Clear thinking

Oct 11, 2010

Some restyling products are trend driven, some are specific to only a segment of the vehicle market and some are stalwart products that apply across the entire spectrum of vehicle offerings.

Window tint films and paint protection films are examples of products that aren’t limited by variations in consumer tastes or by certain genres of vehicles. Although tint does have regional variances in demand, its use is consistently widespread; and like any great accessory it not only performs but it contributes to the aesthetics of a vehicle. PPF isn’t as regionally variable as tint but it, too, offers performance through its protection of a vehicle’s appearance.

Autoplex by Vanworks, with headquarters in Fort Collins, Colo., is well positioned with its three locations to serve the entire range of restyling needs in northern Colorado and neighboring Wyoming and Nebraska. With one of its three locations focused heavily on the sales and installation of window and protection films, the film products play a major role in the successful mix of accessories sold and installed by this growing company.

Setting up a business model

Autoplex evolved out of Vanworks, a successful van conversion company also located in Fort Collins, Colo. As consumer tastes evolved, Vanworks expanded its offerings to include SUV and truck conversions (operating as Rocky Mountain Truckworks) as well as retail and wholesale restyling services, named Autoplex by Vanworks. Jim Rulon, manager of the South Fort Collins location, joined the team to enhance the window and protection film offerings at Autoplex.

Rulon has 20 years of restyling experience, the last 16 being almost exclusively dedicated to window films. With the introduction of PPF, it was a natural extension of his talents to incorporate this product into his focus.

“I didn’t envision that this would be my career when I started out at 22 [years old],” he notes when talking about his career. “Quality of work is a big thing with me. I still take pride in my work and still enjoy doing it.”

Describing Autoplex’s business model, Rulon explains the breakdown of each store location’s focus: “Our flagship North Fort Collins store does 70% of all three stores’ hard-parts installations. Our store in Longmont (Colo.) does everything that the other stores do, as well,” in terms of sales, with limited installations. He continues, “The ‘South’ store, my location, is a good retail location and a good area to service our dealers. All the window film and PPF projects sold by all three stores schedule the installations at my location. That’s really the focus of this shop. We offer a full range of accessories at our shop, but we shuffle the vehicles to the North store.”

The “South” store’s location is a lean operation, with Rulon filling administrative, sales and installation duties; another installer, a receptionist who answers phones and handles some sales, as well as a “shagger” who transports cars between all the shops but is dedicated to the South store location, mange the film install operation. Rulon’s philosophy on staff is simple and solid:

“The core to any successful business is good personnel. If you don’t have that and you have turnover every six to eight months, trying to find somebody good is a needle in a haystack search,” he says.

Wholesale vs. retail sales

Rulon reports that the percentage of wholesale and retail work fluctuates by season. “Spring and summer see a lot more retail work, up to 65% of all film installations,” he says, “while fall and winter see a higher amount of wholesale work of approximately the same percentage as summer retail sales.”

The dealer work also changes seasonally, not only in volume but with an increase in “pre-loaded” stock units. Rulon explains: “I’ve found the dealer market in Colorado to be different than the other markets I’ve worked in, like Nevada and Arizona; they don’t seem to pre-load nearly the number of vehicles up here.”

“In the busy retail time we don’t necessarily experience a drop in the quantity of wholesale work, we just see a big increase in the retail projects. What we do is schedule the dealer’s sold vehicles accordingly; we don’t do as much stock (pre-load) as we could, which is something we are focusing on for growth and maybe shuffling specifically those projects to the North shop.

“The pre-loads fall off during the spring and summer. We scratch at them every other day, but there’s probably a few left on the table that we could probably snag from this dealer or that dealer. We are just stretched during the spring through late summer.”

Like most shops, Autoplex has seen the effects of the economy on its volume and dealer customers. After a trending toward in-house film installs by the dealers, Rulon says he’s seen a change at the dealers which Autoplex serves.

“I’ve seen the dealerships evolve away from in-house film installations. I don’t think it was as successful as they all thought it would be,” he says. “I don’t want to blame everything on the economy, but I definitely see what it’s been doing. Before the housing crunch began, customers wanted this, this and this, and they didn’t mind spending $600 or $700 or more on their vehicle. Now clients call around for who has the best film for the cheapest price.”

Rulon observes that this change in discretionary income has had ripple effects throughout the restyling industry and has affected restylers’ relationships with wholesale/dealer clients.

Having such a long history with the window film end of restyling, Rulon also finds Autoplex’s market to be different than other locations his career has exposed him to. He explains that “window tint in this market is a luxury versus a necessity like in other, hotter-weather markets.”

The work must be good

Rulon’s philosophy is quality. “Everything is hand cut,” he notes. “I’ve been in the position to do a lot of training over the years and I’ve trained many people. I’ve used plotters; and I’ve been down that road and you resort back to what works for you and what is most cost effective. I’ve seen plotter-cut kits using certain software that work pretty good on certain vehicles and with certain films, but the bottom line is that I can have an installer cut out an entire car in the same time that someone can computer cut and produce the same kit.”

“I see the art form in the installer being able to hand cut windows on any and every car, and once someone can do that it is so much more cost effective than running plotters and software or buying pre-cut kits.”

An eye for quality is something Rulon can polish, but cannot create in an installer. “When training, I can usually tell within a day or two if they’ve got it or not. In [window] tinting there are so many variables that you really have to know what you’re doing to do this as a career,” he says. “I’m real picky, and the installer that works for me is coming along great. I feel really comfortable with him; he’s very good and knows what I expect – and those expectations are becoming his.

“A lot of shops accept passable work; generally 90% of the customers will accept a less than perfect job. [However,] I think one thing the economy has done is that if people are going to spend that discretionary income, they are going to scrutinize the work being done a lot more than when money was more available.”

Material choice also plays an important role in quality results. Rulon has his preference.

“We use Sun Tek films – their entire lineup. I’ve been using Sun Tek solely for the last 10 years,” he says. “There are definitely installer-friendly films and consumer-friendly films. I’ve found elements of both in the film that I use. The bottom line on film choice is cost effectiveness for the shop and what your installers like to use. Sun Tek is very competitive costwise. Optical clarity is a big thing for me and I really like the clarity of the film; it’s crystal clear.

“Being that tint laws vary from state to state, what film works for a shop can be affected by what’s allowed in that area.”

Autoplex’s install space is geared toward quality results. Rulon uses a double-depth bay that can accommodate two vehicles simultaneously. To achieve the shop’s high-end results Rulon and his clients expect, he says, “We keep the bay space spotless, cleaning them once a day with a pressure washer.” He goes on: “You can’t get good quality out of a poorly lit workspace so we have 50 to 60 big fluorescent lights to keep it really well lit.”

PPF perspective

“We take the same approach to PPF cutting as tint – we hand cut nearly everything.” He says. “Once in a great while a computer cut or pre-cut kit will fit nice, but generally the fit just isn’t acceptable to me.”

“I’m a pretty firm believer in buying bulk film and using experience and attention to detail to render a great, fast and profitable install. We use Xpel film for all our bulk material. It’s a top-coated product with a lifetime warranty.”

Rulon describes a similar seasonal fluctuation in retail and wholesale PPF clientele that occurs with window film sales.

“In the fall we see an increase in our PPF business,” he says. “We usually have a couple of PPF installations on hand in a dealer’s showroom as a selling point; during the busier PPF times, wholesale slightly outweighs retail. Dealers aren’t really pre-loading cars with PPF; rather they are adding it at the point of sale, mostly as a result of the economy. There’s an old-school approach in the dealerships up here that says ‘We’ll just do that [restyling] when the car sells.'”

Noting other film products, Rulon says that Autoplex “offers headlight protection, Lamin-X, along with our PPF.”

“We haven’t been doing that as much in the last three years due to the economy,” he notes. “Headlight restoration, though, pairs well with headlight protection as a package.”

Motorcycles, too

Looking beyond standard automotive markets, Autoplex also offers PPF installations on RVs, “although it isn’t really big for us,” he notes. “There doesn’t seem to be that big of a market for that application here [in Northern Colorado],” Rulon says. But, “we do a lot of motorcycles – a bike every week or so, especially Harleys.”

“One thing with motorcycles is you have to price accordingly; they don’t use a lot of material, but they use at least as much time as a car install; and due to the large number of small pieces, there’s way more cuts. An installer and his shop have to recognize this in order for it to fit the mix of projects profitably. Most of the time bike owners understand this.”

With Jim Rulon and his team in place, Autoplex by Vanworks has its sights set on the future and on growth. The synergy achieved in similar tools, skills and workspaces, window and paint protection films will continue to fuel this thriving restyling business.