The New Face of SolarGlass

Colorado dealer redefines its strategy in the face of diversity
Christina Lewellen
October 1, 2012
SPECIAL FEATURES | Operations, Channels, Close-Ups

 

 
A Showroom that Sells

EXCELLENCE IN RETAIL

 

SolarGlass Window & Door

Boulder, Colo.

 

When Gwenael Hagan bought SolarGlass Window & Door nearly six years ago, the Boulder, Colo.-based dealer was facing the bankruptcy of the aluminum-clad manufacturer that made up 70 percent of its sales and the start of a deep and prolonged economic recession.

Throw into the mix, by the way, that Hagan is not a window industry guy.

 
 When Gwenael Hagan bought SolarGlass, the company was facing bankruptcy. He and his team have since redefined the business model to gain a foothold in the high-end market.

As it turns out, being new to the industry didn’t slow Hagan down. Supported by the existing hard-working and experienced SolarGlass team, Hagan brought to the table his background as an international consultant—most of which was done for companies focused on customer service as a primary profit driver. Together, he and his team devised a strategy to deal with the recession—one that involved higher quality products, higher levels of service, and, yes, higher prices.

“Underpinning our successful transition was a conscious move to the high end of the market, a ‘freeing’ of ourselves from the price game and an understanding that service excellence is a winning differentiator and a profit driver,” Hagan explains.

A significant aspect of the strategy lies in the company’s approach to its retail presence. Hagan saw the value of having a high-end showroom to cater to high-end clientele. “A lot of people think of showrooms and say, ‘You’ve got to have one.’ But to me, it’s an offensive weapon,” he says. “If you’re going to have a weapon, you really should use it. I don’t look at it as checking a box.”

For the architects and builders who leverage the SolarGlass showrooms to serve luxury customers, the showroom indicates a powerful partnership and communicates a collective professionalism that make clients comfortable with what can be a complex purchase. “The design and construction of homes is not a perfect science; we always have issues and problems,” says Bruce Tenenbaum, a general contractor whose firm, Batco Homes Inc., has worked with SolarGlass for more than two decades. “Through trial and error, I have spent the last 30 years searching for companies that fit my needs. My goal has always been to choose suppliers and sub-contractors that have the ability to make my life, and job, easier and better. SolarGlass accomplishes that goal.”

SHIFT FOR SURVIVAL
Like many companies in the industry, SolarGlass has undergone a significant transformation as a result of the economic downturn. When Hagan took the reins at the now-30-year-old company, the dealer’s primary manufacturer was going through bankruptcy proceedings. “The private equity company that bought the manufacturer voided all warranties,” he recalls. “For me, as a small business owner who came in with a service mindset, that didn’t sit well.”

So Hagan and his team began evaluating product options. In 2009, SolarGlass selected Marvin and its complementary Infinity line and decided to redefine its customer base. Formerly catering to contractors and occasional homeowners with three stand-alone operations in Denver, Boulder and Ft. Collins, Colo., the company migrated toward new construction projects with higher-end builders and replacement projects for discerning homeowners. “In our market, that translates to a focus on the top 35 percent of home or project value,” Hagan notes. “These homeowners are more involved with product selection and their higher wealth means they will spend more to accomplish their design goals or buy proven quality.”

Making the move to the higher-end segment of the market, even during a recession, was the key to long-term survival, Hagan says. “I decided that for our market and these times, moving up market made more sense than picking up a mid-market line,” he says. “But the good news in making a wholesale transition like this is that we ultimately gained more customers than we lost.”

Hagan admits that the transition wasn’t the easiest change-over to make—getting out of the price game in order to compete on quality and service isn’t a strategy that can be implemented in an instant. “Our sales team had to learn higher order sales skills, include more determinative qualifying, better listening, and deeper engagement as a design partner,” he explains.

 
SolarGlass aims to drive business to its contemporary showroom, which is located in a high-end retail complex that's convenient to its target clientele.  
 

Even though the existing SolarGlass employees had been through a lot with an ownership change and a new strategy for the marketplace, Hagan credits them for resilience and their ability to buckle down and get the job done. “It’s almost easier to make these types of transitions in crisis mode,” he says. “Everyone in the company was in the mindset to say what do we need to do to make it?”

MAKING A MOVE
Having adopted a new focus on the higher end of the market, SolarGlass had to work on aligning the company with the segment it intended to serve. In early 2010, Hagan and his team closed a 2,000-square-foot showroom and warehouse facility that was located in an industrial suburb about 10 miles from the center of Denver. “The location was selected by the previous ownership when the target customers were contractors and the occasional homeowner,” Hagan says. “The location was relatively inexpensive, but not particularly attractive. Visiting us always required a trip to an area not frequented by our target market.”

If the company wanted to serve the luxury segment of Denver, Hagan knew the strategy had to go “all in.” He secured a retail storefront in one of the most expensive retail environments in America, the Cherry Creek North development. “Our target homeowner is in Cherry Creek North two or three times per month,” he says. “It is not the case that she will decide to buy windows after shopping or dining. However, it is likely that given the brand association, she will put Marvin, SolarGlass and our Cherry Creek location on the short list when considering windows for their project.”

Having a great showroom strategy was about more than just the prime location, Hagan explains. It has to be a combination of the right location and a shopping experience that aligns with the customers’ expectations. “Windows and doors are way more complicated than they look,” he notes. “For the segment I wanted to attack, particularly the [high-end consumers] who are still willing to spend, they want to be involved. You have to give them an environment where they can touch and feel, in addition to putting that environment in their stomping grounds.”

The goal of the showroom strategy was to offer a clean and spacious environment that highlighted the high-end Marvin product and provide comfortable consultation spaces for use by homeowners, architects and builders. “The showroom shift yielded two unexpected advantages,” says Hagan. “One has been the improvement in the quantity and the quality of our relationships with architects and designers. While it was never in their intent to travel out of their way to see our modest number of displays, we made it convenient and easy to learn about and specify Marvin and Integrity products.

“Second, the showrooms are powerful closing tools,” he continues. “We can cite numerous examples of projects won after the homeowner visited our showroom.”

Local architect Christian Block appreciates the role the SolarGlass showroom plays with his clients. “As an architect, it is very important to select quality products that you can recommend to your clients,” he notes. “The showroom made this process simple.”

THE APPROACH
The SolarGlass retail strategy includes showing a good number of full-sized displays highlighting most of the options offered by the manufacturer. “If they’re looking for a bi-parting sliding, we have it,” Hagan says. “Or corner windows—we have it. We feature all sorts of products.”

The goal, he points out, is to help consumers visualize how high-end window and door products can enhance their homes. “A homeowner is not going to be able to look at a suitcase sample and do a good job extrapolating what that means,” he notes.

The SolarGlass team also knew that high-end showrooms would also need to be manned by knowledgeable and well-equipped sales associates, starting with the person who greets customers at the door. “It’s an experience we try to package together,” Hagan says. “We have the best people, the best product. We’re putting that together in our showroom.”

The result has gained significant traction in the marketplace, especially among designers, high-end contractors, and custom builders who send their homeowner customers to the SolarGlass facility when it comes time to nail down the details on the window and door packages. “We have been told that our presentation and location added to our credibility sharpened the differences between our competitors and us.”

Pointing to SolarGlass’ senior sales rep Terry Barrett, architect Block also points out that having window and door expertise in his corner allows for more customization options when it comes to a project’s fenestration. “[Barrett’s] expert service helped us simplify and streamline the process of selecting and customizing our window and door order,” he says. “My clients are delighted.”

Hagan knows his company will never be the lowest price among his competitors but SolarGlass package of high-end products and installation, combined with its sales process and retail strategy, takes the company a step beyond what mid-range retailers can offer. “If you’re in a $500,000 home in Denver metro, you’re going to run into the replacement folks and their sales process, which is one-time close oriented,” Hagan says. “For our target customer, they find that kind of revolting. We provide a pleasant alternative.”

Building on the success of the Cherry Creek North location, SolarGlass has extended its retail approach to a several additional stores in Colorado and one site in New Mexico.  The company has also expanded its product offering to include Trustile interior doors, Velux skylights and entry systems by Therma-Tru.

EDUCATION IS KEY
With the right team of salespeople who are aligned with the targeted approach, SolarGlass is able to warrant its higher price point. “When we’re competing for a project and we’re the high number, which is most of the time, it helps a ton if you can help people understand what you’re selling,” Hagan says.

 
 Having an educated team of employees allows SolarGlass to deliver on its brand promise to high-end customers.

Hiring the right team members is always a challenge, but SolarGlass dedicated to further evolving its hiring practices as it continues to grow. “With very rare exceptions, we do not hire window people to come into this company,” Hagan says. “They’re too hard wired in the way things have always been done. We try to find someone who has experience selling something high end and say, come into this culture and learn the window business.”

Looking ahead, Hagan anticipates bringing even more of his consulting background into the business, evaluating opportunities for acquisitions and opportunities to expand to other segments of the industry. “Geographically, we have the bases covered, so now we can look at adjacencies and acquisitions where we might get strength,” he says.

The company also aims to continue to be a partner with local professionals, raising the bar in terms of window packages and installation practices. “SolarGlass was the very first window company I have ever worked with that offered to come to the job site and hold an installation clinic for our framers,” says Tom Lazansky, a project manager with Old Greenwich Builders of Denver. “Three representatives arrived on site the day the windows were delivered and instructed us on Marvin’s requirements for install specifics. That was a first for us and a great way to get the whole team on board to ensure Marvin’s warranty requirements were met.”

Hagan is confident that, in whichever ways the company grows, the strength of his employees will continue to bring success to SolarGlass. “With the economic crisis and all these changes, it’s to their absolute credit that we’ve been able to execute these changes. It’s a case study in and of itself.

“This industry is super hard,” he continues. “But I think there will be some fun opportunities for companies that evolve and meet the market where it’s going. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

 

Contact Christina Lewellen, senior editor, at clewellen@glass.org.