|Under the Tucson Sun
Family-Owned and Operated Reflecto Shield Holds Its Own
by Brigid O’Leary
The name may conjure up images of families with 3.2 kids, a white picket fence and an Edsel in the driveway, but don’t let it fool you; Reflecto Shield of Tucson may sound like a ’50s throwback, but this family-owned business is courting customers and business partners from around the world via its cutting-edge website.
“We make sure there’s not too much information on there that will get people confused,” said Patsy Blankenbaker.
At the time the Blankenbaker family got involved with the window film industry, computers were available for a pretty high price (and users saved files on “floppy” disks that measured five inches wide). The Internet was a good 20 years away and personal or corporate websites were equally unthinkable.
Window film was a second career for Irving “Blank” Blankenbaker. Newly discharged from the Air Force, he began talking with one of the neighbors who had Reflecto Shield window film by Madico installed on their windows. The neighbor made such a good sell of the film that Blank decided to have his windows filmed, too. When the installers arrived to do the job, one of them—also a former military man—hit it off with Blank and offered him a job with the company.
That was in 1972. More than 30 years later, he’s still installing window film, working at the company with his wife Patsy and son, James.
Blank worked with the company either directly or as a contractor until 1983, when he bought the whole operation from the original owners.
“We bought the trademark. It used to be the Madico Reflecto Shield trademark,” said Patsy.
And the Blankenbakers have remained loyal to Madico, the manufacturer that gave them their start in the industry.
“We’ve had opportunities to go to other manufacturers, but we’ve been loyal to Madico and they’ve always stood by us,” said James.
From early in the business venture, it was a family affair.
“I was cheap labor. I worked in the shop from my freshman year of high school on. I’ve been at least washing windows since 1977,” James Blankenbaker said.
Though his dad doesn’t refute his son’s involvement with the enterprise, he does question the concept of having had “cheap” labor.
“Yeah, he had a roof over his head, clothes on his back, three meals a day … that’s what you call cheap labor?” he asked with a laugh.
The tables have turned, however. James took over the company about three years ago and now both Patsy and Blank work with the company, gratis.
With well more than 30 years behind them, the business is a source of pride for the family.
“We’ve been in business longer than anyone else in the area,” James said, noting that the company doesn’t have a particularly large advertising budget, but has successfully built the business for more than 30 years.
Division of Labor
Having been in the industry longer than some film installers today have been alive, the family has seen a lot of change in and around the window film industry over the years, such as an improved clarity of the films themselves and the type of applied adhesive.
“We used to apply water-soluble [film], then pressure adhesive and now it’s dry adhesive,” said Blank.
“Back in the ’80s, the adhesives would melt [in the Tucson heat],” James said.
Added to that is the change in the way film is installed and shrunk on vehicle
“Reflecto Shield has been doing cars since 1975, though at first it was a lot of trial and error—mostly error,” said Blank.
“We call Blank the oldest tinter in the Southwest,” said Patsy.
“Maybe this side of the Mississippi,” added James.
Over the years, the size of the Reflecto Shield staff has fluctuated, fielding its largest crew of six full-time installers. Currently, there are five people working for the company, a strategic choice made by the Blankenbakers for good reason.
“It seemed like everyone who worked for us stayed long enough to learn the job and then went and opened their own shop,” said James.
And as other business owners in the industry have said before, having too many employees removes them from the work itself.
“We’re the owners, we know the quality of the work being done,” said Blank.
That doesn’t mean they work alone.
“Now we have Mike,” said James.
“He does superb work,” Blank added.
Mike is Mike Utegaard, the company’s installation technician. Together with the Blankenbakers and receptionist Autumn Gaughan, they handle a variety of window film needs for Tucson. Currently nearly 60 percent of the work they do is architectural installations, with the other 40 percent being automotive installations, and that mix is just fine with James.
“I’d rather do homes than cars. People are more relaxed and you can find out more about them. They’re so nice. That’s the best part,” he said.
“But when you’re working on cars, you get to talk to the customers,” said Patsy.
“That’s you sitting around and talking, which you’re good at,” laughed Blank.
Despite Blank’s dig, the family concurs that their favorite aspect of the job is meeting people.
“You get to meet all kinds of people and learn about them and their hobbies when you do a residential job,” said Blank. His favorite was the archaeologist’s house that was built into the side of the Tucson mountains and had a driveway lined with mortars and pestles.
“That was the most interesting,” James said.
They do commercial work, too. The company has done a lot of work at Tucson International Airport.
“We filmed most of the gates at the airport about seven years ago, and we’ll be doing an installation on all the administration areas, too,” said James.
They’ve also put up protective film in the bathrooms at the airport to prevent vandalism. Graffiti film has helped the company make a name for itself, especially among its neighbors in the business park where the Reflecto Shield office is located. The Blankenbakers installed film to help prevent significant graffiti damage, and very shortly after having done so, the whole office park was hit by vandals. While most of the other offices were replacing windows, Reflecto Shield only had to replace the anti-graffiti film; something all the neighbors noticed.
Hot and Sometimes Bothered
In Tucson, where the highs get to be upward of 100 degrees on a daily basis in the summer, the toughest challenge they face is competition—and not just those on the up-and-up.
“Credibility,” said Patsy Blankenbaker, when the trio was asked what their toughest challenge is. “Don’t you think?” she asked her husband and son.
“There are guys who just open up a film shop for the summer, close it when winter comes and open again the following summer, sometimes under a different name,” said Blank.
James enjoys most aspects of the film industry, although lifetime warranties occasionally frustrate him. (see September-October 2006 Window Film, page 16, for related story).
“I wish manufacturers would understand that ‘lifetime’ doesn’t work out here. It’s too hot and the UV breaks [film] down out here. I wish they’d test films out here. If it can fly in Tucson, it can fly anywhere,” he said.
On the dealer level, Patsy worries about the ways in which other shops sell film. She mentioned that she has seen other window film companies in the area selling film called “bullet-proof.”
But in these areas, the Blankenbakers have worked hard to set themselves apart from the competition.
“We have a contractor’s license,” said Patsy.
James echoed Patsy.
“[Having a contractor’s license] is rare in this town. We’re one of maybe six or seven shops in this area that have a contractor’s license,” said James. “That’s our biggest problem—companies that do illegal work.”
That doesn’t mean they’ll always win the job, though. They also face stiff competition on the sales front.
“We can lose a job over one dollar,” said Blank.
While they have to compete with others for customers who view the industry as commodity-based, the Blankenbakers have carved out a nice little niche for themselves and have a mind-set that goes along with it.
“Our motto is we’re not salesmen. We stand by what we do and our product,” said James.
“It’s like any industry, there are good and bad representations. There are some good shops around here. To me, if you have someone who’s been around a long time, that says you’re doing something right,” said Blank.
And they know what it takes to be around a long time; for the Blankenbakers, there is only one way to be successful.
“The secret to longevity is sincerity in selling, believing in the product you’re selling and believing you’re gong to help someone,” said James.
“We definitely feel we have the best product, but if you’re installing it, you’d better think it’s the best,” said Blank. wf
Brigid O’Leary is a contributing editor for Window Film magazine.
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No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.