Fast-growing manufacturing firm moving to the Town of Ulster

RBW partners: Theo Richardson, Charles Brill and Alex Williams. (Photo by Dean Law)

Brooklyn-based lighting manufacturer RBW Studio plans to purchase a 98,000-square-foot building on Boice’s Lane in the Town of Ulster where it will employ 50 people doing office and manufacturing work. The deal is very close to completion, and there appear to be no major obstacles to its consummation.

“We believe in the power of light to create atmosphere,” says the RBW website. “Light can fill a room with a sense of optimism.”

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Some 35 jobs will be transferred from New York City locations to Ulster County, and 18 more, mostly new employees from within the region, are projected to be hired within the first three years of operations.

As the post-pandemic economy evolves, most American businesses are developing plans for what they hope will be a buoyant recovery The new normal, quite different from the old normal, it is predicted, will be built on new foundations.

According to RBW, the company is in the 1815th position in the Inc. 5000 survey, making it the highest-ranking New York manufacturer

The list of available jobs in Kingston on the RBW website includes Director of Product Operations. The qualifications required for the position give some idea of the firm’s scope of ambition at its new location:  “… You will lead our team through an immense change as we enhance our manufacturing HQ to Kingston and embrace new technologies. We have an Industry 4.0 roadmap towards an automated enterprise and we are starting up a new 80,000 sq ft facility….  As Director of Product Operations, you will be a leader and team builder who sets the strategic operational agenda for the organization.”

RBW pays its workers (”team members”) more than the regional average in all categories, according to its application for standard reduced taxes (UTEP) to the Ulster County Industrial Development Agency. The firm’s benefits package and pay scale are both exceptionally robust. Median annual salary is about $85,000. 

The IDA held a public hearing on the RBW application on Tuesday, April 6. No one but IDA staff and the applicants and their attorney showed up. The lighting firm is seeking a package of standard tax exemptions worth about $1.5 million over 15 years, reports IDA chief executive officer Rose Woodworth. 

RBW is a B corporation, a non-governmental designation of about 4000 member firms worldwide that promise to conduct an assessment every three years of social and environmental performance, to voluntarily consider the interests of all stakeholders (not just shareholders), and to offer a higher degree of public transparency of their activities. “We are a different type of business,” said RBW managing director Charles Brill. “We are giving back to the community.”

The 521-559  Boice’s Lane building, the back half of the United Healthcare processing center at the intersection of Enterprise Drive, has two governmental tenants occupying small amounts of space, Ulster County government and Taconic Developmental Disabilities Services. The building, owned by a Liverpool, New York landlord, has been otherwise unoccupied for the past several years.

RBW started out 14 years ago as Rich Brilliant Willing, the name being a play on words on the last names of its three Rhode Island School of Design-educated founders, Theo Richardson, Charles Brill and Alex Williams. 

RBW grew in size and complexity. Its Brooklyn manufacturing space was crowded and inefficient. It established a showroom in Manhattan and took storage space in New Jersey. As it struggled to meet diversified customer needs, RBW decided to take a closer look at its alternatives for the future.

Charles Brill took the lead. RBW would look for manufacturing space within 100 miles of New York City. 

It was Dutton Kingston architect Scott who suggested commercial broker Joe Deegan show Brill the Boice’s Lane property “Charles is an unusual find,” said Dutton, who will serve as the architect for the project. “He’s incredibly focused and driven, but he has a mellow cadence.” 

Brill liked what he saw. The space was large enough for RBW’s needs, but badly needed generous doses of tender, loving care.  Located across from a huge and vacant ex-IBM parking lot now controlled by county government, the location would be appropriate for RBW’s purposes. Brill also liked Kingston’s small-city feel, its sense of community.

One person on RBW’s payroll has long had a second home in Esopus. Another had recently bought a house in Woodstock. 

Brill brought in his partners and team members to check the place out. Most of them approved. Many expressed an eagerness to relocate.

As Joe Deegan happily put it, “What’s not to like?” 

Ulster town supervisor Jim Quigley sings a different song. He is disgruntled about RBW. He says that he and Brill had an agreement that the base assessment of the property would not be reduced upon sale, and that Brill then “went in a different direction.” Added Quigley, “He may know about lighting, but he doesn’t know about real estate.”

Brill expressed surprise at Quigley’s charge. His first instinct, Brill said, was to cancel the option to move to Ulster and go somewhere else. The deal is so close to completion that he’s unlikely to do that.

“Having the town supervisor bent out of shape and not supportive of this deal was not our intent,” Brill said. 

There had been no deal, he said. He acknowledged he was not an expert in real estate, but took for granted that the local assessor had the professional skills to value property according to its fair market value. RBW has had an option to buy the Boice’s Lane property for $1,362,500 and expects its renovation project to cost $5.804,000  (with a large contingency allocation). The present market value in the 2021 town assessment book is $1,790,000.

Assessor Dan Baker’s new taxable value for the building after the proposed renovation will be $2.3 million, said Brill. The IDA inducement to RBW will reduce that number over the 15-year period of the uniform tax exemption. 

Baker did not return a phone call for comment. 

In the face of a declining market for commercial real estate in the Town of Ulster, Quigley has fought a tenacious battle to preserve higher commercial valuations rather than to transfer a larger portion of the tax load to residential properties and individual taxpayers. In this struggle, he has won some court victories and lost some.

The accomplishment of “the immense change” to Industry 4.0 is key to RBW’s strategy of revolutionizing operations and products. Like the Council of Industry of Southeast New York and other regional groups, RBW realizes the importance of digital transformation to the business survival of manufacturing organizations.  

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A shift toward democratized technology is under way. Technology capabilities are being put into people’s hands, usable without highly specialized skills. It’s not about a single tool or service, but about the culmination of an array of technologies, according to Accenture, the accounting firm turned management consulting firm. Natural language processing, low-code platforms, and robotic process automation (RPA) are a few of the capabilities and services making technology more accessible. They each have different and unique applications, but all are bringing the innovative power of machines to human hands.

“Without having to request major information technology projects, people can create a custom dashboard for a group’s finances, build an app to approve, and automatically fulfill purchase orders, and much more,” says Accenture. “Suddenly, the ability to create technology solutions belongs to people all across the enterprise.”

This fourth industrial revolution, known as Industry 4.0, takes the emphasis on digital technology from recent decades to a new level with the help of interconnectivity through the Internet of Things (IoT), access to real-time data in the supply chain, and the introduction of cyber-physical systems. “Industry 4.0 offers a more comprehensive, interlinked and holistic approach to manufacturing. It connects physical with digital, and allows for better collaboration and access across departments, partners, vendors, product and people,” explains the website of the Epicore Software Corp. “Industry 4.0 empowers business owners to better control and understand every aspect of their operation, and allows them to leverage instant data to boost productivity, improve processes and drive growth.”

Many lighting designers sell lighting manufacturers licenses to their work products, and some designers do manufacturing for other lightings. While not ruling out either of those options, Charles Brill is focused on how Industry 4.0 could transform the relationship between RBW and its customers. Deeper collaborations mean more business and continued growth. 

The last year has brought a shift toward digital channels and at-home delivery. This change has forced companies to rethink strategies to sustain their brands, differentiate their offerings, and enhance customer loyalty.  To remain competitive, it’s strategically imperative to provide customer service and timely delivery.

That’s what RBW will be doing in the facility on Boice’s Lane.