Volume 14, Issue 4 - July/August 2010

Bumps in the Road

The Trail Pacific Window Tinting Followed Had Some Unexpected Twists and Turns, but Still Has Led to Success
By Ellen Rogers

When David Vernon opened Pacific Window Tinting in Portland, Ore., in 1998, he missed the deadline to get an ad in the Yellow Pages. And there, as they say, is the rub.

“To start off without having the Yellow Pages your first year of business … that was tough. So we really had to pound the pavement to get our face out in front of people and to meet people,” says Vernon’s brother-in-law Jared Gray, who relocated to Portland in 1998 to help start the company.

“We all started it together [as a family] from ground zero,” says Gray. “And we did the opposite of most window tinters, as we started with flat glass and added auto later on. Eventually we got out of auto all together.”

Today, the company concentrates solely on flat glass projects, both residential and commercial.

“We try and do one or two major projects a year, as well as residential work and everything in between,” explains Gray. “The last couple of years have been geared more toward commercial projects so we are about 75 percent commercial and 25 percent residential.”

A tremendous amount of work has gone into growing the small, family owned business. Gray says he has focused his efforts on selling the business as a whole and not just selling the product.

“We’ve done things differently in trying to find our own little niche,” he says. “Our growth has basically come from word of mouth.”

And all that word of mouth early on has paid off, as many of the company’s first clients are still with them. Today, comfortable in its niche, small Pacific Window Tinting, though, is doing big things and focused on moving more and more into the commercial arena.

Thick and Thin
“One of the biggest rewards for me is the fact that we were able to establish a company that involved family,” says Vernon. “The company has consisted of me, my wife Genise, brother-in-law Jared [Gray] and father-in-law Dick Gray. While this may not be a good thing for some families, it has been a great thing for ours.”

Gray says one of the key elements that has helped them continue to grow is the one thing they did early on: getting out there in front of the customers.

“We’ve done things differently in trying to find our own little niche, and [our growth] has basically been from word-of-mouth. We still strive to do that same-day service; if someone calls us we try to get out there that day because the day they call is the day they want to spend money. They are calling for a reason,” says Gray. “So I want to get in front of them as quickly as I can.”

Gray says he’s tried traditional marketing tactics such as direct mailers and local advertising and they have not worked for him.

“The return on investment is just not there,” he says. “We’ve gone back to the way we started: getting in front of people, introducing ourselves and going from there. And now that our portfolio is bigger we can do that; I can get out there and show people something different. So the best thing for us has been those clients we met in the very beginning who are still with us.”

And as far as the competition, Gray says it’s not too stiff.

“We have four or five main competitors but, just like in anything else, you’ve got the low guys who try to undercut everyone, which makes it horrible for everyone else,” says Gray. “One of the reasons so many customers have stayed with us is because our prices stayed the same, even when times were great, and customers appreciate that.”

The Next Big Thing
Pacific Window Tinting handles both residential and commercial work, and its biggest focus is gaining a stronger commercial presence. This involves spending a lot of time with architects and Gray says there are a number of differences when it comes to working with architects compared to homeowners.

“We give a big push for training, especially when it comes to safety films because if
safety films are installed incorrectly there can be serious liabilities.”
—Jared Gray

“Most of the time the architect is knowledgeable and already knows something about film and that’s nice. Homeowners aren’t always as knowledgeable, but it’s also nice to be able to teach them and help them make an educated decision about what they are going to purchase,” says Gray. He adds that when it comes to working with the architect there’s also a lot of prep work that needs to be done. “A lot of architects [are knowledgeable]. If you walk in there and you don’t know what you are talking about, you’ve already lost.”

While Gray says many architects are familiar with the benefits and uses of film he still finds that he is often working to provide education and information to those who know little about the products.

“So often an architect will say ‘but my glass supplier says film will void the warranty on the glass,’” explains Gray. “So I have worked hand-in-hand with some of the biggest glass companies in Portland to teach them about film; they, in turn, also share that knowledge with the architects.”

Specification can also be a challenge when it comes to working with architects.

“Architects aren’t necessarily familiar with all the film types out there,” says Gray. “And just because your name is in the spec doesn’t always mean it’s going to stay your job.”

With such a strong focus on growing the company’s architectural presence, Gray says these efforts have helped them differentiate. For example, after 9/11 they were able to secure many area government projects.

“We won the majority of [government jobs] in the Portland area and then there were a lot of big projects that followed,” says Gray. “At the time, I did most of that work myself, and that’s helped and hurt me because now my installers have to be particularly good, because it’s my reputation on the line.”

He continues, “That was the most difficult thing for me, to let go of that portion of the job, because the end result is what you grow your business on. If you have a couple of poor jobs out there, you go from having a customer speaking good about you to speaking badly about you.”

Kathryn Giblin, vice president of global marketing for Bekaert Specialty Films, has worked closely with the Gray. He is also a member of the Panorama Dealer Council, a group of dealers who collaborate with the manufacturer on customer and dealer needs and who volunteer their time to mentor others in the business.

“Pacific Window Tinting is a member of our Panorama dealer network and has consistently proven to be an exceptional business partner. Pacific Window Tinting differentiates itself from the competition with superior technical knowledge and demonstrating their expertise and professionalism,” says Giblin. “They take the time to educate customers on how solar energy works and help them choose the right film to fit their needs.”

As part of working more within the commercial realm, Gray says they have also expanded their range of product offerings to include decorative films. The company also is doing more and more work geared specifically toward energy efficiency.

“Decorative films have seen a big push and that’s one direction in which we’re going as it’s more commercialized,” Gray says.
“And these projects are a change of pace; they are different and fun.”

He says one benefit of decorative films is that they can be used to create the same appearance as glass. For example, Gray’s team recently installed a selection of colorful films for the University of Oregon Academic Learning Center.

“What sold this job for me was the fact that the films can be changed,” he said. “Each color represents a sport and each year someone there gets an award in that sport so [the university] will have to change the colors; each year I will be going back there to change out the colors.”

Solar Graphics Inc. in Clearwater, Fla., supplied the decorative films. Richard Purdum, owner of Solar Graphics, said the work Gray and his team did was impressive.

“They went out and worked directly with the architect on that job,” says Purdum. “I like to see dealers doing that sort of thing.”

Purdum says when it comes to working with decorative films there are a lot of tricks of the trade.

“Just because you’re a good tinter doesn’t mean you can just put up this type of film,” he says. “We worked closely with Pacific Window Tinting [to match the colors]; they were not afraid of taking on this job.”

Speaking of Gray, Purdum adds, “He’s more progressive than most tinters. He’s diversified his company to include film graphics and that’s fun. He’s got a fever about him.”

As far as other trends, Gray says they are also seeing an increased awareness and demand for energy-saving features.

“Portland is on the leading edge of energy awareness and green building,” says Gray. “People are willing to spend more money to be green—if it’s something that’s going to be a benefit in the long run.”

Vernon adds, “As an industry benefit, the energy savings from today’s films is fantastic. To be able to offer this kind of savings without having to change out windows is a huge advantage for us—especially in today’s price-sensitive market. The key is getting the consumer to recognize this benefit.”

Likewise, while window film has been proven an energy-saving feature, particularly when it comes to solar control, Gray says the Portland climate sometimes keeps people from going with window film.

“A lot of companies here don’t have air conditioning, so putting films on their windows is not going to help them,” says Gray, adding that temperature changes can also be a deterrent. “We don’t have a constant temperature like in some places [such as Phoenix] where it’s steady.”

Pushing Through
While Gray says the film industry has certainly grown and the materials have become more recognized and accepted, there are still challenges to overcome. For one, Gray points out, is the lack of formal training in the industry.

“Half of the negative stuff that you hear about window tinting relates to bubbled up, purple film on the back of a car. And while that may be a bad product, it’s also a poor installation,” says Gray. “We give a big push for training, especially when it comes to safety films because if safety films are installed incorrectly there can be serious liabilities. If you do a poor safety film installation a lot of lives are at stake, so a training program would be great.”

Vernon agrees, “One challenge we run into almost every day is that general consumers still think architectural films are dark like automotive limo tint. Today’s high performance films have so much to offer; unfortunately, people just don’t know and understand the many benefits our industry has to offer.”

Staying in check with rapidly changing glass technologies can also be a challenge.

“Keeping up with glass technology is getting more difficult because it has jumped leaps and bounds compared to that of window film,” says Gray.

And, Gray admits, like so many other companies, his company has also been affected by the down economy.

“I’ve lost projects because the money got cut and the fact that window film is one of the last things to go onto the job,” says Gray, adding that the flow of business has also been hurt. “The cash flow that comes in from residential has slowed down and on the commercial side you don’t get paid [up front] so you’re always wanting the residential work to come in underneath to keep things moving.”

“Businesses and individuals just aren’t spending money like they used to,” agrees Vernon. “Even though we offer exceptional energy savings and a very reasonable price, it’s difficult to get people to act.”

“As an industry benefit, the energy savings from today’s films is fantastic. To be able to offer this kind of savings without having to change out windows is a huge advantage for us—especially in today’s price-sensitive market. The key is getting the consumer to recognize this benefit.”
—David Vernon

Gray adds, though, that they are still plugging away and says they have not made any layoffs or cutbacks.

“Installers probably aren’t making what they’d like to make, but they are grateful to have a job,” says Gray. “The worst of it is the not knowing when it will come back; when it does, will I be staffed enough to withstand the up rise in people spending money?” he asks. “It’s going to get better … I just wish I knew when.”

He continues, “I do think everything happens for a reason, so maybe the downturn will help weed out some of those who were not doing good enough work; maybe it will enable me to try something new, such as finding different projects. It’s gratifying when you work hard for something and you get it.”

A Step at a Time
And though the company may be a small one, it’s one with big goals and plans for the future.

“Our motto is ‘dare to be a pig.’ Meaning, if you don’t have big dreams you won’t have big success,” says Gray. “We strive to go after it all. We want to expand, both nationally and globally.”

“I see Pacific Window Tinting building relationships that will take us both across the United States and international markets,” he says. “We have a vision, one we all share here and are striving toward.”

Gray also says the fact that they care and take pride in what they do is important.

“We’re accountable. If something happens and the customer calls us I answer the phone, and that alone is a big thing. And I’m not shy about saying ‘I don’t know.’ But I can make a phone call and find out and get right back to them with an answer.”

A lot of this, he adds, is self-driven.

“If I don’t do well, then the business doesn’t do well … we’re just a small, little company trying to do big things and to be respected—to be respected by peers and colleagues is a big thing and I feel like that’s the direction we are going,” Gray says.

Ellen Rogers is the editor of Window Film magazine.

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