Defensive Beauty

Aug 10, 2010

During the economic downturn of recent years and with a decline in availability of lease programs created by the related credit crunch; drivers are more interested than ever in protecting the value of one of their biggest investments: their daily drivers.

Whether leased or owned, most drivers today realize that when it comes time to sell or trade in a vehicle, the appearance of paint imperfections, ranging from bug damage to rock chips, could cost them a pretty penny. But the answer is an easy – and affordable – one: paint protection film, or PPF.

That reality, in combination with the estimate that fewer than 1% of vehicles on the road currently have PPF installed, creates great opportunities for an industrious restyler willing to go out and find it, says Barry Merlo of BT of Kentucky, Burlington, Ky.

“It’s a great time to get involved with paint protection films,” he says.

“There is tremendous potential for growth, and customers are more aware of it now than they were even just a few years ago. Both of those things are working toward the advantage of someone just getting started or looking to build their business.”

However, while the environment is favorable, that doesn’t mean that new business will fall into a restyler’s lap. According to Larry Millen, owner of Plymouth, Mich.-based Paint Protection Plus, the PPF market has the potential for great profits, but the same rules apply to PPF businesses that apply to others in the automotive aftermarket – mainly, hard work and attention to detail are king.

“Like anything else, it’s the little things, the fundamentals, that make a successful business in this industry,” says Millen, who estimates that about 65% of his business originates with wholesale dealerships, with a growing 35% coming from retail customers. “It’s the little things that keep you busy. I drop business cards on every vehicle I see that doesn’t have film installed on it. I go to car club events and car shows and network every time I drive past one. I like to sell and I believe in the product, and that’s what separates me from the other guys in town who do this type of work. The work doesn’t come to you. You have to go out and get it.”

Regardless of whether a potential customer is an owner, a local body shop or a new- or used-car dealer, one thing remains the same: High quality results in a high-profit margin.

Jeffrey Orlinsky, owner of Wheel DynamiX Inc. in Natick, Mass., says his accessory and PPF business – which does all of its PPF installations for retail customers, and all out of a 4,000-sq.-ft., four-bay installation space – thrives because he strives for perfection in his installations.

“The focus should never be only on the speed of the installation or the price,” he says. “What people really want in a paint protection film is quality. A true car guy wants it done really well, and the exact nature of the installation service justifies a really great profit margin.”

“[PPF installation] is the most profitable thing I do,” he adds.

A maturing market

As with any profitable and maturing market, the nature of the business is constantly changing. In the case of PPF, the most popular vehicles for installations, the type of product available and the level of sophistication of the average consumer are all evolving.

For Pierre Richard, owner of Danvers, Mass.-based Autobahnd North, customers are both more aware of the product and interested in larger, more expensive kits.

“There is a growing level of interest, in general,” he says. “The more installations my company and my competitors do in the area, the more the customers know about the product and the benefits. That helps to attract new business. And the overall trend is toward larger kits now, which is great for installers as that carries a larger profit margin.”

BT of Kentucky’s Merlo agrees, noting that his company has noticed a growing awareness of PPF on the part of customers and notes that they’re getting savvier about what products and applications they desire.

“It’s definitely getting more popular over the past few years, and customers are getting more educated about the products and benefits,” he says, noting that he started installing PPF in 2005, and retail and wholesale installations now account for about 75% of his company’s business. “A lot of our body shop customers are even asking for specific brands of films, which tells me they’re learning more about the specific products that are out there. In the past people just knew about 3M, but now with the new Xpel films and others becoming more popular they know there are a lot of options on the market.”

And along with the various brands of film on the market, customers are also asking for more – and higher-dollar – kits, according to Orlinsky of Wheel DynamiX. He and others note that installations today don’t end at the usual front bumper/hood/mirror combination that used to be the norm. Today, customers will ask for complete fender and hood coverage, as well as A-pillars, the leading edge of a roof above a windshield, the edges of doors, in doorsills, rear cargo loading areas, and about any other surface you could imagine.

“There’s definitely a trend towards greater coverage, and we sell customers on the benefits of that,” he says. “We will see some customers that will want a full hood covered, or full fenders, which wasn’t as common in the past.”

Orlinsky notes that on ultra-high-end vehicles, there are those who even prefer complete coverage, meaning covering an entire vehicle.

“That can be a $3,000 job, so you’re not going to do that to a $20,000 vehicle, but when the vehicle is a Ferrari F430 or an Aston Martin, they don’t want to see trailing edges where the film ends halfway up the hood. Complete coverage is cost prohibitive, but on the right vehicle it makes sense.”

Paint Protection Plus’ Millen notes that restylers aren’t the only ones taking note of PPF’s increasing popularity among drivers. Vehicle manufacturers are getting into the game, as well, with Lexus, Toyota, Volkswagen and others now offering PPF as a factory option. As opposed to limiting his business, Millen says he actually sees more business from it due to the increased awareness of PPF among customers in his area.

“That has created a huge awareness for customers, you just have to be able to capitalize on that,” he says, noting that his company sells based on value to counteract the convenience of dealer packages. “You can offer better coverage and a better warranty. With Lexus, you get a hood/fender/mirror kit and it’s probably $50 cheaper to get that through a dealership. But I offer more coverage, far more consistent quality, and they know I’m local and established. I’m not going anywhere, so if a problem arises, the customers know they’ve got a great support system in place.”

As both awareness and the size of PPF kits have changed, so, too, has the vehicle mix on which they are applied. What started as a product for mainly high-end exotics and import vehicles now could just as commonly be applied to a Honda Civic as it would be on a Corvette.

While retail applications seem to be increasing in frequency across the entire range of vehicles, there still is a notable bent toward import brands at wholesale, according to Autobahnd North’s Richard.

“The domestic automakers, unfortunately, are a little slow to come around to the need for paint protection films,” he says, noting that his shop still does more installations on Mercedes, Lexus, BMW and Audi models than any others. “The imports get it, really from the low- to the high-end vehicles. But American manufacturers were always a little slower to pick up on the value of offering accessories. It is changing and domestic manufacturers are coming around, but it’s taken a little longer.”

That vehicle mix might not apply for those operating solely in the retail space, however. According to Orlinsky, whose business is geared almost completely toward retail customers, the vehicle mix is forever changing. Wheel DynamiX is known for its ultra-high-end vehicle installations – a fact which draws customers from a two-hour driving radius – but they certainly don’t turn away more run-of-the-mill rides.

“It’s really all over the spectrum. We rarely do two of the same vehicles in a row, which is what makes it more exciting for us,” he says. “That is one of the biggest benefits that makes working in the retail market more appealing to us. We are known for high-end work, and people seek us out for that, but we do installations on about any vehicle you could imagine.”

Workspace

While much in the PPF market is changing, some things have remained very similar since its inception. First and foremost, while there have been developments in the films on the market and in the plotter/cutter equipment available for those who buy bulk film and cut patterns themselves, PPF installation is essentially still more about skill and artistry than technology. At its simplest, installation of a pre-cut kit still requires little more than a product and application knowledge, a squeegee, a microfiber towel or two, a cutting blade, and a few good spray bottles.

The ideal workspace in which to perform a PPF installation is much the same, as well, says Paint Protection Plus’ Millen, who is among those who prefers to cut his own kits. His office has space for two computers and two plotters dedicated to creating kits from bulk film; it’s completely removed from any installation areas. He notes that an installation space itself – regardless of whether the kit was pre-cut or computer cut by the installer – should be a completely clean and controlled environment to avoid having airborne particles trapped in the film during installation.

“The static that the film creates pulls any dust or dirt into it, so you need to be very careful about where you work,” he says. “Some of my competitors do installations outside, but I never do. My business is based around doing a premier installation, so installing outside adds too many variables into the work. Having a well lit space that is clean with the doors closed creates a controlled environment. That’s what allows me to maintain high quality.”

Beyond simply creating a controlled, dirt- and dust-free environment to allow for flawless installations, the right work space also serves a more practical purpose: Comfort. For Orlinsky of Wheel DynamiX, located in the notoriously temperamental climate of the northeastern United States, having the luxury of a warm, dry bay in which to work improves both an employee’s effectiveness and morale.

“When it gets cold up here in the Northeast during the winter, that becomes a real benefit to doing a great installation,” says Orlinsky. “We benefit from the luxury of doing all of our installations in-house, so we can control the environment more than some others can.

“We also have four lifts, so we can move the vehicle up to a comfortable working height, which also makes long installation days easier,” he adds. “I know not everyone who is getting into this business has the capital to do all of that, but it should be a long-term goal.”

Knowing that kind of investment is being made in a business like paint protection film installation, however – with growing interest on the part of customers, plenty of room to grow, and exceptional profit margins – just might make it a no-brainer for many restylers to delve deeper into the PPF market.