Michael’s Lighting isn’t a household name.
You won’t find its work in the lighting department of your local hardware store. But, if you’ve been in the airport in Minneapolis or the Mall of America lately, there’s a good chance you’ve seen its handiwork.
For more than three decades, the small Winona-based lighting company has crafted custom lighting fixtures for big names like Disney, Hyatt, Ralph Lauren and Ivy League schools like Princeton, Harvard and Yale.
The company’s lights have even made it into major motion pictures, including a 50-foot ring-shaped light fixture built for the Blue Cross Blue Shield headquarters in Chicago that appeared in the 2014 Michael Bay film “Transformers: Age of Extinction.”
All of that work will now be a collector’s item, so to speak.
Michael Conway, the founder of the company who carried on the family legacy for the craft, has announced plans to close the business and retire to his farm.
Founded in 1988, Michael’s Lighting was born out of Conway’s desire to break into the custom lighting business.
By this point in his life, Conway was no stranger to the lighting industry.
He’d been working for his family’s lighting company, Winona Lighting, for several years. But, as the business began to shift toward standardized products and away from custom work, he decided to leave the family business and start his own.
He purchased two buildings on a 3.2-acre strip of land overlooking the Mississippi River and set to work.
Conway’s brother Philip, the founder of Winona Lighting, commended his brother for having the wherewithal to start a business.
“It’s a hard struggle if you’ve ever started a business and I think he did well,” he said.
Despite Conway’s decision to leave Winona Lighting and open a competing company, Philip said there was never any ill will between them.
Not long after starting his company, Conway gained notoriety after a few lucky breaks and his propensity to take an idea and turn it into reality.
“What they liked about me was they would give me an idea on a napkin and I’d give them a prototype,” he said. “That was unheard of.”
Conway said the company’s first big break was a lighting project for the Hyatt Hotel in Dorado Beach, Puerto Rico.
According to Conway, the first five years running the company was a nonstop whirlwind of back-to-back travel from New York to Chicago to Winona.
“I really lost my family for the first five years,” he said. “I would go out, sell product and come back and help make it.”
Custom lighting isn’t an easy business to get into, Conway said.
“In custom lighting, there is usually a short time frame from inception to completion,” he said. “You have to be versed in engineering, lighting performance and have a unique finishing ability.”
That’s where Conway caught another break. By building his business in Winona, he had access to an abundance of highly talented craftsmen.
“The people who you meet in this community are hard working, creative and they don’t have the distractions of the big city,” Conway said. “That’s the reason I think this company thrived for so long.
“We’ve supported a lot of families out of this company.”
Michael’s Lighting saw success for nearly three decades, but as technology evolved and the company saw some of its largest customers — shopping malls — buckle under the pressure of online marketplaces, making a profit became harder and harder.
If the economic realities weren’t enough, Conway’s heart wasn’t in it anymore — literally.
In the spring of 2018, the lifelong athlete was diagnosed with a heart condition after doctors at the Mayo Clinic discovered five holes in his heart.
“I always felt that I was going to be in this business till the day I quit working,” Conway said. “Now my doctors and my family have requested that I retire. So, it is literally with a heavy heart that I leave this business.”
What’s next for the lighting business remains an open question.
Conway is no longer taking lighting contracts and is in negotiations to sell the business, but says he hasn’t made much headway.
“Either one of two things is going to happen,” he said. “I’m either going to sell the property or I’m going to negotiate a deal to sell the business.
“I’d love to see someone develop it.”
Located at 2 Kansas St., Michaels Lighting is nestled on prime riverfront real estate, said Port Authority President Mike Cichanowski.
“I think it might fit a nice apartment complex,” he said. “It just takes someone with a vision and some money to build there.”
City councilwoman Pam Eyden said she hopes that if the property does change hands it will open up the riverfront to the development of new bike trails, something the city has been trying to get done for decades.
“I would like to see some momentum around that,” she said, adding that she was excited by the opportunities a new development might bring the community.