse into a lighting store isn’t an easy task. But then Robert and Wendy MacRitchie have done this before.

The owners of Illuminations Lighting Solutions — one of the Island’s largest lighting fixture retailers — have acquired the former Sysco North Douglas Distributors warehouse on Boleskine Road and plan to open their new store on Jan. 2.

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It will replace the Illuminations store on Quesnel Street, near Hillside Avenue and Douglas Street, which was remodelled in 2000 from another cavernous warehouse; it was once used to distribute produce throughout the city.

The 15,000-square-foot space on Boleskine, which is just over the Victoria border in Saanich, is about the same size as the MacRitchies’ current location. But it gives the couple “a blank canvas” to better display products and serve their customers as well as increase their market share, said Wendy MacRitchie during a recent tour of the site.

It also puts Illuminations within sight of its chief competitor, Mclaren Lighting, and close to a pair of floor covering businesses and other home improvement retailers in the shadow of Uptown shopping centre. The MacRitchies say their Quesnel Street location was a bit off the beaten path and the increased exposure and traffic just off north Douglas Street near Uptown will attract more customers.

The easy part of remodelling a warehouse is it’s basically a big shell. The difficult part is turning that shell into a modern and inviting retail space, with hundreds of electrical outlets and several kilometres of wiring, displays for more than 1,000 fixtures, plus points-of-sale, storage and shipping facilities.

The MacRitchies have designed an open-floor concept with staircase and mezzanine area across the back of the interior. With advancements in efficient lighting systems and LED fixtures, they will require just a 400-amp service, instead of the 600 amps installed at its Quesnel Street store a decade ago.

The Quesnel Street location has been sold and will have a new use, said MacRitchie, who could not immediately disclose details of the sale.

With its Nanaimo location, Illuminations employs 27 staff — including the hands-on MacRitchies — and the company provides advice, design, technical assistance and support services as well as fixtures and supplies. Its clients include residential customers as well as commercial clients, interior designers, builders, developers and architects.

The MacRitchies opened Illuminations on Jan. 1, 2001 and are the third owners of the business that originated as Lightway Fixtures in 1975.

A high-tech pioneer who played key roles in computer networking and the early launch of Apple Inc. in Canada, Bob MacRitchie started the company after he and Wendy were trying to fit their new Victoria home with lights and found their experience overwhelming. “There just wasn’t adequate products,” he said .

He started the company “on paper” and put offers out to the three major lighting retailers at the time — Lightway, Quadra Lighting and Mclaren, a company with more than 50 years of history in the region and also a Nanaimo location. Lightway was the only company to sell, starting the Illuminations brand.

“Customer service, selection, the right advice ... all those things are very important to us,” said Wendy.

“It’s really the heart of our business because you want those people coming back.”

The couple have since made big investments both in the business sector and the overall community, contributing to the Victoria Opera, the SPCA’s Food and Awareness campaign, St. Vincent de Paul Society’s Christmas toy and cash drive, food banks and amateur baseball and sports teams. “It’s always been part of our plan that if you can help make a community a better place to live, businesses will thrive,” said MacRitchie.

For MacRitchie, lighting is a change of pace. But at 67, he’s still involved every day with the business. He said he’s never lost the entrepreneurial drive.

A Halifax native who moved to Vancouver as a youth, MacRitchie started Canadian Courier Services while he was at the University of B.C. and a postal strike was crippling the country. He built the courier to the third-largest in Canada by volume and sold it a few years later to Loomis (now DHL).

In 1984, MacRitchie helped to launch Apple in Western Canada. He fondly recalls early interaction with Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

“It was small enough then that I could call him and say ‘Steve, we need this and can I do that,’ ” said MacRitchie. “He was an intelligent guy, and despite what the books say, he was a very nice guy, too.”

MacRitchie was also involved in the early adoption of networking between computers and the Internet and spent about 30 years in technology sales management, managing thousands of people with ICL, Apple and Sun Microsystems, where he was executive vice-president of global sales.

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