Volume 12, Issue 4 - July/August 2008

At a Crossroad
Fremont Calls for Industry to Follow

Christophe Fremont believes the window film industry is currently at a crossroad. The right turn, he says, will lead it to a century of prosperity. The wrong turn will place the industry on a slippery, downward slope.

“This industry has been here for approximately 40 years, but I do believe if we don’t wake up, we may not be here for the next 40 years,” says Fremont, the president of San Diego-based Bekaert Specialty Films (BSF). “However, if we do, I believe this industry could be here for the next century and be multiplied by a factor of ten.”

Fremont’s vision of a prosperous future includes raising the bar on professionalism—not only for his company, but industry-wide. The wrong answer, he says, is for his company and the industry in general to continue doing what it always has. In just five years, Fremont has changed the course of BSF drastically. Now, he hopes the entire industry will follow.

“I came to this company and industry in September of 2003,” Fremont explains, “It took me several months to assess the situation and approximately a year to develop a plan and strategy for the company.”

Fremont came to BSF with a photovoltaic background. Prior to serving as vice president of of international sales for Bekaert ECD Solar Systems, he served as general manager for Agfa Consumer Imaging Europe, a provider of photofinishing products. He says having served in other industries decreased the learning curve for window film.

“I have the benefit of having served in various industries,” Fremont says, “and, I think, when you’ve been involved in several different areas it gives you the ability to adapt quickly.”

It also makes it easier to think outside the box. Fremont believes the window film industry has suffered from too much of the “same old” mentality.

“The way people in this industry have been thinking has been too restrictive in the past,” he says. “When you come to a new industry, people tend to say, more or less, ‘Listen, whatever concept you have from another industry, it’s not going to work here. Our industry is specific.’ And to that I always reply, ‘Sure.’ [with a smile] Eighty percent of the concepts are the same. Twenty percent are going to involve customization.”

Measure for Success
One of Fremont’s first areas of interest was manufacturing. But before you set out to improve something, he believes you must first be able to measure it, so every product characteristic and manufacturing variable needed to be clearly defined before process improvements could begin.

“If we are trying to solve a problem or meet an opportunity that a customer has brought to us, the first thing we want to do is make sure that we have a way of measuring it,” explains Dave Anderson, vice president of operations. “If you don’t, or if it’s very subjective or you’re inconsistent in measuring it, you can end up chasing your tail and getting nowhere.”

In the past, manufacturing has been too much of a mystery in the window film industry.

“When I came onboard, I heard people saying that window film manufacturing is an art,” Fremont says. “I found this very interesting, because I had worked in a number of other industries and art was always a very minimal part of it. Science was always a big part of it, but not art.”

“The first thing we did was adopt a program started by the Japanese called Five S,” Anderson explains. “Five S is basically a way of setting up and organizing your plant for safety, quality and efficiency. It involves the mindset that we’re only going to have in the workplace that which we need to do the job.”

Five S is just one of many practices Anderson has deployed at BSF. The company also utilizes key elements of Six Sigma and LEAN, among others.

“I really mean it when I say—Dave is more Japanese than the Japanese themselves,” Fremont boasts. “He brings all the manufacturing principles.

“In the past, product quality wasn’t necessarily perfectly defined; everything now has a detailed explanation. If we have a problem, we’re able to trace it back as far as necessary, find the root cause and make a corrective action. That’s a result of science, not art.”

Anderson says the same system applies to research and development.

“After we get measurements in place, we’ll go to the lab or production line to see how we can improve that measurement,” he explains. “Take, for instance, optical clarity. We have a measurement system in which we apply a numerical value to what the eye sees; then we look at different methods for improving that measure and test them for outcome.”

Playing Catch-Up
When compared to other industries and a typical developmental curve, Fremont believes the window film industry is behind for its age.

“At the manufacturer level, worldwide, the market is estimated at $575 million,” Fremont says. “Any industry that is below, I would say, $1.5 billion is a relatively slow or small industry. This industry has been around for approximately 40 years, and we’re still between $500 and $600 million. That’s too small compared to the opportunity we’re presented with.”

One reason he says he believes the industry may lay behind is because it hasn’t been market-driven in the past. And Fremont says the market currently is screaming “architectural,” but the industry is slow to respond. Fortunately, he made this observation some time ago and decided to shift the focus at BSF.

“In early 2005, around March, I took a strong stance and decided we were good in architectural, but we needed to become even better,” he explains. “I knew the automotive industry was going to be very, very strong in Asia, but I didn’t feel it would be enough to expand this industry to the point we would like to reach. If we want to go from being a $500 million industry to a $5 billion industry, maybe we need to look closer at the other piece of the pie.” Fremont believes fate has been kind to the window film industry, as its mid-life coincides with a global energy crisis creating a golden opportunity.

“Time is with us,” he says with emphasis and urgency. “The cost of a barrel of oil is going to continue to rise. We know that the energy crisis is here. Where else are we going to find such an opportunity?”

Fremont says he recognized it would take a high level of professionalism to capitalize on these opportunities. In order for the company’s dealer network to reach the savvy commercial segment, it would need to be equipped with the right tools and training.

“In selling product, [dealers] are the ambassadors of the industry,” he explains. “We, the manufacturers, need to equip [dealers] with the right level of collateral, the right message and the right tools and such. If they are successful, we are successful—and vice-versa.”

The right tools include extensive marketing materials, web development tools, tradeshow graphics, customizable presentations and form letters—the list goes on and on. Fremont admits his company’s approach has expanded to franchise- like proportions. But he says that is precisely what’s needed.

“Forty years after the genesis of window film, I think that’s why we’re still at this level—because we haven’t deployed a full marketing message, as we should have, to reach a broader base of people,” he says. But not every manufacturer has the ability to do what his company has done. “Every industry goes through phases,” he explains. “We are in a phase where we still have manufacturers at the $5 million to $6 million range. Those manufacturers produce an acceptable product, but they don’t bring to the network the quality of tools necessary to move product.”

Kathryn Giblin, BSF’s vice president of global marketing and technical services, says consumers in the architectural division are looking for specific information. Reaching the commercial segment often means working with architects, designers or building management professionals. Giblin says you can’t just go in with glossy professional materials, you’ve got to bring cold, hard facts to this audience.

“We all know that in the green movement, there are many people claiming their products are green. It’s a word we don’t use here,” she says. “We have a product that saves energy. And when people say, ‘Prove it to me,’ we can.”

Three years ago, BSF began developing its Specularis™ software—a building information modeling (BIM) tool that enables dealers to input specific information about a project in order to calculate precisely what impact window film will have. The software not only incorporates a building’s exact architectural characteristics, but it also uses latitude and longitude coordinates to take environmental factors into account, such as position and angle relative to the sun and historical weather data.

weather data. “We’re averaging approximately 200 reports per week [being generated by dealers],” says Travis Windleharth, technical services coordinator. Windleharth played a key role in the software’s development and is currently part of a team of technicians who assist dealers with any technical questions or needs. He says the software allows BSF’s dealers to incorporate accurate and specific performance expectations into their sales presentations. In fact, many dealers will load a building’s coordinates and basic information ahead of time, then fill in the final details to generate a report on the first visit.

“We’re able to show the actual impact and measurement through this software,” Windleharth explains. “Some dealers will say that their films reduce 99 percent of fading. We can actually go in and show that that’s not true and we can be perfectly honest and upfront. And they appreciate that.”

Windleharth says brutal honesty pays.

“There are dealers out there who will claim that their customers are saving money in the winter,” he says. “In some cases they do, but in some cases window film can also cost you money in the winter, because it rejects that free load from the sun. We can actually show them that. We can give them the actual truth to help them make a decision and they appreciate that. We’ve gotten a lot of positive response from this.”

Fremont says providing accurate information is essential—industry wide. When one manufacturer provides misleading information, he says it hurts them all.

“It breaks my heart to see that some companies sometimes try to produce trick information about how effective their products will be in terms of performance,” Fremont says. “Why don’t we partner as an industry? Why don’t we agree that we’re all going to use the same forms of measurement? It might be embarrassing for some, but it would be best for us as an industry. The only way we’re going to grow the industry in general is by partnering.”

Come Together
In 2007, Fremont says he faced a difficult decision alone, when he discovered an opportunity for window film in the Clinton Climate Initiative (CCI). Joining the initiative had its associated risks. While it would help window film to be recognized as an energy-saving solution nationwide, Fremont says associating your company with a political figure is risky business. Nonetheless, he decided it was a risk worth taking. But Fremont says instead of forcing one company to “stick its neck out,” the industry could have taken a collaborative approach.

“What we have done with the Clinton Climate Initiative could have been done by the industry,” he says. “We were lucky enough to jump on it and take the leap, but it could have been done by an industry association.”

The 3M Co. followed close behind, becoming the second of just two window film manufacturers out of approximately 25 companies total.

“I have the feeling sometimes that we’re one of few trying to push the industry along in the right direction,” Fremont says. “When we joined the Clinton Climate Initiative, and an ex-president stood in front of the most powerful mayors in the nation and referenced window film, I felt that we had made a step in the right direction.”

Fremont’s courage did not go unnoticed.

“The day after, I met with one of our competitors and they congratulated and commended me for it, but then asked me if I had been afraid," he says. “I told them the greatest risk we can take as an industry is to remain where we are.

“At the end of the day, we decided it was better to do something than to just put your head in the sand,” he says. “The window film industry has been trying to do this too much—put its head in the sand. And I think we need to have the courage today to say we’re going to try.”

Fremont says everything should be a team effort. He firmly assures that BSF is no one-man band. He believes there’s a right person for every job and his philosophy includes finding that right person, then staying out of their way. For him, the concept of micromanaging is antiquated.

“[Micromanaging] is the management philosophy of the 50s,” Fremont says. “I would say exactly the opposite. You have to rely on your managers and everyone that works for you. If you want to grow in this industry, it cannot be a oneman show.”

“It’s the teams here that make a difference,” Giblin explains. “We work in a team format at all levels.”

That is, all levels but one. But Fremont hopes this will change

“I challenge our competitors to join us—many of which do, I know—but I challenge all of them,” he says. “I think the time is now. I am a firm believer that tomorrow begins today. The decision is up to us—are we going to address this opportunity, or are we going to leave it to someone else?”

Not if Fremont has anything to do with it. WF

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