The Idea Man: Travis Freeman Grows, Expands Holiday Lighting Business

The traditional image for inspiration as a light bulb has never been more apt than when applied to Travis Freeman.

Not only has the 50-year-old entrepreneur built a twinkling empire through his holiday lighting company Brite Ideas Decorating, but he’s also expanded it to a Colorado office and branched into marketing his own brand of holiday lights. All of which, by the way, comes as the serial entrepreneur continues to dabble in real estate and the restaurant business.

Even with all of that, the light bulb of inspiration continues to go off for the entrepreneur, a 2003 Midlands Business Journal 40 Under 40 honoree and father of four.

“I always say if you’re going to do something every day, do something you love because you’ll excel at that and have fun doing it,” he said. “To me, if you have that, it’s not a job. You’re just blessed to be doing something every day that you love.”

Freeman launched the company in 1990 as an offshoot of his landscaping business to help fill the winter months. Decorative lighting quickly eclipsed the landscaping venture and, in the time since, Brite Ideas Decorating has grown to serve a long roster of residential, commercial and civic clients.

In just two years, the company expanded from its original lighting options and developed the patented Linkable Lights and many other custom pieces. By 1998, Brite Ideas began offering distributorships for its products, signing up 15 in the first year. Today, Freeman puts that number at more than 600 distributors nationwide, making Brite Ideas one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of specialized out- door holiday lighting.

Tony Gowan, parks and facilities director for the City of Papillion, is a longtime client and friend. He said he saw Freeman’s expertise and drive from the very start of their working together in 2008 when Freeman walked Gowan, then brand new to his role, through the first Winter Wonderland city display.

“I think the thing that jumps out at me with Travis is, he’s always willing to
try new things to move his business to greater heights,” Gowan said. “I saw that when he moved from his location on Farnam Street out to the location at 150th and Blondo in the old grocery store or opening the distributor site down in Atlanta and, of course, getting involved in the production aspect with the facility in China where he actually makes his own product.

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“All those things show innovation. It shows a great knowledge of the field he is in to be able to attack and to run offshoots of what used to be a fairly small business into making it now global for him. That just really appeals to me. I’m so proud of him.”

Freeman said the decision to expand into manufacturing was a natural one, given the narrow window for holiday lighting installs and the wide disparity of decorating tastes from region to region in the country. Manufacturing lights helps even out revenue over a bigger swath of the year, he said.

“Christmas is 90% of the decorating business,” he said. “If you look geographically, most of our sales come from the Northeast and places with different seasons. It’s still not as big in California as it is in Colorado, New Jersey and New York where people do more decorating during holiday months.”

Freeman’s other entrepreneurial passion is as a restauranteur.

“I’ve always owned real estate, since I was 20,” he said. “I
had an opportunity to buy land at 72nd and Dodge, which then we bought Fudruckers at that time. Another friend of mine wanted to open a restaurant with me, so we bought a building at 6913 Maple which is now Mantra.”

His longtime association with the restaurant business also widened his circle of mentors and advisors. Willy Thiesen, founder of Godfather’s Pizza, said he was impressed with Freeman from the start and continues to serve as a mentor and friend.

“Travis’s strategy is not ‘I hope I get this done.’ Hope is not a strategy for him,” Thiesen said. “We’re alike in that sense; I expect results, I don’t hope I get them. And he’s that guy who can do everything he expects you to do, and he can probably do it better. If you need a left-handed monkey wrench with a three and a half socket and a self-tightening bolt, he says, ‘I think I got one right here in my truck.’”

Thiesen said the thing he most admires about Freeman is how he earned everything he has through hard work and never-say-die determination. Even these very traits he came by honestly, through watching his father, Jim.

“His father had one of the most difficult jobs there could possibly be. He was a vacuum cleaner door-to-door salesman,” Thiesen said.“

But those are where the skills I’m talking about came from. He got confidence from his dad. He got perseverance from his dad. He got salesmanship from his dad. He saw how hard his dad worked to put food on the table. Those are skills not everybody has.”

For his part, Freeman credits all kinds of influencers for helping him navigate his career in business and various entrepreneurial ventures.

“I say I never made it here on my own, there’s always been a steppingstone,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of influential people help me. There’s a lot of people who have worked for me that have gone and found their own success in landscaping, nurseries, even the lighting industry world. They start their own company and they’re buying lights from us, decorating customers’ homes. I’m not one of those people who says I did it all on my own.”

Still, when Freeman faced his ultimate challenge in business — a devastating 2005 fire set off by lightning that razed the company headquarters and handed him a $2 million loss — he showed the depth of his grit and determination. The company was back up and running in 24 hours and exactly one year later, Freeman moved back into the refurbished building.

As other challenges have come along since then, as they invariably do in business, he points to that event as proof of what a company can do when it just won’t quit.

“You can get down on yourself quickly about things and circumstances happen to everybody. Everybody gets knocked off the horse; it’s how quick you get back on,” he said. “I refer back to when I had my fire; it took pretty much everything from me.

“This year, getting product in from overseas, the lack of workers and truckers getting things here, things have been challenging. But if I can get through the fire, I can get through anything. You also have to understand how important it is to hire the right people. No one is going to do everything the way you would, and you have to accept that. But you can’t grow or even run your business if you don’t keep the right people around you.”