Volume 11, Issue 3 - May/June 2007
|From Software to Squeegee
SolarFilm Owner Has Digital Past
by Penny Stacey
Alcoa’s purchase of Reynolds Metal Co. in 2002 left John Chewning looking for a new job. He didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do at the time, but knew he wanted to own his own business.
After reviewing several options, including a petroleum brokerage business, several franchises and an auto upholstery company, Chewning chose the film industry. He purchased the then-20-year-old SolarFilm in Richmond, Va., from its previous owner, Tom Parker, and has been running the show there since.
“It’s a service business, not a commodity business, so you can indeed separate yourself by good service,” Chewning says. “Second, the company had a good reputation and the owner was getting out for the right reasons.”
According to Chewning, Parker just didn’t enjoy the window film business and wanted to write a book and explore another product line.
Chewning says he also liked the idea of having a Monday-to-Friday job that didn’t involve travel.
Before deciding to buy the business, with Parker’s permission, Chewning pulled customer files and called them to see how their experience with SolarFilm had been. Those he spoke with were pleased with the product and the service, so he knew he was on the right track.
“I firmly believe you’re better off with a good service business with a good reputation where the phone is already ringing than starting off on your own,” Chewning says.
The Long Haul
“I have a couple [installers] that have been with us for 20 years,” Chewning says. “I have a 3-year and a 1-year [installer], and I think I could probably put more to work.”
In a business that’s constantly changing and is known for a high turnover rate, it’s easy to wonder how Chewning keeps up these statistics.
“We offer health care and savings plans,” he says.
Likewise, he looks for installers who are in it for the long haul.
“I’m looking for long-term commitments and relationships,” Chewning says. The number of competitors SolarFilm faces, though, presents one of its biggest challenges—one common to the industry—along with a high turnover rate of the competition.“
There are a lot of low-entry competitors in the market that continue to drive prices to points lower than they should be—competitors that don’t stay in the business very long,” he says. “We see the yellow pages change in and out every year.”
On the commercial end, the low-entry competitors, as Chewning calls them, haven’t stopped SolarFilm from obtaining some high-profile jobs. The company recently installed film on the Federal Reserve Bank in Richmond after-hours.
“There were about five people onsite every night,” he says modestly. In addition, the company recently completed a unique film installation at St. Mary’s Hospital in Richmond.
“We recently did a very interesting project with some polarized film for a CAT scan,” he says. “[The film] allowed the CAT scan operator to see two separate patient viewing rooms, but the patient viewing rooms couldn’t see each other.”
“Virginia’s a tough state to be legal in,” he says. (Virginia law requires more than 50-percent visible light transmittance for front side windows and more than 35-percent visible light transmittance for back side windows and rear windows. Film for front side- and back-lites cannot be more than 20 percent reflective.)
Likewise, he finds that customer reliability is a large problem in this area.
“We call them and say, ‘Where are you?’ and they say, ‘Was that today?’ It’s disruptive, and then you want to try to compensate the technician who’s here ready to do the job,” he says.
However, Chewning continues to make appointments for automotive work.“I hate to stop because it pays the rent, but I think our niche is [providing] high levels of customer service to high-end residential customers,” Chewning says.
What’s In Store?
“I see residential products going up to another level,” he says.
He and his wife, Harriet, who serves as office manager for SolarFilm, hope this expansion in residential products will help them to continue to provide the high-end service on which they pride themselves.
“We feel like we give excellent service onsite and in our office,” Chewning says.
Penny Stacey is the outgoing editor of Window Film magazine.
Desperate House Calls
I’m a shopper. I don’t buy until I feel like I’m making an informed decision, so buying something sight-unseen, or without shopping around is unheard of for me. Making a sale on the first visit is nearly impossible with me, but SolarFilm in Richmond, Va., managed to do it.
Until recently, I knew absolutely nothing about window film. And I was perfectly content with my ignorance, until, one day, I sat down on my brand-new leather sofa, threw my arm up on the back of it and had a reflex reaction like I had just touched a hot stove! This was not good.
As fate would have it, that very same day I opened a copy of a local publication and saw an ad for SolarFilm. I saw “IWFA member” in the corner of the ad and called immediately. The receptionist took my information and said I would hear from a salesperson that same day, and I did. The salesperson, Jenise Guidry, said we could schedule an appointment for two days later, so, fearing for my sofa’s wellbeing, I did.
Jenise arrived dressed professionally, with all of her samples, picture albums and information well organized. The meeting was more like an educational session than a sales pitch. She chose to sit on the sofa (in spite of the hot sun) to get a firsthand feel for my situation. First and foremost, she covered the various types of window film technology and the benefits of each. Then she wanted to hear from me.
I explained what I expected and, based on her information, which benefits I felt I needed. Then she showed me before and after photos for other projects and got out swatches for various film types. Her company offered many different types of 3M film and, at first glance, I was leaning towards the most expensive—Prestige. To my surprise, Jenise said she thought one of the less expensive films was actually a better fit for my needs. She also focused on my areas of concern and didn’t try to pressure me into treating the whole house.
She had me examine several swatches, flush against the window glass side by side, viewing the light and colors through each; then she had me step outside to see the reflective qualities from a passerby’s perspective. The last thing I wanted to do was make my house look like a pair of cheap sunglasses. Last but not least, she shielded a spot on my sofa with one of the swatches and, after allowing it some time to cool, she had me place my arm where the film protected. It was only slightly warm, even with the sun streaming through.
Jenise said SolarFilm prides itself on technicians who have been installing for literally decades combined, which gave me peace of mind about the installation process. I told her I was going out of town in a week and would prefer not to come back and find my leather sofa as the world’s most expensive piece of beef jerky. She called to check the schedule and minutes later I was on it, feeling perfectly secure in my decision.
The main culprit was a giant 14- by 5-foot picture window, so I expected the technicians to flinch when they walked in, but they didn’t even bat an eye. Robert Dowdy Jr. said he had been installing window film for 20 years. I couldn’t resist asking and he admitted—this was the biggest he’d seen yet.
After meticulous prepping, removing every speck of paint residue and cleaning the panes to a condition they hadn’t seen in probably 50 years, Dowdy and his assistant, Derek Behr, set up for installation.
Dowdy explained the entire process to me before they began, then I was shocked to watch them roll out the film and cover the monster in one piece. These guys looked like well-oiled machines as they worked. They meticulously cut a total of 25 smaller pieces for the sidelites and adjacent casement-style window. When the project was done, you couldn’t spot a single edge of the film and, already, my view was looking better than ever with no noticeable tint. When the installation was done, Dowdy explained the proper care techniques and pointed out a few specks between the film and glass that he said were normal and would work their way out within seven to ten days. Sure enough, they did.
Jenise called me back a few days later to make sure I was totally satisfied with my decision and enjoying the product. I told her I couldn’t believe the difference it made and assured her this film had improved the quality of my life. It wasn’t until much later, looking back on the experience, that I realized … I didn’t shop around.
Drew Vass is the incoming editor of Window Film magazine.