SALT LAKE CITY — Twenty-three years ago, a man in a car pulled up to Dean Lyons, a hockey player from Canada who was attending classes at BYU and framing houses for $6 an hour to pay for them, and offered him $25 if he’d come to his house and take down his Christmas lights.
Dean said no problem.
He had them down in half-an-hour.
Man, he thought, that worked out.
Followed by another thought: I wonder what they’d pay me to put them up?
That fall, Dean shelled out $20 to print “200 of the cheapest, crappiest flyers you’ve ever seen” and spread them around Provo.
Then, while wondering if he was nuts to think anyone would pay as much as $50 to get their lights installed, came the pivotal event.
The phone rang.
It’s been ringing ever since.
• • •
The hard part was telling Val he wasn’t going to take the job teaching school.
Val is Dean’s wife. They started dating the day they turned 16. They grew up in Calgary and came to Utah to go to BYU. Val put Dean through college by teaching school, with the understanding that it was his turn once he had his degree.
Their future appeared set when Dean finally got that degree, in exercise science, and Parowan High School in southern Utah offered him a position to teach physical education.
The job offer evoked this exchange:
Val: “Do it!” (By this time the Lyons family included four daughters, with another yet to come).
Dean: “I’m not doing it.”
The reason, he explained, was because he couldn’t stop thinking about how much the part-time Christmas lighting gig had agreed with him. Getting up on ladders? No problem. Physical outdoor work? He was a hockey player. Meeting new people every day? Loved it. The idea of potentially making more money in a couple months than a year teaching school? Really loved that.
Val: "You've lost your mind."
But the standoff didn’t last long. Soon enough, Val was calling her dad in Canada and talking him into an $8,000 loan for ladders and other supplies — and just like that, Brite Nites, the name Dean decided they’d call their enterprise, was officially up and running.
What Dean and Val soon discovered was a huge demand just waiting for a supply.
The first couple of years, back in the pre-cellphone era, he remembers people chasing around neighborhoods looking for his yellow Jeep so they could hire him to climb their trees and roofs after he’d finished up on the ones he was working on.
“Lighting is like a fire, it just makes everybody happy,” he says, “And there’s a special magic about lights at Christmas.”
His strategy was, and remains: Do. Not. Skimp.
“The key is more lights the better,” he says. “Every branch fully loaded creates what we like to call the Wow! factor.”
Every year for the past two-plus decades the business has grown — from one Jeep, one crew (Dean and his brother Rob) and a couple of ladders in 1993 to 15 trucks, 15 crews and hundreds of ladders in 2017.
And that’s just in Utah. Brite Nites (britenites.com) has expanded to also include branches in San Francisco, Los Angeles (they did the Kardashians last year) and Miami, with plans for more locations in Chicago and the Northwest.
In Utah, Dean’s company does lighting for numerous towns and cities (they do Draper's famous Tree of Life, with its 100,000 bulbs), for commercial enterprises (they do The Gateway and City Creek in Salt Lake City), and hundreds of residences up and down the Wasatch Front. Many of whom are repeat customers.
He doesn’t recall any direct competitors when he started in the 1990s. Nobody was crazy enough to turn Christmas lighting into a year-round job with an office, a payroll and a warehouse big enough to store everything.
Dean admits he was self-conscious at first to tell people what he did for a living.
“You do what?!”
But he got over it.
“People think it’s easy money, but there’s a lot that goes into it,” he says. “There’s electricity, water, snow, cold weather, ladders, designing, color schemes, scheduling, making sure you bring in enough lights from China.”
The learning curve is short but steep. One year — about his fifth season in business — he blew out an entire transformer at Deer Valley in Park City. Not just a breaker. An entire transformer.
“You learn a lot as you go,” he says.
Brite Nites has many competitors these days as more professional lighting installers crop up every year.
Dean and Val take that as a compliment.
“We like to think we started the trend that the rest of the country picked up on,” Dean deadpans.
He might have a point.