Volume 17, Issue 1 - January/February 2013

feature

Heading Eats
Eastman Exec Details Plans for Future
by Casey Neeley

Travis Smith is eager to explain how business will look going forward. His more than 16 years with Eastman Chemical has included several different jobs, including a stint living in China. As of December 2012, the 39-year-old manager was back in the states having settled into a newly purchased home in St. Louis, Mo. But the biggest settling Smith is doing is adjusting to his new role as the vice president and general manager of performance films for Eastman Chemical Co. subsidiary Solutia Inc.

Window Film magazine caught up with Smith for an exclusive interview in late November.

WFM: Llumar has had quite a number of owners in the past few years. What are some of the assets you see Eastman bringing to the window film industry?
TS: We have significant assets to leverage and we may not as yet have fully leveraged them. The first major asset is in our operations. We plan to leverage our operational capabilities across Martinsville, Dresden and Canoga Park. We see a strong manufacturing orientation and a strong foundation upon which we can build.

The second is brand strength. The brand strength we have is rising in all areas. Whether it’s the longstanding Llumar brand or the newer parts of our brand portfolio like V-KOOL, there’s a lot of brand strength in the company, especially in Asia.

And the third piece we see is the strength of our dealer/distributor network in both reach and quality of partnership.

Ultimately our team plans to build on these strengths. Eastman will work to put all three together in a successful way. That is the puzzle we are continuing to solve.

WFM: One of the first and largest concerns we usually hear when there is a sale of a manufacturer involves its dealer network. Do you anticipate any changes in how Llumar does business with its dealers?
TS: We are only as successful as our dealers and one of the things that’s obvious right away is how dependent we are on the dealer. Any part of our strategy going forward must leverage and build upon that network.

The first question we want to answer is “how do we help drive demand in the category?” For example, there’s already a strong understanding of our category in certain countries. Nine out of ten cars in Asia are filmed; only one out of four cars in the United States is filmed.

What are glass technologies doing differently in Asia? Film is put on cars at the point of sale in Asia. Consumers in Asia who buy new cars know they need window film—there’s an understanding of the category there. They come in knowing they will buy it. They put film on the car at the time of purchase.

That understanding is not nearly as common in North America. Not as many people anticipate filming their car; it’s not assumed. So there is a different level of category awareness. Given that, you can either sit back and hope someone else creates that awareness or you can influence it yourself. We need to drive awareness.

We are finding the answers to a number of questions here. How do consumers and channel partners make that decision? What leads them to film a car? What choice do they make and why?

If you don’t start with an understanding of how people make purchasing decisions, then you will not have input into that process nor will you be able to influence it. So we are assessing that carefully and building a foundation for growth.

We’re looking to do some things differently to push category growth.

WFM: Some competitors focus on automotive tint, while others have positioned their offerings as energy-savers. How do you plan to position Eastman’s film products?
TS: At a higher level, you will see the same kind of mix of products. The categories we participate in within the market won’t change. We will, however, do what any good company would and perform a portfolio analysis around the operational side. That will be a normal part of our business. Some of this work, to determine the right set of products, had been done under Solutia, and we plan to continue that process. That’s a fairly normal course of business for any company.

WFM: It seems there is a fight for the soul of the window film industry. Some manufacturers continue to sell it as a commodity product while others are positioning it as a value-added one, an energy efficient product, etc. What do you think the best type of positioning is?
TS: That’s a really good question, especially in such a unique market. Window film is really only a $1-$1.2 billion market yet it has a lot of channel complexity. And you hit on it—film is not just film. Some types are specific for certain applications, some are better than others and some just don’t perform.

The low price point, low quality film market is just not a category in which we choose to compete. It’s not who or what we are and it’s not sold to those we are targeting.

We plan to continue to educate our customers on a whole range of value that our film offers. What you have to do is continue to educate that there is a range of high quality products that deliver more than just a bit of color on a car window. The trends have been, and will continue to be, favorable to quality films. The trend is moving from very low performance to wanting a better performing product.

WFM: Would you say the North American film market has fully matured, or would you say that there is still potential for growth?
TS: The latter, I believe. I see no reason why growth will not accelerate. A lot of people still want a better-performing product, a more energy-efficient product. That’s what we have to leverage.

Cheap films are out there by the rolls. But I go back to what one dealer told me at SEMA [2012]. He said “you know, years ago, when I was using cheaper film I was filming ten cars a day. And I still do that today. But five of them used to be reworks from when I was using the other film.”

WFM: You are the fourth top manager of Llumar that we’ve had the privilege of interviewing. Trouble is, all four have been within the past two years. How do manage a company that has undergone so many management changes in such a short time?
TS: Well, I’d like to separate the company ownership issues from the leadership issues. I see them as two separate things. True, there have been a lot of corporate transactions that involved the company, but they were transactions on a corporate level. I would not read anything into that. Small companies get sold to bigger companies—that is not specific to the window film industry.

What is interesting is that Solutia chose to keep CP Films while divesting other parts of its businesses in the past and even made a couple of acquisitions—Novamatrix and then Southwall Technologies—over the past two years. We think those pieces [that were acquired] are the right ones and create an exciting portfolio.

Now leadership is a separate issue and the company has faced a lot of challenges in this regard. I am aware of all the changes they have gone through. I don’t expect that to continue. I have 20 years with Eastman and I plan on sticking around awhile.

The staff has been through a lot of change because of this. We plan to be thoughtful and purposeful with any changes in their future. We plan to understand the business and make the right choices. There are some good elements to what [the company has] been through. On the one hand, they have been through a lot of change so we know they have been able to adapt to it. They also have a lot of history of what works and doesn’t work that we can draw upon. If I was on the outside looking in at the company, certainly in the dealer base, any concern about instability would hopefully disappear.

WFM: What would you say are some of the biggest threats to the window film industry?
TS: There are a lot of regulations in ways that aren’t needed for the business. There is a role for window film and regulation that balances and drives safety. The VLT (visible light transmittance) regulations and enforcement make sense, but complete bans are counterproductive. Some regulation affects window film’s strong legitimate value proposition in a negative way. India is just the example that comes to mind right now.

The emergence of new competitors is also always a threat. As long as they occupy the low-end space, I don’t lose sleep though.

I’d have to say the biggest difficulty we as an industry have to overcome is category perception. That’s a big challenge. Too many people think of window film in terms of the poor quality tint job they may have received in the 1980s and not in terms of high performance. We have not been able to get the right education to consumers. In order to grow, we will need to do so.

WFM: What true growth opportunities do you see in the North American window film market?
TS: I’m brought back to the figures nine in ten in Asia and one in four in the United States. How do you change that? It’s just not a category that people North America in North America understand, so how do you change that? It’s a growth market for automotive, but I also don’t want to discount architectural films … It’s a low perception category. How do you understand how people make are purchasing choices, and how do you insert yourself into that segment? It’s a fragmented base. The architectural segment has a different set of dynamics than the other segments.

WFM: How do you measure success personally?
TS: I measure my success by the obvious things; my number one strength is competition—I speak in win/lose competitive terms. I define winning and losing by whether or not our products are being chosen in the market. When I look at a forecast of economic conditions I ask: are we growing the business above and beyond the market? I have tremendous confidence in Eastman’s ability to win. Are we winning in the market? That comes down to the strength by which we compete in the market: are we growing, are we being profitable? Historic challenges in the business involve bringing some stability and building a team. I plan to bring that stability and build a team internally and I believe that will differentiate us externally as well.

Just the Stats:
• Native of Kingsport, Tenn.
• Holds a Bachelor’s of Science in chemical engineering from University of Tennessee
• Holds a Master’s of Business Administration from the prestigious Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania • Joined Eastman Chemical Co. in 1996
• Held a series of cooperative internships with Eastman during college
• Previously lived in Shanghai while serving as Eastman’s regional business director for specialty plastics, Asia-Pacific
• Now resides in St. Louis, Mo.
• Wife Brenda also works for Eastman and both children, Jana (7) and Thomas (5) are fluent in Chinese
• Personal interests include basketball, golf and travel


WINDOW FILM
© Copyright 2013 Key Communications Inc. All rights reserved.
No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.