Our panel of PPF installer experts:
Chris Gaisbauer; Dallas-Fort Worth Clear Bra, Fort Worth, Texas.
Dan Gill, Valley Clear Bra, North Hollywood, Calif.
Vic Beisel Enterprises, Calgary, Alb.
Michael Dunwody, Extreme Autoworks, Lakewood, Colo.
Tom Lewis, ProMotorsports, Springfield, Mo.
Paint protection film (PPF) is a product that is now at the “universal acceptance” stage of its life cycle. At one time, it was a product targeted at high-end vehicles but has now reached the mass market with a wide array of products and manufacturers. Ask PPF installers about product and you’ll find they have their favorites, and everyone has opinions about the wide variety of quality and performance in the industry.
We were interested in finding out from PPF installers as to what is working to help them develop business, where they see their primary markets and what tips they have to offer other installers.
To that end, we approached several manufacturers/distributors of PPF and asked them to recommend an installer or two whom they consider “expert,” and then we had at them.
First of all, we found out these installers are, indeed, experts. The skill level of these folks far surpasses those installers who go to a class and get a certificate that says they know how to install PPF. These pros also have a clientele of loyal customers and build on their reputation via word-of-mouth. Some are developing inventive installation techniques, and some still use tried and true along with true craftsmanship to install PPF.
Read on and learn.
The obvious answer to this question, according to our experts, is luxury and high-end vehicles. Says Mike Dunwody of Extreme Autoworks: “These owners know the importance of protecting their investments and they’re willing to pay well for high-quality product and good installation. They know what to expect and you can’t give them second rate.” He adds: “The market includes all vehicles low to the ground, with big bumpers. Anytime you have a lot of area to protect, PPF is in demand.”
At ProMotorsports, Tom Lewis agrees about the low-to-the-ground vehicles, and he also provides some added, interesting insight: “We are seeing more fleet and towing vehicles that are spending larger amounts of time on the highway and has been our growing market.”
The pros agree the product is for everyone, though. At Dallas-Fort Worth Clear Bra, Chris Gaisbauer comments, “If it were up to the vehicles they would all have PPF. PPF works, but the vehicle doesn’t make that decision. It’s the owner. I have installed 24″ [PPF] hoods on a $500,000 car and installed a [PPF] full hood and fenders on a Kia Soul. You can’t put a price on pride.”
Dan Gill of Valley Clear Bra offers another observation: “Everybody is a candidate, but you need to assess their needs and expectations. There’s nothing worse than a client who doesn’t get what they envisioned in their mind. So, you need to arrive together at what their expectations are and what you can do for them. That avoids problems caused by people expecting ‘perfect,’ meaning totally invisible and tons of coverage, when the reality is a very professional job covering the areas that need coverage, with a product that under varying shades of light is visible.”
In Calgary, Alberta, it seems nearly everyone wants PPF, Vic Beisel of Vic Beisel Enterprises, tells us, “In areas such as Alberta where the market is well established all new-car dealers sell PPF on a high percentage of vehicles before they leave the lot. From Kias to Bugattis, customers that understand what PPF does are buying in.”
Business today: Any changes?
Our respondents naturally see dealer business as an important part of the mix, but also one that comes and goes quickly. Gaisbauer has this observation: “Internet, Internet, Internet. Internet drives sales, especially retail, and retail is more profitable. Dealer business is an excellent source for consistency but can evaporate very quickly and leave a big hole to fill in. It also takes a lot of work to get into a dealership. I opened a shop a near Dallas, Texas, with excellent traffic that supports retail better than I expected.”
Dunwody agrees, noting, “New-car business is a challenge because of poor sales. Used-car dealers offer potential because they’re selling relatively new cars that can be protected. Exotics are facing a shrinking market. You’re talking [car prices of] $500,000 to $750,000 per car. We do entire wraps on some exotics.”
Beisel offers up a very interesting “wrinkle,” if you will: “PPF can be a major revenue stream for [used-car] business offices, not to mention that when cars come back to them as trades with film on them, they are much easier to sell as premium used vehicles without chips on them. I know dealers that peel off the old PPF and sell new film again and again.”
Still others find a niche and fill it. Gill has attained just such a status: “My customer base has remained consistent since the beginning. I run a consistent referral-based business. Being a Porsche enthusiast, I do a lot of them, from the early RSRs to the late model 997s. Due to my specialty, that is the client base that seems to gravitate towards me. However, I have extensive experience in all makes and models.
Matte films, traditional films
Now, this is where things get interesting. Gill has been using matte black for several years – one of the first to show the market what could be done with different types of PPF products. He sees it as a specialty item, with clear matte being the choice for exotics painted with matte paint.
Speaking of matte paint, Beisel has this to say: “Some manufacturers are putting out matte finishes on their paint from the factory. The only way to protect these finishes is matte PPF. Matte PPF also is much easier to maintain than matte finished paint, as customers can wax and clean it without worrying about getting ‘shiny’ spots.”
Gaisbauer uses matte for graphics, rocker panels and stripes. Dunwody sees it differently in his market. “I’ve had only one call for matte clear,” he notes. “It’s a fad. I don’t think it will sustain. You’ll have some people that really want it. The only change will be if manufacturers paint more cars with matte paint.”
Making PPF a profitable business
The experts agree on the answer to this one: “Work your butt off,” says Beisel. Adds Gaisbauer: “Know your competition, then focus your sales effort on the things you do better. Maintain a competitive but generous wage. I noticed a repair shop recently charging $100 an hour for labor. Don’t sell yourself short. When you need help, hire an apprentice to do the time-consuming details for you.”
Customer relations play a big part in building business. Gill notes the importance of repeat customers and making them feel important: “When it comes right down to it, if you treat every customer like their vehicle is as important to you as it is to them, you will have a customer for life.”
Lewis has found new-car dealers to be an important part of profitability. “Once you get in with them, it’s steady work,” he says. “Regular installs on the same vehicles cut down installation time, and using pre-cut kits like Husky Liner’s product really cuts down install time.”
Beisel shifts the light onto another important point: “This business is all about reputation. I don’t do any advertising and haven’t for years. I answer my phone any time, seven days a week. I show as much interest in making a mistake right as in getting new business. I also make sure I’m the advocate for the right product for my customers. The biggest or oldest names in the market are not always the best to work with or the best looking. I also refuse to give my services away. I won’t get involved in bottom barrel price cutting because then something like workmanship or service suffers and you are now in a bastardized business.”
Profit strategy also might hinge on the work you bring through the door and your personal attitude toward perfection. Gill has this observation: “You have to decide if you’re going to be ‘that guy’ who takes each job so seriously and critically that you want everything you touch to be perfect. It’s not that work should be slipshod, but productivity must also play a role. I’d rather do five Toyota Priuses a day and clear over $2,500 than be the hero that works all day on a full Corvette bonnet for $1,900. My five customers that I pre-qualified already know exactly what I will do for them, what their job will look like. But the Corvette, BMW or exotic owner will want to go over your job, try to find every flaw and try to make you redo it. At that point, you start going backward.”
Dunwody also follows a proven strategy: Don’t waste anything. “Common sense,” he advises. “If you know you can apply film to other areas of the vehicle, then use your scraps on other areas and charge for them. We put packages together with various price levels. Some of our competitors offer ‘cheap,’ but we figure out how to do it without using more material.”
Part of the profit strategy may involve replicating what you do with other businesses. Dunwody also says his company offers “training and a franchise opportunity. We want to make sure people do it the right way. We include installation training as well as business management.”
How clean is clean?
Interestingly, the pros often remind installers to wear lint-free clothes. It should be a no-brainer, but people forget. Gill notes that he uses a lint roller on his clothes first thing in the morning, and cleans inside his pockets. “I have lost a ton of installation hours digging lint out from under film.”
Beisel adds this tip, critical for high-quality installs but one that may make you a topic for conversation at your local bar: “I trim the hair on my forearms. One hair in the middle of a full hood can ruin a very expensive piece of film and waste a lot of valuable time.” Maybe a long-sleeved shirt will stop the talk at the bar.
Lewis adds this observation: “Clean means no problems. The corners and body lines, including around trim, are the areas that will hold debris that will get you in trouble.”
Naturally, not all work can be done in a perfect environment. Gill does 70% of his installs on location, so the ability to adapt is important. Using his Pressure on Demand system, he sprays and cleans the exact area he’s working.
Dunwody insists on starting clean, staying clean. “Our shop floors are cleaned at the start of the day, and often are cleaned a second time,” he says. “Dirt is your big enemy. For that reason, we don’t recommend mobile installations.”
Beisel has this final note on the topic: “In the real world, you work where you have to. The best installers can work outside in a parking lot and do better work than the worst ones can in perfect conditions in a paint booth.”
Restyling asked our PPF installer pros about some of their “secret” tech tips. What have you learned to make PPF installs so professional, so long-lasting, that customers sing your praise?
We didn’t expect our experts to give up all their secrets, but what they told us was interesting. Naturally, experience is a big factor in developing professional skills that set you apart from others. Our panel also recommends scouring installer forums for tips and business practices.
Beisel comments: “I pride myself on doing the tough stuff such as wrapping a sport bike gas tank in one piece, or wrapping an entire car. I’ve spent countless hours practicing my cutting so I can even fool seasoned installers who think my custom cuts were done by computer.” He adds: “I try to put myself in my customer’s shoes and not sell them more than they need or can afford. It limits buyer’s remorse. I’m honest about discoloration, maintenance and what PPF will really prevent or accomplish.” Finally, he says: “Last, but certainly not least, years of consistent service with a smile have gone a long way for me and my little company.”
ProMotorsports’ Tom Lewis shares this thought: “The right fit. If you cut your own, be precise; if not, go with a well-known and professional company like Husky Liners. PPF that has gaps, uneven or incomplete coverage screams ‘amateur.'”
Michael Dunwody of Extreme Autoworks says he’ll give his secrets up to a select few. “Here’s one: If you think it’s not quite good enough, tear it off and make it look great.”
The learning curve and meeting customer demands in the PPF business can frustrate newcomers. Yet they present a challenge even to the most experienced. Without a doubt, the time and effort spent can return handsome profits and a reputation in your marketplace that set you apart from all others.
Naturally, everyone has his or her installation tool favorites, and what works for one might not work for another. It all depends on skills, too. There are also some surprises.
Chris Gaisbauer, Dallas-Fort Worth Clear Bra, recommends working with different squeegees until you find the ones that are comfortable and right for you. He also has a “secret weapon”: bamboo chop sticks. “Bamboo chop sticks have become an invaluable tool for loosening dirt or lint from under the film, but lately I found it the perfect tool to sharpen the point and use it to tear away pieces that I trim. It is tons better than a finger nail and removes even the smallest pieces cleanly.” Might make you think differently about your next order of Chinese take-out.
Gaisbauer also shares his process for getting really clean cars. “I use a Wagner steamer and clean out the crevices. I use a mixture of two tablespoons of Dawn dishwashing soap with one quart of water. It safely removes wax and sealants from the surface. Slip solutions work very well for some films, but it’s more important to experiment with a variety of methods for every film. Just because it’s recommended doesn’t mean it’s best for every installer.”
Tom Lewis, ProMotorsports, also recommends a steamer: “It provides the heat and liquid needed for working the curves.”
The experts recommend a variety of “old school” and “new wave.” Baby shampoo and water still works (6-cc solution of Johnson’s to one liter of water -” the old standby), along with alcohol (no, not Jack Daniels, though it might be needed at times). Some use steamers, others eschew them as unnecessary.
Dan Gill, Valley Clear Bra, uses his “Pressure on Demand” steam system. “I’ve increased my productivity and profitability. My labor time has decreased 25%, so naturally my installation volume has gone up.”
Vic Beisel has a different opinion. “If someone tries to sell you a steamer, save your money,” he says. “Hot water works much better, and if used correctly can help with tough stretches at removals.”
Michael Dunwody, Extreme Autoworks, sees all kinds of preferences with tools. “I have four tools to do window tint and PPF,” he notes. “My guys have 50. I use a corner card, yellow turbo, clear max and Olfa knife. I also use a heat gun from time to time. Certain gels, et cetera, are necessary for some installs. Others get soap, water and alcohol. We install the Ultra Extreme Package – our full car wrap. We use a combination of solutions to install it.”
Beisel adds another couple of tips: “If you have a shop, a large piece of vertical glass to work from is like having an extra set of hands and goes a long way to controlling contamination. If you’re mobile, too bad. A [vehicle] hoist or ramps are key for us old guys with bad backs, too.” Beisel also recommends carbon steel blades for PPF, but cautions this: “Don’t use them for tint. You’ll score the glass.”