When PR Lighting reached its 30th birthday in 2014, this landmark event passed without all the self-aggrandisement you might expect from a Western company. But even devoid of all the hoopla, it was a real milestonein Chinese lighting development. To give some perspective, aside from being immortalised by George Orwell, 1984 was notable for falling just one year afterthe inauguration of the SIB technology show in Italy, which broke new frontiers, and arguably launched the modern kinetic motorised lighting industry to the wider world.
Yet it was to be 11 years (yes, you heard correctly)before Dave Liang, the founder of Pearl River, as it was originally known, camewest to Frankfurt’s Prolight+Sound, and broke its insularity.
I recall visiting the 1997 Palm Expo in Beijing, just months before the return of Hong Kong to China, and eight years after TiananmenSquare and domino collapse of Communism in Europe - when the Chinese technology industry was one of primitivism and (breathe the word) plagiarism. Without theexposure to much other than Western trade magazines for theirinformation, and possibly confused by the glut of sealed beam GE4515 Par 36 pinspots seemingly migrating from the American automotive transport industry to the first automatic whirligig beam lighting on the ceilings of dancehalls, Pearl River embarked on its own development programme.
The stage lighting market was still in its infancy, populated by a few inchoate anufacturers. An industry was yet to formaround this and apart from stage lighting being sold to some of the big hotels,there was little activity. But, then Dave happened to pass by a shop and saw some stage lighting and mirrorballs in the window.“It was very simple but I did some investigation and realised the market was potentially huge and there was a good opportunity for us. In 1984 there was nothing like that.” Dave had previously run his own business for commercial interior decorative lighting; while his focus was on sales, brother Bill was more engineering based, working for a piano company. But both were heavily involvedin the early product design for the new Pearl River Lighting.
Setting up the operation in a tiny 1,000 sq metre workshop in Downtown Guangzhou with a staff of between 20-30, the Liangs quickly focussed on the products the market needed -producing scanners and mirrorballs. Dave proved he was a quick learner.“Everything started with the mirrorball for me - that’s what caught myattention,” he said. “But at the same time I conducted a series ofinvestigations into what else the market required. International influence inChina was minimal and we became one of the first companies in China to developthe scanner. Using the 24V 250W halogen source they developed their firstintelligent light, the PR-988 scanner.
So, how did the story begin? For the first five years,the company experienced gradual, if unspectacular, growth. Graduating from halogensources through discharge (HMI/Metal Halide), after producing the firstintelligent light in China, products like the Orlando Scan 1200 moving mirrorfixture showed its ability to compete with the best of them on the internationalstage. Slowly, an industry started to develop in China.
As previously stated, the first time Dave attended aninternational trade show was in 1995. “I exhibited at the Frankfurt show andour booth was visited by many Western companies who later became OEM customersfor PR,” he said. “By attending the show, I was able to understand the needs ofthe international market and customers.” He also noticed how advanced companieslike Clay Paky and Martin were with their technology. “The distance between ourtechnologies was a big surprise to me and I realised there was still a lot forus to learn.” Undaunted, by 1995, he believed that his company could continueto expand and become regarded as a serious player in theinternational marketplace, on the journey to becoming the sought-after brand itis today.
ThatFrankfurt visit had been something of a Damascene experience for Dave and, bythe following, year the company was ready to start an OEM programme and meetbuyers from international companies. “We started to sell to Western companies,”Dave remembered. But, more significantly, he realised that in order to gainglobal credibility, they needed to importtheir own Western influence early in the new millennium. At the same time, theydecided to turn from OEM in favour of promoting their own brand globally, as itwould guarantee a more secure future. The catalyst was probably BritishLighting Designer, Paul Dodd. He was one of several key people recruited fromItalian company, FAL - among them, Antonio Papandrea, as Sales Manager, andAngello Tacchi, who was in charge of R&D, all of whom helped the companydevelop an international face. At the same time, former High End SystemsTechnician, Steve Tulk, joined the company in 2001, followed in 2004 by ErnieArmas, who joined initially as Sales Manager, working with experienced Head ofDepartment, Lin Hong. His influence has been massive and, later asInternational Sales Director, he helped to open up both the Americas and Asianmarkets.
2004 was also notable as being the year that Pearl River changed its international brandimage by truncating the name to ’PR Lighting’.
“2004 was a very good year for us and by dropping the‘Pearl River’ we started to attract more of an international image; we werestarting to get recognised as a global brand, selling through a network ofdistributors,” stated Dave.
“By importing skilled people from the West who knew the international market we started to get introduced to more people at tradeshows; this helped build confidence in the brand and get us noticed.”
“It was a common perception with people in the West thatthey thought all we did was to copy - but the recruitment of Western personnelhelped us to enter the international markets with greater credibility.
“The only way to change people’s ideas was to keepimproving our products and our technology - and that’s really been our focussince the beginning,” said Dave. As the company continued to grow, it needed toenlarge capacities. The real landmark came with the third HQ move - arriving atthe new 50,000 sq metre PR High-Tech Park in 2007. “Every move was a symbol of great development for PR, in both technology and productivity,” says Dave. “Butthe new industrial park was the real turning point, allowing us to develop products that the market really took to, like the XL series and PR 5000 series.”
Yet their professionalism had already been recognised asfar back as 1999. That was the year that PR, together with the Chinese Government offices responsible for the stage lighting industry, drafted the ‘Industry Standard in China’, and PR was the only the manufacturer to be invited to collaborate.
Along the way, its products have been specified for many high profile projects: the ceremony for the return of Macao, 50th Anniversary of the Peoples Republic of China, Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Chinese National Games and, of course, the thrilling Opening and Closing ceremonies for the 2008 Beijing Olympics at the Bird’s Nest - an unforgettable event in the pantheon of the spectacular.
That showcase used more than 200 PR Century Color 2500 fixtures and XL Washes to constantly colour change the facade, showing that by the end of that decade, Chinese lighting could mix it alongside the best in theworld. This observation puts a particular smile on Dave’s face as he realisedthat PR Lighting could finally keep pace alongside the global lighting giants.“In a competitive marketplace, we were chosen because our products were fully qualified and fit for purpose - and this was decided by the designers themselves.They required rigorous testing and I was very happy with the way our products were chosen as it showed the extremely high standards our product had risen to.This was important for the PR brand as it helped us to achieve a higher status and recognition.”
Looking at the company 32 years on, while Bill Liang hasmoved across to focus on the PR Group’s commercial property business - althoughremaining on the main PR Lighting board as a key decision maker - Dave is thespearhead, generally seen holding court at international trade fairs.
He is able to reflect on having overseen some real product breakthroughs along the way. “We were one of the first companies todevelop the LED moving heads, with the XRLED 1200 Spot, which produces the same output as a 1,200W discharge - as well as other LED units.” In fact back in2009 they had come out with arguably the brightest LED moving head in themarket at the time, with the XLED 590, using Osram’s powerful new Diamond Dragon LED. Coincidentally, that was also the yearthat Ernie Armas moved to China and moved up to the role of Sales Director.
PR Lighting’s growing confidence in its own technologies and electronic design expertise has led them from the more forgiving world ofrental staging into the high tariff, precision requirements of TV / studiolighting, where colour temperature, rendering indexes, flicker free operation andsilent running are paramount. As a consequence of this market expansion, thelast five years have seen an average 30% year on year growth and in 2012 amassive 70% increase in turnover over the previous year (largely on the back ofthe phenomenal success of the PR5000). Today, PR Lighting’s workforce has grownto 800 personnel in Guangzhou. “There have been three major factors in this growth,” believes Dave. “The market demand increased, our sales network becamemore complete and the quality of the products improved.”
In summary, he said: “I am extremely happy with the way PR Lighting has developed and we will continue that development. Today PR Lighting is the only company in China that exports with its own brand and weare confident will be able to maintain leadership in the industry through our many years of experience.”
Reviewing the various milestone years, he effortlessly alights on key dates. “In 1996, we started to enter the international market, in2000, we started to promote theP R brand, in 2007, we moved to the new High-TechPark and, in 2008, the Beijing Olympic Games.
“ The PR brand has now been accepted on manyinternational riders, and is number one in the domestic market. But although wehave been recognised as an international leader we constantly strive to take PRLighting to a higher level in product development on the international market. “PRLighting is more than an assembly base, we are a professional lighting supplier with many technical advantages.”
The end of the global recession clearly saw a shift in the balance of power towards China when it came to entertainment and display technology. But in the wider context, Dave points to household names like ZTE and Huawei - along with local manufacture of Apple and the many luxurious cars made in China - to illustrate the respect now paid to Chinese manufacturing.
As for PR Lighting, the company has already made a huge investment in its own industry’s future, setting up cooperation with design training programmes with institutions and universities.
So, finally, what ambitions remain unfulfilled, otherthan a constant relentless drive to bring PR Lighting to higher international recognition?
What will the next move be? Once you realise that he is in the process of creating a new nine-building High-Tech Park, designed to safeguard PRLighting’s future growth, the answer becomes obvious.
The objective to this endeavour is to take Chinese entertainment technology to a higher level still, where companies from similar industries will interact in one space. “Some buildings we will be dedicated to offices, lighting and sound, stage design and also stage production.
“At the same time, a training centre will be created where different talents from the industry will be trained.”
In other words, China’s very own Production Park.