Made in the Shade
The smiling sun equipped with sunglasses says it all: in Georgia, there are days even the Sun needs protection from heat and glare. As owner of Sunshades Window Tinting, Stewart McCallum has been providing that protection to the people of Alpharetta, an affluent suburb northwest of Atlanta, and the surrounding Georgia communities, for the last five years.
Georgia Red Clay
“It didn’t take him long to realize I had no idea what I was doing,” McCallum chuckled.
As many others in the industry have done, McCallum learned on the job and has refined his craft into a successful business model.
“A lot of what Jim O’Brien showed me, I still use today,” McCallum said.
So, how does a young man from Texas find himself owning a shop on the north end of Atlanta? Though he learned much of what has shaped his business today from O’Brien, he did eventually move on to work for other window film companies. In the interim, his parents had moved to Georgia, and after several visits to the Peach State, he decided to move there, too, ultimately settling in Alpharetta.
“This is a great area to live in—hot summers, cooler weather in the winter. It gives you different variations for the seasons,” McCallum said.
One would think that it would also offer a variety of window film shops to join, but McCallum only competes with one other main business in his end of town—the shop for which he worked when he first moved there ten years ago. In fact, he worked with them long enough to be a member of the team that opened a second branch of the shop.
Growing Like Kudzu
“I did a lot of reading, I did my homework and talked to friends in the tint business about how to sell residential film. I’m still learning all the time,” McCallum said.
He’s got plenty of market to learn in, too. Though he keeps his business close to home, working in Alpharetta and the neighboring suburbs of Forsyth and Cumming only, he’s not hurting for business. In the course of his interview with Window Film magazine, he received two phone calls for residential film jobs.
“We’ve got subdivisions going up right and left. There’s so much glass up here it’s unbelievable,” McCallum said.
Currently, McCallum is flying solo when it comes to running his business and installing film, though he does hire additional help for big projects. Being a one-man operation may seem daunting and time consuming, but McCallum says that in some respects, it gives him more flexibility than one would imagine. When he wants to take a day off here and there, he just doesn’t schedule jobs for that day. He doesn’t stray too far from the job, however. For longer periods of time, such as earlier this year when he and his family went to Scotland, he has his business calls forwarded to his cell phone.
Looking at long-term goals, he hopes to hire more people and eventually have a crew doing the flat-glass work, though he, like many in the industry, laments that it’s “tough to find good help.”
Strong Ethics and Southern Charm
Exclusively a Llumar dealer, McCallum has manufacturer-provided samples with technical charts hanging in his waiting room, along with photos of cars with the different available films applied and he says he uses them regularly when he gets inquiries from people asking for film darker than what is legal in Georgia. In fact, McCallum was featured in an article that ran on the front page of the Forsyth County News about the changes in Georgia tint law, particularly with regard to the reinstatement of the law that requires minimum visibility of 32 percent (see Window Film magazine, May/June 2005 pg. 6). For a few months, the law had been repealed and, while some citizens opted to have their windows tinted darker than they would have been allowed otherwise, McCallum chose not to tint darker than 32 percent, even while legal.
“I’m working on building a clientele that is interested in solar control properties as opposed to just making their cars dark. Many people think of tint as kids souping up cars. I’m more interested in safety and comfort and protecting the interior of vehicles. I do business with people who want their cars to look good but not make it illegal,” he said.
If those arguments fail to convince the customer, McCallum will flat out refuse to do the job on the grounds that he wants to protect himself, too, from being fined if the customer were cited for the illegal film or from being named as a party to any lawsuit that would potentially arise from the hypothetical accident scene McCallum has painted for the customer.
Strong Industry Supporter
“I’m not working with automotive dealerships yet, because car dealers don’t like the idea of bringing the car off the lot,” he explained. That doesn’t mean he won’t work with dealers in the future; it’s just a matter of building the right kind of working relationship with the right dealer and establishing a situation wherein McCallum would go to them on a regular schedule to tint more than one vehicle, but that sort of arrangement remains to be made.
While there are many aspects of McCallum’s way of doing business that others might find surprising, not only is he doing well, he’s a firm believer that the window film industry is the place to be.
“The industry has a great support system, with the associations, magazines and good people lobbying for fair tint laws,” he said. “There’s great stuff going on behind the scenes that many tint shops need to know about.”
It’s not just the “behind the scenes” aspect of the industry of which McCallum speaks well, either.
McCallum feels that he’s got some strong support from his distributor, Gila Distributing, too.
“They’ve been a great source of advice since I opened. They’ve always provided me with great advice and support and they are the people closest to me. I’ve had people tell me to change films, but Llumar is a great product and the guys at Gila—Matt and Keith—have really helped me, taken me to dealerships and shown me some tricks,” he said.
“We’ve got some great products and you can really sell the benefits of the products: protection, aesthetics, you name it. Tools are being developed by and for tinters. Back in the 70s and 80s, we only had these,” he said, taking his gray hard card out of his shirt pocket. “We were using tools borrowed from other industries. Now there are tint-specific tools. It’s great!”