Q&A: Kim Johnson looks to expand smart systems profile for MHT Lighting

Oct. 4, 2022
Johnson brings her software and IoT marketing knowledge to the New York–based lighting company, which is staking its claim in Power over Ethernet solutions.

Two years ago, MHT Lighting chief marketing officer Kim Johnson made LEDs Magazine's “40 Under 40” list of up-and-coming LED and solid-state lighting professionals across commercial markets, product development, and R&D. At the time, she worked as the director of marketing for Igor. In January 2021, Johnson was promoted to vice president of marketing, continuing to represent the company at industry events, hosting webinars, and providing PoE perspectives to the end-user and integrator communities.

Speaking at Endeavor Business Media’s 2020 Strategies in Light conference, Johnson observed that information technology and operational technology were converging, which would press the lighting and controls supply chain to better educate facilities professionals on their smart-building systems options, with proven Power over Ethernet (PoE) technology as a greater part of the conversation.

After spending about seven years at Igor, Johnson joined MHT Lighting as chief marketing officer this past summer. Founded in 2009, MHT has expanded its initial line-voltage and PoE lighting solutions to software development for lighting and building controls. According to CEO Ira Horowitz, “Kim leads endeavors that elevate not just a single brand, but an entire industry,” citing her work ethic and ability to accelerate the company’s goals in smart-building automation.

Read on for Johnson’s viewpoint on the influence of company culture on career development, risk versus regret, and how she sees her evolving role of marketer as educator and translator to the connected lighting and systems target markets.

LEDs Magazine: You initially worked with large corporate brands at a marketing consulting firm, and then transitioned to startup mode with Igor. Now you’re at MHT Lighting, which has been in the lighting business for more than a decade. What directed this path?

Kim Johnson: When I begin working with Igor in 2015, it was on a part-time consulting basis and I was building my career in Chicago. As Igor grew, so did my involvement. For a while I was the only in-house marketing leader. By 2018, I was starting to feel burned out juggling two leadership roles. While I loved the firm I was working with in Chicago, it was a lot even with a team; we had global clients like Nestle, Tyson, and a couple others. Then I was coming home at night and working as Igor’s head of marketing most nights and often on the weekends. So I felt like I was always working. I was about to put in my resignation at Igor and that’s when they recruited me to take on a full-time head of marketing role.

Igor began with director-level responsibilities. It was just me, an intern, and an agency. Then I grew into the vice president of marketing role with a significant expansion of my team, which happened mostly during the pandemic. During my very early days with Igor, if they had a dozen people, that might be generous. It grew to the point later where I had seven people on my team alone in house.

LEDs: That seems serendipitous — the right opportunity at the right time. How did things change for you, going from the broader marketing world to Igor, in a more niche market and smaller organization?

KJ: I went from being in the corporate environment to working at a startup. If you let yourself get too caught up in the emotional side of a startup, you could also burn out. I’ve had people ask me about joining startups… I say it’s a wonderful opportunity, but you need to have an inner sense of calm.

I credit my ability to temper storms in business with celebrating success to my time living in Japan in my early 20s. After college, I had an opportunity to take a job living and working in Japan — a rural public school. I didn't speak any Japanese; I didn't read it. It was a fantastic cultural learning experience for me, and between Japan and my travel in southeast Asia I learned to cultivate a sense of [inner calm] when I was there.

I try my best wherever I’ve been, including at MHT now, to be a calming, steady presence for my team and colleagues, because I’ve seen people throw themselves into work when it’s great because they’re excited. And then when things are hard, they throw themselves into work. What happens if they’re always throwing themselves into work? There’s no room for the personal development and growth you need to bring your whole self to work.

It's early here at MHT for me, but I’m so excited about it. I’ve enjoyed the culture here. It is different, just the geographic differences of what cultures are like at different organizations [from the Midwest to New York–based headquarters]. But I have great colleagues, and I think that there’s a united sense of understanding that in the smart building space we have to be functional and reliable in addition to being innovative in order to compete in the market and to really push the market ahead.

LEDs: Talk to me about that, the messaging on smart buildings from MHT’s vantage point and moving the needle on adoption.

KJ: What we’re doing with smart building technology in this industry is so important — creating a sustainable future, the climate is in crisis, and we can effect change. There’s also a huge demand for better experiences in our built environment. Why go back to an office if all it does is provide shelter? You can get that at home. Instead, if our buildings and spaces are going to be relevant, they need to provide unique, engaging, or amplifying experiences that you can’t get anywhere else. Both sustainability and occupant experience are driving smart building technology adoption.

The market’s ready and looking; there’s increasing adoption and that’s exciting, but the next step is to get the word out to the right people about how the technology is working — it’s functional, reliable. It’s not visionary pie-in-the sky stuff. Real-life applications are happening now.

I’m not sure how much you know of MHT, but here’s a fun fact: It was one of the truly first PoE lighting fixture manufacturers back in the early 2010s. And the company has been supplying native PoE fixtures to the market for more than a decade.

They got their start as a lighting fixture manufacturer, and lighting is one of the most crucial tools in a smart building for occupant experience, for health and wellness. If you don’t get lighting right, you don’t have a good building experience, you know. At MHT I can say they’ve got a lot of knowledge in one of the most important systems you can have in a commercial building. Now they’ve been building this software solution to manage the connected devices through the PoE platform.

LEDs: There are still plenty of options, wired to wireless, for smart lighting and buildings. What myths, misconceptions, or concerns do companies like MHT need to address to educate people on PoE’s place in lighting and building systems?

KJ: You know, a myth I often hear about PoE…I think it relates to this debate about the protocols: People think PoE is new technology and I think it’s more appropriate to say PoE has new applications.

It’s a tried and true building infrastructure globally adopted — there's a whole industry built around supporting Power over Ethernet usage. It’s not a new industry, it’s being used in new ways. And that makes it less risky than some new protocols that people [in the facilities, building, and construction sectors] might not understand. You’re right that we hear confusion about Bluetooth versus wireless versus DALI and so on. All protocols do have their place and function, but with so many floating around right now, people aren’t sure how to approach a smart building. People ask: What are our protocols? How are we using them? Do we have more than one in a building? Can we do that?

I like to point out, PoE is already going to be in your building. That physical infrastructure has been around for a long time. It’s tried and true. It’s one way to get a lot of smart applications in your building without taking on a lot of risk of adopting multiple protocols or sensors that have batteries that need to be replaced every two years, or they could experience signal interference from concrete. A cable structure is going to be reliable. It’s going to be there for you, so put your most important smart building systems on it.

LEDs: You said that MHT developed fixtures first. How does the company plan to expand its offerings? Like you said, it’s somewhat early in your time there, but at the moment, what are you absorbing about the direction?

KJ: Part of the reason they brought me in is that their software solution is taking off, and I have experience in that from Igor. So MHT has this history in reliable fixtures for commercial buildings at scale. They do line-voltage LEDs in addition to PoE LEDs. That’s our lighting component side.

But the software side for smart building controls and management through the PoE protocol is called Inspextor [pronounced Inspector]. It’s being installed in more projects than I think anyone realizes. There’s a great opportunity for MHT to make a name for itself in the smart building industry. They have a deep understanding of hardware design and manufacturing. We have a product team aligned with the idea that we need to create reliable, useful, elegant software solutions to manage building environments. That’s an opportunity for me: There’s a lot going on at MHT and I don’t think people know that. So, my goal is to change that.

LEDs: What is interesting about the software?

KJ: When I was considering joining MHT, I requested to see a product demo before joining to try to understand that. When I saw the software in action, I realized it’s all the controls that you expect from a lighting control system. You can manage your tunability, dimmability, and energy monitoring systems. They’re building some very interesting things with sustainability reporting. They are connecting all those low-voltage devices that you might find at other companies. They’ve got integrations for access controls. They check a lot of boxes for smart building management software.

When I go to MHT’s Manhattan Innovation lab, I open an app and that’s my access key. I get into the room and the system automatically turns on the lighting to the levels I prefer. It moves the shades to the levels I like. I love natural light and the system is responsive. I’ve told it who I am in my preferences and the app responds to that. So when I walk in that office, everything sets to how I want it to be. It doesn’t change the lighting in other people’s offices. But I like the conference room shades up. So when I enter the conference room, the shades go up for me.

That’s the potential experience of a smart building — going through and seeing it in action, seeing Inspextor control the shades, the lights, the access control, lights by MHT, lights by other companies. That’s important to us. We don’t limit designers to a set number of fixtures or brands. They can pick what they want as long as it’s low-voltage LED. We have people counting and sensing in the different offices integrated through our system, and we’re continually adding sensors because that’s where the Internet of Things comes in. In my opinion, every device connected to your PoE network is a potential IoT device, now controllable through the software.

But the user experience is simple, and that’s what I think we all want from a smart building. If it’s complicated for someone walking into the building to use or understand, that’s going to make it feel like smart buildings are too hard, that it cannot function like a normal building. We’re making some pretty good headwinds in the New York City area.

It’s not just software at this company — it’s software, fixtures, services, hardware. I have an entire brand portfolio and that’s why I’m looking at things like brand architecture and identity, making sure the messaging is clear, having it lined up and taking it to the market.

LEDs: Is indoor air quality incorporated into that now? I noticed that there is a UV-C upper-air treatment system which is available now, but wasn’t sure that’s being incorporated from a holistic monitoring and building management perspective with the software.

KJ: There are environmental sensors and reporting dashboards in Inspextor that you can have for IAQ. The UV-C fixture is a part of the lighting fixture product portfolio at MHT. It’s  interesting because it runs quietly and has a 24/7 continuous airflow. It serves in places where the HVAC doesn’t run all the time or they need more localized air purification from not just COVID but the flu — different viruses.

We’ve had some large customers that are educational facilities put these in the classrooms. They can run while students are in there because the purification happens within the UV-C fixture and no one is exposed outside of the fixture. So it can run even when the space is occupied. Of course you know about solutions that require you to run UV-C lights in a room only when it’s unoccupied, mainly to sanitize surfaces but you get very little air sanitization.

In that case, everything has to work perfectly because any UV-C exposure to person can be harmful — so our shielded, upper-air fixture takes out the biggest risk. People felt safe installing it. It fits nicely in a 2×2 ceiling format. And it’s easy to install in a day or less. It’s going to remain part of our product line simply because people are more sophisticated in their understanding of what air quality means now.

LEDs: Is there any other advice or guidance you’ve taken to heart for professional and personal development?

KJ: I never like feeling regret! So there are two philosophies I carry with me, and one is from my dad. He used to say the choices you make are the right choice — not that you don’t make mistakes, but it’s about those big forks in the road. Once you make that decision, go 100% in that direction. Each time in my career I’ve had a big fork in the road, I made the choice, committed fully to that decision, and that ended up being the right choice. It always does.

That somewhat relates to this: I believe that day to day, you’ll never regret doing the right thing. If there’s a problem, you have many options. You can join in and make the problem worse, you can be silent, or you can speak up. Being silent might seem like it’s not a choice, but it is a choice. So I’ve always tried to make my choices by considering what is the right thing to do.

Get to know our expert

KIM JOHNSON is chief marketing officer at MHT Lighting. Prior to joining MHT, she worked with PoE lighting startup Igor, which won LEDs Magazine Sapphire Awards and the 2020 IoT World COVID-19 Innovation Award for its UV-based intelligent disinfection system. Johnson has experience in executing multidisciplinary branding, communications, and marketing strategies in the smart buildings and connected lighting spaces. She has a bachelor’s degree from Augustana University in South Dakota, and graduated with honors from the University of Iowa MBA program with an emphasis in marketing.

CARRIE MEADOWS is managing editor of LEDs Magazine, with 20 years’ experience in business-to-business publishing across technology markets including solid-state technology manufacturing, fiberoptic communications, machine vision, lasers and photonics, and LEDs and lighting.

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About the Author

Carrie Meadows | Editor-in-Chief, LEDs Magazine

Carrie Meadows has more than 20 years of experience in the publishing and media industry. She worked with the PennWell Technology Group for more than 17 years, having been part of the editorial staff at Solid State Technology, Microlithography World, Lightwave, Portable Design, CleanRooms, Laser Focus World, and Vision Systems Design before the group was acquired by current parent company Endeavor Business Media.

Meadows has received finalist recognition for LEDs Magazine in the FOLIO Eddie Awards, and has volunteered as a judge on several B2B editorial awards committees. She received a BA in English literature from Saint Anselm College, and earned thesis honors in the college's Geisel Library. Without the patience to sit down and write a book of her own, she has gladly undertaken the role of editor for the writings of friends and family.

Meadows enjoys living in the beautiful but sometimes unpredictable four seasons of the New England region, volunteering with an animal shelter, reading (of course), and walking with friends and extended "dog family" in her spare time.