Volume 10, Issue 2
A Closer Look at Bekaert Specialty Films
by Brigid O' Leary
Albert Hammond sang that it never rains in Southern California; whether or not that’s true, the sky was bright blue and the temperatures a balmy 63 degrees when Bekaert opened its doors to Window Film magazine and its staff in late January for a look at what goes on behind the scenes at a film manufacturing company.
Here’s the Story …
Even before arriving at Viewridge Ave., it’s obvious that this part of San Diego is the industrial district; Popeye’s headquarters is on Balboa Ave., and many non-descript, corporate looking buildings lined the main thoroughfare as well as many of the side streets, such as Viewridge. The distinguishing factor between most of them was usually the company’s name or logo emblazoned on the side of the building, on signage out front or both.
Bekaert is one of those companies that had both, so finding the building—corporate headquarters—wasn’t hard. The building in some way resembles the Bekaert logo: simple but recognizable.
The people behind the organization, however, are anything but.
… Of a Man Named Christophe
Christophe Fremont is the president of Bekaert Specialty Films, LLC. The Frenchman has been the president of the San-Diego-based subsidiary of Bekaert (headquartered in Belgium) for three years, and recognizes just how different the window film industry is from any other industry in which he has worked.
“The window film business is unlike [any] I’ve ever seen. It’s a business that has been driven by the manufacturer, not so much what the consumer or end-users need or want,” he says. “If you face end-users, they usually don’t know much about window film. When you explain the benefits to them, they will usually say ‘Yes, I’d like that,’ which means we, manufacturers, are not doing a good job of getting the word out.”
Bekaert has set its sights on changing that. The company’s goal going forward is to raise consumer awareness for window film and the window film industry. Before committing to the endeavor, the management team as a whole took a long, hard look at the industry to determine if it was worth the effort.
… Who Saw Profitable, Sustainable Growth
Is it profitable? Is it sustainable? Can it grow? These were the three questions that led Bekaert to concentrate on building its stake in the window film industry and the answers, for the most part, were favorable.
“Even though window film offers a great opportunity, a lot still needs to be done,” said Fremont.
Internally, there’s not much Bekaert hasn’t done. Research and development (R&D) takes place in both the Bekaert Specialty Films headquarters in San Diego, Calif., as well as at Bekaert company headquarters in Belgium. Fremont estimates that the parent company has approximately 20 of the 200 R&D employees work solely on window film, and at the San Diego office, Lory Galloway, vice president of technology heads up a team of 10 for the same purposes.
“Quite frankly, [window film has] been a lot of investment in this company. For us, the focus is on the end users, to grow the business and continue to invest,” said Fremont.
And continue to invest it will. The company currently has distributors in 60 countries, including Belgium, the United Kingdom, Sweden, France, Japan, Korea, Brazil, China and Australia. A worldwide service access point (SAP) system keeps everyone connected, too, allowing the Bekaert bigwigs to keep track of numbers such as inventory and sales in real time.
While sales and inventory numbers are important, there is no way to truly quantify what matters most to the Bekaert staff: quality.
“We invest in quality. To do so is to invest in the future,” said Fremont, also explaining that 95 percent of Bekaert’s transactions are done on a business-to-business level, an aspect not lost on the rest of the window film industry.
… and Knew a “Gold Mine” When He Saw It
“Historically, the window film industry has traded customers,” observed Jim Black, regional sales manager Americas. “It was a matter of how big your piece of the pie was. Our goal is to make the pie bigger. How are we going to do that? Make [the product] more interesting to consumers. Trust in our dealers. Grow them. Their success is our success.”
The success potential that Bekaert sees in its dealership base forms the basis of what Fremont views as one of the most surprising but optimistic aspects of the industry.
“I believe we’re sitting on a gold mine,” he said. What’s missing is the consumer quotient—or at least, understanding the end-consumer’s motivation for purchasing window film.
In essence, window film manufacturers need to “bridge the gap” that exists between the window film industry as a whole and the end user.
“[The Gap] is across the board,” said Brian Goad, national sales manager. “It’s been there for 30 years. No one has bridged the gap.”
Yet to do so is one of Bekaert’s goals.
“[We’re] making sure we definitely send a message to the end user. We’re out to make sure they understand what we have and what we offer,” said Mike Harris, the company’s new vice president of marketing.
“Everyone has to learn [that] we need to be more market driven. That’s our intent and the base of our strategy,” said Fremont. “We will go beyond any other approach. We want to open the market on a separate path in reaching the end-user to explane the benefit of window film.”
… And So the Company Grows
Growing the pie and turning the company—and maybe the whole industry—into a more market-driven corporation is not easy.
“We’re in a demand generation,” said Harris. “This product [window film] is a complex product. It needs 30 minutes or more to explain the benefits and the work that goes into making a classy product.”
Step one is to capture consumer attention. Get them to sit down and understand the benefits provided by window film, or at the very least send them away with information explaining the same. Most window film dealers have that covered; that means step two is to turn one’s workforce, the entire dealership network, into one that sells on quality. And just how hard is it to educate an entire dealer base to sell on quality?
“It depends on the dealer. [The industry] has the whole gamut,” said Goad.
Yet, for the Bekaert initiative—and the whole industry for that matter— to be successful, dealers need to have and sell quality. The industry takes a hit every time a dealer isn’t selling on quality or is turning a less-than-professional face to the consumer and this is something Bekaert leaders have known and understood for some time.
“A professional dealer shouldn’t have to worry, and on the contrary, he will see his approach paying off. His investment and know-how will be rewarding to him,” said Fremont. “Two criteria are important to the end user: the credibility and respectability of the installer and that the film is backed up by the company.”
As part of its goal in getting the majority of its dealers on the same page, Bekaert has created the Panorama program, wherein its premium line of architectural film (Panorama) is sold through a network of certified dealers. Dealers in the Panorama program have definite, protected territories and curriculum-based training, among other tools.
By equipping its dealers with the opportunity to have specific training, marketing materials and a defined sales territory (read: limited or no competition selling the same brand of film) Bekaert is trying to ensure that the dealers have every resource to be the credible, reliable face of the company. In fact, as a company that does not employ independent distributors, Bekaert sells directly to its dealers and, as its leadership team told Window Film magazine, the dealers are considered an extension of the company.
“They face the customer with us in the background,” said Fremont.
Till They Had to Change Their Tagline …
Being in the background doesn’t mean the company is standing idly by, however. In fact, its interaction and availability to dealers is what company executives feel is going to help it make it through a time of uncertainty, when many members of the industry are beginning to grow concerned about the effects of imported products.
“We have sales reps that can meet face-to-face with dealers for support. It goes back to supporting them and teaching them how to sell on quality,” said Goad.
It’s this all-inclusive support aspect of the company that is helping shape the present and future of the business and how Bekaert is positioning itself in the industry.
“We have a new tagline: Better Together,” said Black. “We’re not just a supplier. We don’t just ship them a box of film.”
… It’s the Way that Window Film is Made
Indeed they don’t. While Bekaert doesn’t extrude (take polyester resins and turning them into flat sheets) the film itself, it does do everything else to make simple, raw plastic into the pressure sensitive, reflective or protective film that goes into those boxes.
Roll after roll of film are stored on cantilever racks near the company’s receiving dock. Two ton rolls of clear polyester film are transported in specially designed hammocks to protect them from the elements and to make for easy transport.
The rolls move first to the metallizing area, where they are, well,
Layers of film then get fused together to make thicker films such as 8-mil and 10-mil. All the film then has adhesive applied. The adhesive is then allowed to cure properly. This step takes place in the “clean room,” where it also
undergoes a computer-assisted quality control check.
“We’re not just putting a slogan out there and then making decisions that go against it,” said Black as he led the tour of the facility.
“We can trace any roll of film back to its coating date and every step in between,” said Galloway.
Samples of each batch are culled during the production process and sent to the company’s onsite R&D department, where they are tested for everything from the film’s true visible light transmittance measurements, to its strength and weathering capabilities. Once the manufacturing process is complete, the film goes up the hill to the slitting room, where it gets cut to length and width, and from there it gets packaged and shipped.
And This is What We Learned from the Bekaert Bunch
It is typically shipped out into the Southern California sun and to Bekaert dealers around the world. The boxes go off across the country to dealers such as Jerry Burns in Denver and Charlie Arakelian in Massachusetts. It goes around the world to dealers in Australia; and in a way it comes home—not the film, exactly, but impact that it has on these dealers and, by extension, the end users who benefit from
Brigid O’Leary is the editor of Window Film magazine.