Volume 14, Issue 3 - May/June 2010

feature

Top of the Charts
Hang Film, Tour with Band, One Ohio Tinter Does Both in Concert
by Ellen Rogers

Most kids would rather sleep in on a Saturday morning than get up early to help their dads out at work; this was certainly true for Al Mothersbaugh. But that didn’t stop the owner of Akron Glass Tinting in Kent, Ohio, from learning a skill at an early age.

“I’ve been hanging film since I was 12. My dad ripped me out of bed every Saturday morning,” says Mothersbaugh.

And like a lot of kids, Motherbaugh also admits it was his dream to grow up and be a rock star. His cousins are in the popular 1980s rock band Devo (which was based in Kent, Ohio), which skyrocketed to fame with its hit “Whip It.” Mothersbaugh wanted to follow in their footsteps, and did so, touring with his own band, The TwistOffs, from 1992 to 1996. But whenever he was home he’d be back at work at the family tint business.

By 1998, he chose to say goodbye to the band and hello to a full-time career in the film business.

“I was 30, I had just gotten engaged and decided it was time to clock in, so I quit the band,” Motherbaugh says. “I felt bad, but I had to do it. Most people start their careers at 21 or 22; I was 31, 32.”

Despite the rough economy, Mothersbaugh says his business has managed to survive and prosper, and he knows exactly what his next steps need to be in order to continue forward.

Humble Beginnings
“This was a side job for my dad [full-time he worked for an employment agency] and he was real old-school. He was the kind of guy who could change his own brakes, change his own oil, bear-hug a water heater. He got into this after he was at a plastics convention and came across an earlier version of film that was liquid,” says Motherbaugh. “The oldest receipt I have is from 1972 when he bought some cans of stuff from this company called General Solar Corp. It was a liquid window tint and he would put it into this electronic machine and flow it onto windows and then it would come down like maple syrup. He was doing that before I was born.”

The Motherbaughs operated the company out of their house as a side business.

“And it was totally normal to have strangers there all the time,” says Mothersbaugh. “The phone would ring and we’d answer it ‘Akron Glass Tinting,’ and everybody knew how to take a message; it was ‘home-office-ing’ out of necessity.

“I always complained about getting pulled out of bed, but it was nice because I had a wicked bike and stacks of cash as a kid. We were not affluent by any means; I was just working at a young age.”

He recalls being on the job. “My brother and I would sit in the van, half asleep, eating doughnuts, and we’d see this hand come out the front door and wave us inside. I remember this one time we were standing in the living room with this couple and my dad was explaining the benefits of window film, and he leans over and whispers to us, ‘start washing the windows.’ So we do, and the owner asks us what we’re doing and my dad replies, ‘Don’t you want a free window washing while my boys are around?’” That was the start, he says, of a high-pressure sales pitch.

“But you can’t get away with that these days because people are more educated. My dad was old school and when he was coupled with someone with the same mentality it was either a homerun or a giant whiff,” says Mothersbaugh.
After high school, Mothersbaugh After high school, Mothersbaugh attended Kent State University and continued to work in the window film business on the weekends. Even after college, window film remained just a side business, as the rock band was his top priority. It was during this time when he learned one of the biggest lessons of his career: the importance of professionalism.

“I’d [be home and I’d] go out to these jobs wearing my Doc Marten boots and low Dickies shorts and Ramones t-shirt. I had this huge mane of hair and I looked like Side-Show-Bob (from The Simpsons) and I’d try and sell these jobs,” Mothersbaugh recalls. “Some people, who felt good about working with a family business, would give me an order, but a lot of the time I would lose to the competition because I wasn’t professional enough. Right in my backyard, I was losing jobs to guys from Cleveland and it was troubling to me.”

And that’s when he realized it was time to leave the band behind.

“I had all the brains of an installer and the technical expertise of an installer, but if you’ve ever read Michael Gerber’s e-Myth (which stands for Entrepreneurial Myth) it basically says [as an example] that just knowing how to hang window film, doesn’t make you an entrepreneur,” says Mothersbaugh. “It just means you’ve started a business doing something you’re good at; you’re not necessarily able to manage people, manage inventory, do your marketing, close deals with efficiency, etc. so you’re not, as [the book says] working in your business, you want to be working on it.”

Next Steps
Soon thereafter, the time came for Mothersbaugh to take over the family business.

“My brother and I ran it for awhile, but it turned out my brother didn’t really like the business, so he stepped out and I ran with it,” says Mothersbaugh. “Then gradually I started adding installers and I sold my biggest job ever (at the time) right after I got the business. And we’ve just kept growing and have not looked back. We’ve had our bumps and bruises just like everyone else, but when it comes down to it I focus on relationships and face time.”

Today Akron Glass Tinting employees four installers and operates from a one-room facility. It may still be a small business, but Mothersbaugh has laid out the plans for growth.

“I’ve been in this location for almost a year. I had a shop for a while and I’ve worked out of my house; I was just trying to be conservative. As we grow and hire more employees we will be moving into a place with offices and have a showroom, etc., but right now … I don’t need that. I am mean and lean—that’s my motto,” he says, adding, though, with expected growth on the horizon, “My goal is to buy a building within the next 15 months. All my financing is in place, and because it’s a down market commercially I have my pick of the litter.”

He says that, like everyone else, he’s made mistakes along the way. “But one area where I have not made a mistake is being strategically aware of what I need to do next for my company,” says Mothersbaugh. “And a case in point was connecting with 3M back in 2006.”

An exclusive 3M dealer, Akron Glass Tinting was named the company’s New Dealer of the Year in 2007, and Mothersbaugh says the relationship has afforded him many opportunities.

“I just started using this new [3M product] called Di-Noc. It’s an 8-mil architectural laminate that you can put on any smooth surface to change its look,” he explains. “It ties right into sustainability because you can take a bunch of old doors that would end up in a landfill, put this coating on them and make them into something gorgeous. You could make it look like bamboo.”

Mothersbaugh points out that sustainability is a big focus of his business.

“I am in Northeast Ohio selling solar control window film to the select few people who have even heard about it,” he says. “These films have seen a significant increase in credibility in the last ten years because it’s now a more stable product.”

He continues with a laugh, “What cracks me up is that now everyone is talking about being green and [as a company] we’ve been green since 1958.”

And what about the tax incentives? One might think that’s helped bring in extra business. But Mothersbaugh says it actually has not.

“It’s a nice ‘extra’ when you are trying to close a sale as the homeowner can basically write off a third of their bill, but it has not brought as much business as you might think.”

He’s quick to point out that one obstacle he sees in the window film industry is the lack of national marketing by the manufacturers.

“Not only do we dealers have to go out, close the deals, keep customers happy, employees happy, schedule, order, etc. but we also have to find ways to bring this to market at our level,” he says. “Sure, having a web presence is huge and that’s helped tremendously, but it’s frustrating that so much is on the dealer to get all of this stuff to market.”

“There is plenty of work out there. If it seems like you’re fighting over
the same piece of meat it’s because you’re not prospecting.”
—Al Mothersbaugh

Diversification
While heat, fade and glare are common reasons for using window film, Mothersbaugh has also been successful with decorative films, and is an associate member of both the International Interior Design Association and the American Society of Interior Design.

“At one time I carried one frosted film; now I have more than 100. If you get an architectural drawing that says solar control film it’s surprising because nine out of ten times they are specifying a frosted film,” he says.

Working in this part of the film business also brings him into contact with the architectural community, which can sometimes be a challenge.

“The thing with architects is getting them to use your name in their specification. It’s not only educating architects, but also making sure when they are writing the spec they know who to call and aren’t just writing in ‘use frosted film.’ You’ve got to be able to beat them to the punch and talk to them about. Otherwise they just go look online and it’s a crapshoot on whether they find you or not,” he says. “It’s the same with safety and security films. They don’t always know what they are specifying. But if they’d take the time to have a conversation with [the industry] they’d know they’d get the follow through.”

Pulling Through
Aside from the challenges that come from educating architects, another concern Mothersbaugh has about the industry is the lack of education and training.

“I think a lot of guys started out hanging film and then transferred into being business owners. We’re all out here on our own doing this without any real model. So you do what works, you re-tool, you take a lesson. And I’m not saying that it’s because there’s no formal training for the window film guy; it’s just this is such a new industry and there are so few doing it, I almost see it as a personal issue because so many guys had to learn this on their own without going to business school,” says Mothersbaugh, who credits his friend and mentor Ed Golda from Michigan Glass Coatings for helping him become more professional and business-minded.

“One of the things I did for him was help him into the Sandler Sales Institute and that has helped him have a more professional approach to how he handles customers and the business, because not everyone [in this industry] has sales training,” says Golda. “So that raised his level of professionalism. Tint shops these past few years have been struggling and he’s been able to survive the rough times because of that professional approach, and that’s helped him see constant referrals.”

Without a doubt, the economy has brought challenges. However, Mothersbaugh says he is ready to face them.

“I would be lying if I said I was unaffected, but a colleague told me that the only people complaining about the economy are the ones not prospecting, and that’s more of an anecdotal way to view this. So what I mean is, the more time you worry about what’s happening in the world, the less time you’re picking up the phone and taking care of your customers,” says Mothersbaugh. “I know how many calls I need to make in a week, how many leads I need from those calls, how many conversations, meetings, etc. I need to have in order to make my numbers. And when you don’t hit those numbers you feel bad. But you feel real good when you get a lot of upstream work that you never would have gotten otherwise. I have my goals written out and I look at them all the time with pictures of my kids. There is plenty of work out there. If it seems like you’re fighting over the same piece of meat it’s because you’re not prospecting.”

Hometown Spirit
Having grown up in the Akron area, Mothersbaugh is happy with where his business has taken him, both personally and professionally, and says one of the best parts is the freedom the job has afforded him.

“I am able to coach my son’s baseball team, I am able to help out with the youth wrestling team, I am the chief of the local Indian Guides tribe I can take my kids to their music lessons,” he says. “Now, in the summer time, they don’t see me a lot during dinner because that’s when a lot of my appointments are, but I can put [their events] on the calendar and be there with them and that’s been really nice,” he says, adding that his wife also helps out with the business.

He adds, “You have to balance your family with being pro-active, doing what you say you’re going to do, constantly de-briefing yourself on what you did wrong and what you did right and always strive to have good conversations with customers.

“If things go wrong I take a lesson and learn from it. I know I will lose jobs and win jobs but I de-brief every time and allow myself to enjoy the successes.” Golda adds, “The word to describe him is passionate—he’s passionate about this business.” Golda says he’s often told Mothersbaugh to expand and move closer to Cleveland, “but I think he likes the hometown feel of the Akron area. He’s done a lot of things right to run a small business as a professional business and that’s why he’s surviving.”

From his days in a band to running his tint business today, Mothersbaugh has indeed managed to survive. And like so many bands, he has been able to succeed, even when others have not, simply because he's not just thinking about today, but constantly looking ahead to his next gig.

Ellen Rogers
is the editor of Window Film magazine.



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