Volume 9, Issue 5                    November/December  2005

Made in the Shade
by Brigid O'Leary

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.
Five years. That’s not a long time in the scheme of things. However, that’s only the amount of time McCallum has been the owner of his own shop. He’s been in the industry for 20 years, and has the experience—and battle scars—to prove it. 

Georgia Red Clay
“I started tinting in Houston in 1983. A friend of mine knew someone who had lost his business partner and was looking for help, and I went to inquire,” McCallum explained, not even sure what sort of business the other person ran.
He was told the man, named Jim O’Brien, owned a window tinting business and asked if McCallum had ever hung film. McCallum promptly said that he had (though his only experience was assisting a friend on a job once), and walked away with a job.

“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. 
Then, in 2000, he decided it was time to go into business for himself. He started with $3,000 in inventory and has successfully cultivated his one-man operation to the point that he is working on expanding his repertoire. 
His shop is located 10 miles from each of the competitor’s facilities.

Growing Like Kudzu
Six months ago McCallum started working the residential market and hopes to expand that segment of his business and add safety and security film to the options in the near future. Right now he’s concentrating on solar, heat and glare protection films as he enters the flat-glass market, something new and different for him. 

“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. 
So much glass indeed. With a mere six months of flat glass tinting in his portfolio, he’s already able to estimate that he’s doing nearly 50-percent of his business in flat-glass tinting. 

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
McCallum sets the bar high for what he qualifies as “good help,” too. Whomever he hires must help the business achieve its goals and objectives, one of which is “to bring the local public’s attention to the benefits of quality window tint [that is] professionally installed.” He strives to do so by building customer loyalty through his service and he won’t compromise his customer’s safety or his reputation by installing anything other than what is legal. 

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. 
He gets inquiries about what are ultimately illegal tint jobs on average about once a week, but he’s not interested in doing business with customers who only want limo tint, and it goes back to his company objective.

“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.
When he does get an inquiry for film that is too dark by state standards, he has a standard response. First he asks why the potential customer wants his or her car that dark, and he says the response is frequently, “I don’t like people staring at me.” To that end, he tries to explain that there is a very imminent danger of receiving a ticket for illegally tinted windows and that if the car was later involved in an accident, in our litigious society, they shouldn’t be so naïve as to think they wouldn’t be sued on the grounds that the windows were too dark.

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
With legal automotive window film under wing and the residential window film aspect of business growing, McCallum has no problem declining jobs that would require him to tint darker than the law allows. He doesn’t mind those jobs going to other stores, and he doesn’t worry about competing with shops that offer other products and services, either.
He also doesn’t do any mobile work—all his jobs come to him, which has worked well so far, though it has kept him from working more with dealerships.

“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.
“I think the window film industry has some good stability, good job security. Even if [film] were to be outlawed for cars, there’s still a great flat-glass market,” he explained.

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.
Having been involved in the industry for a couple decades doesn’t hurt, either. McCallum knows just how far the industry has come and appreciates the changes that have happened over the years.

“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!” 

Brigid O’Leary is the editor of Window Film magazine.

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