Volume 11, Issue 4 - July/August 2007
A 2-Box Start
Alberto Clarke Jr. opened his automotive window film and accessories business in Fredericksburg, Va., with $1,800—$900 of which was on loan from his father Alberto Clarke, Sr. This decision wasn’t whimsical or random, but a result of recognizing a business opportunity. Clarke’s business, The Lab, produced approximately $960,000 in gross sales last year.
What Clarke lacked in capital, he made up for in experience. Not only was he a veteran window film applicator, but he had already owned and operated his own business.
“When I was getting out of the military [in 1994], I met a guy that had a tint shop and I had been working there in the evenings and on Saturdays and Sundays. He was going into the FBI and wanted someone to take over his business, so I bought it for $6,500. That was in Columbus, Ga.,” he explains.
Even then Clarke wasn’t new to the film business. He had installed window film for several years prior. In fact, he was so drawn to the experience that he was willing to do installations when and wherever possible.
“I was tinting cars when I was in the military, behind the mess hall, just using the film you could buy in an auto parts store,” he says. While he enjoyed the work, Clarke says he recognized how lucrative this business can be from early on. “I used to make more money on the side than I would in the military,” he explains.
He wasn’t dead-set on window film as a career, however. Clarke says it was a matter of trial and error before he recognized film had its advantages over other areas of automotive accessories.
Tint is It
He admits his first business was really a matter of gaining experience and testing the waters. In fact, he views his first shop as a loan as much as an acquisition. In his case, however, the interest came back to the borrower.
“I owned and operated that business for five years while I was still in the service. When [the previous owner’s] term with the FBI was up, I was going to be relocated, so I actually sold the business back to him, making a good profit. It was during that time, though, that I really learned more than just tinting, but how to really run a business,” Clarke says.
Clarke was relocated to Fort Bragg in North Carolina, and continued doing window film installations, part-time, while in the service. His wife, Tracy, also was in the military. As the end of her term approached, Clarke wondered if he could re-enter the window film business with enough force to earn a living. It was during a visit home to Fredericksburg that he began to think seriously about opening his own shop.
“I came up here to visit, got out the yellow pages, just out of curiosity, and discovered that there was a two-week wait period at every window film shop in town,” he says. This got his wheels turning. The icing on the cake was the price. The average tint price [in Fredericksburg] was around $160—much more than he was used to at Fort Bragg.
Opportunity was knocking.
“I came up here and rode around a bit when I discovered a little out-of-the-way shop. It wasn’t much, but I thought, ‘You know, that would be a great place to do tint,’” he says.
“I called the number posted and the guy said that $425 would get me in the building. I needed $425 for a deposit and $425 for rent. Using what I had and the money my dad loaned me, I was able to get the lights on and two boxes of tint, so we opened up the doors, painted the walls white and started rolling,” he says.
Shake it Fast
“[My previous shop] had tint clients coming, but it wasn’t as fast as it is here. It was a first-and-fifteenth kind of town down there; that is, people would show up on those days with their paychecks wanting tint, but it was slow every other day of the month,” he explains. But the waiting lines in Fredericksburg made for immediate results—a prime situation for this new shop owner.
“We weren’t even in the phonebook,” Clarke admits. “When we got through with the two boxes of tint we had, then we were able to afford two more. We had a box of 50-[percent] and a box of 35-[percent]. Those were the only two options we had.”
Suddenly his lack of amenities became an asset. It meant lack of overhead.
“Back then we only had to tint two cars a day to make a little money,” he says. “And we were doing them same-day, so, when word got around that there was a shop in town that did it in the same day, for around $135, we took off.”
Advertising was the last thing on Clarke’s mind in the beginning. “We ran off of word-of-mouth for a solid year, before I even thought about placing ads,” he admits.
According to Clarke, superior workmanship and a sense of community combine to make a successful window film business.
“The problem with poor quality comes in when you have installers out there doing work for people they’re never going to see again. They do a poor job and don’t even worry about it, because they know they’re never going to see that customer again,” he explains. “Me? I see the people I install tint for all the time. I might be walking into a grocery store and see somebody I installed tint for. I want those people to be happy with what I’ve done. Very happy.”
In the Eye of the Beholder
“I don’t charge someone to do things over. We don’t argue with anyone over anything. If you don’t like it, there’s no sense in me trying to tell you why you should. We just take it off and replace it,” he says. “It’s that customer’s vehicle, not mine. [He or she is] the one that needs to be happy with it.”
To him, customer satisfaction equals return business and return business means longevity. According to Clarke, when you do encounter the inevitable tough customer, you should bend to whatever extent necessary to please them.
“This guy came to me the other day and said that he could see the edge of his film on just one side. I didn’t argue with him,” he says. “I politely asked him to pull it in and we re-did it right then. When he left, he was happy. And you know what? He’ll be back.”
For the Love of Gas
The first few “downs” came as quite a surprise and even worried him a bit. But eventually he learned to recognize a pattern and believes he has even linked this to several economic factors.
“The first couple of times it was scary, but then we realized there’s a rhythm. Usually, right about the time kids get out of school it will slow down; then a month or so later it picks right back up; then it’s heavy around Christmas time, but slows down after the first of the year,” he explains.
He also believes real estate plays a role.
“When the real estate industry was making big money, I was making big money,” he says. “When the market slowed down, so did the tinting business.” But that’s not all.
“Our level of business is also linked to the price of gas,” he suggests. “When gas prices spike up, suddenly people aren’t interested in paying to have their windows tinted.” According to Clarke, it takes less of an increase than you might expect. “Sometimes it seems like it only takes ten or twenty cents for it to impact us. But the minute gas prices come back down, our business goes right back up,” he explains.
But his theory may not hold true for other areas. Clarke points out that Fredericksburg residents drive—a lot. “We have a lot of commuters around here, so a small increase in gas prices means big money to them,” he says.
Stretch a Bit
“Two and a half years [after opening The Lab], we moved over here. Again, I just happened to find this place and called,” he explains. But shortly after the move, he learned the space next to his new location was going to be rented, threatening his option to expand.
“They were about to rent out the space next to me, when I realized I wouldn’t have the opportunity to grow if that happened. Honestly, I wasn’t in a position to do it, but I made the commitment and rented both. That was one of my riskier moves, but it was worth it in the end,” he says. Clarke now has four employees: Richard Donovan Jr., film installer; Michael Minor Jr., sales and front counter; and Steven Atwell, wheel technician.
According to Clarke, part of being a successful business owner is being there. When he checked back on the business he sold back and left behind, he says the original owner had gone out of business. While he isn’t sure, Clarke says he suspects the owner simply wasn’t connected enough with his operation. This is one of the primary reasons he chooses not to diversify into the flat-glass film market.
No Place Like Home
“We do quite a bit of tinting for the Secret Service. A friend of mine that I went to high school with is a K-9 supervisor for a bomb unit,” he explains. “Every three to four years they replace the bomb unit vans. Last year they bought 32 of them and wanted the back windows tinted to keep the dogs cool.”
The Lab is a long way from the mess hall, but this hands-on owner cut a corner off of one of its work bays to use as an office and continues doing installations. “If Richard and I are both working, we can do six or seven cars a day. You can only do but so many cars a day and maintain a high level of quality, though,” he explains.
Quality installations, customer service, hometown appeal and occasional high-end wheel sales are his long-term plan. And as long as there are new cars being made and returning customers, Clarke says window film will be his bread and butter.
“I did alright with this business. I’m just going to ride for a while,” he says. “Maybe get another installer and try to do a little more, but I’m going to stick with it.”
“When we started, we also sold wheels, but I only had three types. Really, it’s just good for the waiting room,” he says. And, according to Clarke, temptation often plays out in his favor.
“During the installation, we have them in there for around two hours. Sometimes people will be sitting out front and decide they want an expensive set of rims,” he claims. There are even times when window film, The Lab’s main staple, suddenly becomes a small bonus to a several-thousand-dollar sale.
“Occasionally, in order to seal a big deal, I will throw in the window film for free,” he admits.
He suggests that wheels are the perfect complementary product, even more so than the latest electronics.
“That’s where I have an edge over stereo shops. They’re not going to sell you a stereo and throw in a tint job. It just doesn’t make sense for those two products and services to cross over. But you put on a beautiful set of wheels and, naturally, the next thing you’re going to want is tint,” he says. And according to Clarke, having both is key. “If I can offer them both at once, and throw in the tint for free, they’re not going to bother going somewhere else,” he suggests.
Film vs. Sign Installations
“It was just me, tinting that is, until I got Richard started and now he’s more or less taken over,” Clarke explained.
“My family has a vinyl sign company, so that’s what I was doing before,” Donovan says. “But I just didn’t like doing installations way up in the air, on these scissor lifts. I wasn’t much on that,” he says, pointing out that window film helps him keep both feet on the ground.
“I was cutting my fingers up constantly, working in the snow and just got tired of it,” he says, then he contrasted with some of the perks in doing window film. “I’m not lifting anything heavy all day long and I enjoy what I do. I enjoy the detail,” Donovan adds.
Some vehicles, however, offer more detail than Donovan would prefer.
“The toughest installs are the Volkswagens. The Beetle really is a monster and the windows are so small, with such a tight curve, so it bunches your fingers up all in one or two spots,” he explained as he meticulously performed an installation on a 2004 Acura TL.
Not So Star Struck
“I’ve got local people who come here every year. For every new car, they come and see me. Those are the people I want to focus on, those are my celebrities,” Clarke explains.
He did, however, unknowingly perform one high-profile installation.
“I once did a rush job for Hillary Clinton,” Clarke says. “It was an emergency and I didn’t know who I was doing it for at first.”
It was a field installation and the price was right, so Clarke says he didn’t hesitate.
“They called me and said they needed a Lincoln Town Car tinted the same day, the entire back half, and they offered me $400 to do it, so I threw my tools in the car and was on my way,” he explains.
Little did he know he would be escorted and watched over by a group of men in black—the Secret Service, that is.
“It was interesting. The entire time I was installing, there were all these Secret Service guys standing around, monitoring me. They didn’t tell me who it was for until I was done,” Clarke explains.
Drew Vass is the editor of Window Film magazine.