Canadian Distributor Reaches Summit in Both Life
by Drew Vass
For those of you who have decided to fold your hands and accept
the demise of the current economy—“You’ve got mail.” It’s from Peter Yates
and it reads something like this:
Yates, the owner of Window Film Systems in London, Ontario, Canada, doesn’t
believe in excuses.
“I went into a staff meeting and I wrote onto our giant eight- by eight-foot
white board: ‘Crisis creates opportunity,’” he says. It wasn’t that Yates’
staff had begun to whine; he just felt the need to ensure that everyone
was on the same page. “If that’s the concept that I have in my head, then
I better ensure that my staff and all of my customers have the same approach.”
So the economy is tough. But before you think about showing your “bum
hand,” be warned—this man doesn’t believe in giving up.
“You can either circle the drain and go through it, or you can do your
best to climb out,” he says. “And if you create a positive attitude about
a negative issue, that will help you deal with it.”
Case in point—at the age of 50, Yates decided it was time to fulfill a
lifelong goal by climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa. The 60 to 70 mile
journey would take days, reaching a total elevation of 19,331 feet at
the summit—not something you would expect the typical 50-year-old to do.
But Yates is far from average. He is an avid adventurer— a skier who insists
on climbing to the highest points in order to drop into untouched territory.
When that isn’t enough, he has also been known to helicopter into even
more remote locations.
Yates was born in Nairobi, Kenya. And though he moved to Canada at the
age of 12, he remembers sitting on his grandfather’s back porch, staring
at the snow covered peaks of Kilimanjaro.
“I used to sit on his knee and he would tell me that if I listened close
enough, I would hear Father Christmas coming over the mountain,” he explains.
“So Kilimanjaro has always had a very special place in my heart. As I
grew older, the desire to go back and touch African soil, and the possibility
of doing a climb, has always been a thing of mine. So, turning 50, I said
to myself ‘Enough is enough.’”
For those who aren’t yet buying into the message Yates wrote on his whiteboard,
there’s more. In the days leading up to this difficult journey, Yates
suffered a second-degree tear to one of his calf muscles while playing
squash. For most, this would mean cancelling or postponing the climb.
Not for Yates.
“I got on the Internet and did a search for [physically disabled] people
who have reached the summit of Kilimanjaro,” Yates says. “I found an 18-year-old
boy who had done it on one leg. I decided if he could do it on one leg,
I had no excuse.”
And so he made the climb.
“That’s just how I am,” Yates explains. “If I had to do it on crutches,
then I would have done it on crutches.”
You might be asking: What’s the correlation? Does climbing
a nearly 20,000 foot tall mountain give a man the right to dish out business
advice? Not necessarily. But Yates has been in the window film industry
since 1978. In 1990 he commited to the product segment by purchasing an
established distribution company, and the rest of his career reads a bit
like the story surrounding his Mt. Kilimanjaro adventure.
Yates got his start in the automotive business through import car sales
and repairs at the age of twenty-three. Soon thereafter, he took notice
of one of his customers, who had recently begun to distribute window film
products out of the basement of his home. In 1990, he sold his repair
shop and acquired the adolescent business, making the leap to window film.
Yates says it was a lack of opportunity that caused him to switch courses.
“Stagnation isn’t something that I’m comfortable with,” he says. “Stagnation
is the end. It’s when you die. There can be no plateau for me. And in
my previous business, there was a plateau; which is why I said to myself
‘I’ve got to get out.’”
Yates isn’t one to take the path of least resistance either. When he made
the decision to climb Kilimanjaro, he decided to take the “Lemosho” route.
While this path offers the greatest views and adventure, it also involves
the steepest and most difficult climb, especially for someone with a torn
“I’m not a rock climber, and there is one section where you have to clamor
up this steep rock wall,” Yates explains. “I didn’t like that.”
Slow But Steady
On Mt. Kilimanjaro, with a torn calf muscle and facing one of the greatest
physical challenges of his life, Yates knew that the Lemosho climb had
to be accomplished one laborious step at a time.
“The first day was only about four hours of climbing, but I had to do
it on my tip toes, because it was all uphill,” he explains. “Whenever
you put your heel down, you over-extend your calf muscle. I had to do
it on my tip toes to try and get through it.” And every step brought its
share of pain. “It was so flippin’ painful,” he says. “I managed to get
to the first camp and I was just trying to show that I was okay, because
our guides were constantly monitoring us.”
The following night would prove as much of a psychological challenge as
the day was physical. But Yates says he was determined to not turn back.
“It’s all a mindset,” he says. “Anything like that is more of a mindset
than a physical challenge. My mind wasn’t in a good place and I didn’t
have a very good feeling about it.”
Thus Yates’ whiteboard message.
“That night in camp was kind of a meditation type of process,” Yates says.
“I just kept telling myself that I was not going to go down and call it
In business, the torn calf muscle was a relatively small Canadian window
film market and a base of automotive dealers that weren’t up to the task
of architectural sales. Yates points out that Canada is not only a cool
climate, but has a smaller population than the state of California.
“Compared to the U.S., it is a very small market,” he says. “From that
perspective alone, that is why we have had to look for additional opportunities.”
In 1990, Yates faced an excruciating step for his company. He was determined
to shift 80 percent of his business towards the architectural market;
but reaching this summit would require a controversial and difficult climb.
He would need to cut ties with approximately 50 percent of his dealer
base. But first, he would need to discuss the idea with Madico, his primary
film provider at the time. Just as he had no problem convincing his climbing
guides that he would make it up Kilimanjaro with a torn calf muscle, Madico
officials knew Yates would summit the architectural segment one way or
“I told them I wanted to fire half of my customers and that I was going
to take a big hit in sales,” Yates says. “If I had gone to any other manufacturer
and said, ‘By the way, this distributor is only going to buy half the
product that I did the year before,’ they would have said, ‘Well, I guess
we’re going to have to find ourselves a new distributor.’ Instead, they
said, ‘Wow. What a great idea.’”
And so he did. Years later, when he made that arduous climb to the top
of Mt. Kilimanjaro, he did it with a Madico banner in his backpack. At
the summit, Yates would show his appreciation for the company by snapping
photos of the event—a symbol of their successful business journey together.
Yates’ plan to penetrate the flat glass market panned out. In time, he
began adding new dealers to his customer base that were qualified to serve
the architectural market, slowly removing his company from sales. But
remember—there can be no plateau; so he immediately began searching for
his next summit.
On to the Next Summit
“The typical way we go about things is—we ask ourselves, ‘Everyone else
is doing [this], so what can we do that will create some uniqueness?’”
Yates explains. “To date, we’ve probably done nearly 50 projects in the
name of research and development, to see if there’s an opportunity there.
Sometimes they’ve failed and sometimes they haven’t. But we’re constantly
in search of something new.”
It was Yates’ experience as a class A automotive mechanic and machinist
that led him to his next quest. He says he noticed a problem with the
typical installation process for impact-resistant films. A wet-application
doesn’t begin to perform at the specified and maximum capacity until a
curing process has completed. He also noticed that glass manufacturers
and contractors were missing a golden opportunity by not offering an impact-resistant
replacement product designed to fit the thickness of standard openings.
For Yates, the answer was a dry lamination process. By dry laminating
impact-resistant film to glass, prior to installation, the film would
cover edge to edge, eliminating the need for an attachment system. It
would also perform to its full specifications without a curing period.
“We can laminate glass today and it can be put in the opening tomorrow
without having to be concerned about performance,” Yates says. “If you
wet apply it, it could be months in some cases before the product is 100
percent ready to perform at 100 percent of its potential.”
Though Yates had the technical know-how to develop a machine and process
for his big idea, the effort would also require an immense amount of capital—something
he didn’t have at the time.
“Just like anything else, once I put my mind to it, I just do whatever
it takes to get it done,” he says. So he did a little research and discovered
that the Canadian National Research Council often subsidizes new business
ventures. Armed with resume, idea and a solid business plan, he approached
the council with his idea, requesting assistance for the cost of research
and development. It saw fit to fund Yates’ effort, and soon thereafter
he began developing what would prove to be a profitable avenue for his
“You can either circle the
drain and go through it, or you can do your best to climb out.
And if you create a positive attitude about a negative issue, that will
help you deal with it.”
—Peter Yates, owner, Window Film Systems in London,
“We’ve been dry laminating for ten to 15 years now,” Yates explains. “I
would say 90 percent of what we do is for glass manufacturers. It is done
in a clean room, so the resulting application of film is impeccable. The
quality is ideal and we’re able to do 1,100 linear feet in an hour.”
In Yates newly-designed, 40-foot dry laminating line, lites of glass pass
through a transport system and into a glass washer. From there, they are
passed into an inspection station and later to a dry laminating area where
pressure sensitive films are applied in a vertical fashion.
“There are other companies out there that dry laminate,” Yates says. “But
almost anyone who has done dry laminating has done it on a horizontal
machine. And, in the film business as we all know, trying to apply film
to a piece of glass lying flat on a table top means huge amounts of contamination.
So the machine that we developed here is a vertical machine.”
The entire facility spans 7,000 square feet. The laminator Yates converted
and uses is approximately 40-years old and once was owned and operated
by a film manufacturer. End products are used in overhead glazing, safety
and security, and anti-graffiti applications.
Today, Yates’ company services approximately 75 to 80 dealers and features
around an 80/20 split between flat glass and automotive—this time with
the larger portion representing flat glass. And he already has plans for
future climbing adventures.
“It would be nice to summit the [world’s highest] seven,” he says.
With his current staff, Yates says he can pack up and head out at anytime.
“Because my staff [people] are absolutely the best of the best, I can
walk away from this place at any time,” he says. “When I was in Africa,
I was out of touch with the office for three weeks and I had no fear whatsoever
about what was going on. I came back to find that I didn’t really need
to be here,” he adds, laughing.
Daphne Buono is Yates’ right hand woman and general manager. She has been
with him for ten years now. “She runs the show,” he says. “She’s the general
manager, but she literally runs this place.”
To support his company’s dealer base, Yates recruited the help of two
brothers. “I also have the ‘Sunderland Group,’” he calls them. “I have
two brothers who are both in sales. B.J. [Sunderland] is my dealer development
person and Josh [Sunderland] is my commercial sales representative. Their
goal is to take my seat [some day], so they’re an integral part of the
company. But everyone is really—everyone from our installation guys to
the top raft.”
A key difference in Yates’ business adventures and his journey to the
top of Mt. Kilimanjaro is that one has a distinct summit. He says the
sight of Kilimanjaro’s highest peak inspired a euphoric feeling long before
he trudged the final few miles up to it. By the last portion of the climb,
his torn calf muscle was a distant memory, drowned out by one of the world’s
greatest accomplishments and views—a view he’s willing to share with anyone
who follows the message he once wrote on an eight- by eight-foot whiteboard:
“Crisis creates opportunity.” wf
Drew Vass is the editor of Window Film magazine.
© Copyright 2009 Key Communications Inc. All rights reserved.
No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.