Saft learned the contract market in short order. In 1989 Window Interiors was a one-person, start-up company. Today it employs a staff of seven keeping six installation crews busy working on projects that include health care centers, government buildings, university and corporate campuses and a company whose name is known throughout the world and is synonymous with central Florida: Walt Disney. In 1999 Window Interiors' sales reached $1.7 million.
To be that successful, however, takes work. "The process of finding out who your market is and getting on their bid lists and getting involved in the bidding process and how to read blueprints and how to identify what's a window and what's not—all that is a process that one would learn," Saft says. In addition, the selling process, follow-through and project management in the contract market are quite different. "You actually are acting as a sub-contractor with all the rules and documentation and all the procedures of sub-contracting, which is so much different than going in and helping someone design and implement a program for their home," she says.
D&WC: How did you start in business?
Saft: I have a background in marketing and sales. I have a business degree from the University of South Florida, and have taken many courses in business, marketing and finance. My strength lies in the marketing aspect of things. I have always enjoyed construction. My very first job out of college was for a builder in Niles, OH, when we were transferred with my husband's company to Sharon, PA.
As a women with a business degree in 1968, it was hard to get a real business job. A home builder, which operated in seven Midwestern states, finally hired me as advertising coordinator. I purchased ad space, did ad layouts, copy writing, and eventually got into marketing and brochures. I stayed in that job for two years and learned about the construction industry. It laid the groundwork for what I'm doing now.
D&WC: What attracted you to this industry?
Saft: My family background. My father, a textile engineer, had two fabric stores in Hialeah, FL, and a side upholstery shop business. My grandfather also had a textile factory. I never paid a bit of attention to it growing up. This is my heritage, but I never paid attention to it. I was going to be in advertising, so my Dad takes pride in the fact that I'm in the family business.
D&WC: How did you come to start your own company?
Saft: We transferred to Orlando, FL, and I took a job with an optical supply company for two years. I move quickly up their corporate ladder to the point were I needed to travel out of state. This didn't appeal to me, so I opted to go to work for a company called Quality Window Designs, a small vertical blind factory owned by a friend.
The company was busy in the residential end of the business. I persuaded the owner to hire me to develop his commercial/contract window coverings business.
I started as vice president of the new commercial department. This position gave me the opportunity to make contact with contractors and builders and learn the Orlando business scene. I joined trade organizations.
Eventually I hired and trained sales people in six other offices. We developed a process for commercial sales and product. It was a whole learning process of the commercial construction industry in a real boom time. We did lots of banks, schools and downtown buildings. The key project at that time was the First FA, a high-rise complex, planned for a prominent corner of downtown Orlando.
I realized things were changing at that company, so I left and went to Broward Window Products, a large fabricator for Graber with branch offices statewide. I was their local Orlando branch manager. I learned a lot from them. I also served as the commercial sales manager traveling Florida.
I always knew I was strong-willed and knew things could be done better in the industry. I knew the companies I worked for were not very service oriented. In construction, you need to be part of a team and be service oriented. I took the frustration with the lack of service in my industry and the occurrence of Broward Window Projects closing down to start my own business. Window Interiors was born.
D&WC: How long did it take you to establish your business?
Saft: I opened in 1989 with a staff of one, me. I hired a part-time person within a few months to do paperwork, billing and answer telephones. I worked from 7 a.m. to midnight calling project managers, talking to job superintendents, coordinating deliveries, requesting to bid on jobs, taking measurements, handling installations. Each night I'd do paperwork and the accounting at home.
For the first two years it was a 7 a.m. to midnight job. I survived it on pure energy. When it's your own business there is an incredible adrenaline rush. I just threw myself into the contract window coverings business at 150 miles per hour.
D&WC: What is the key to your success in the bidding process?
Saft: Having the low number! Having the best program for the least amount of dollars comes with having good pricing setups with suppliers—good, solid relationships where you can get good and consistent pricing, which comes from good relationships all the way around from paying your bills on time to having them know that you're going to be there in the future. Also, service has a lot to do with it. You need really good service relationships with your suppliers as well.
D&WC: What were your biggest challenges in starting your business?
Saft: The first challenge was establishing credit with national manufacturers.
As a start-up, small business getting the vendors to give me credit on custom products was a huge challenge. One particular vendor refused to give me credit, now they are my best supplier. At that time, I didn't have a track record. How do you prove yourself without being given the opportunity?
I finally had to write some heavy-duty letters and even had to threaten a restraint-of-trade suit because manufacturers wouldn't sell me the products. I started with small orders and built up a relationship with them. It took about two years to open accounts, and now I have an unlimited credit line with them.
Secondly, getting paid took a while so I had to put up my own money and wait out the contractors getting paid—a 60 to 90 day cycle. I had to personally guarantee everything, which was a big risk to my family.
Other challenges included walking into job site trailers and having the men in a man's business take me seriously. The industry I was in had a very shady reputation. There were a lot of operators who would bid on jobs and say "per plans and specs" and then provide an alternate product.
Back when I started, there were a lot of companies that opened and closed, there had to be at least a dozen over the past 10 years. Clients want to know you will be there in a year for any warranty work. Luckily, our first jobs were significant projects that quickly and decisively established our reputation: Orlando City Hall and University High School.
What really helped build the business in my early years was winning a contract with Orange County Public Schools, which is a low-bid situation. That gave me the track record to move on.
D&WC: What other challenges have you overcome in the contract window coverings industry?
Saft: One of the other challenges was keeping the good installers busy all the time and being able to pay them. It also was hard dealing with technically difficult jobs. Going from basic shades in schools to learning motorized systems, unusual applications and difficult installations was a challenge. I never walked away from a challenge or a deadline. I went to the trade shows and sat in many classes to learn about motorized systems.
Then there is the challenge of hiring employees who have little experience in this business. I had to impart everything I knew to my new employees. They had to have the same philosophy as me, which was customer service is first. If someone has an issue, a deadline change, a reschedule, or trucks don't arrive on time, that person needs to be ready and able to meet all the challenges when I'm not available.
Fortunately, one of my clients introduced me to Dave Stockton. He had extensive experience in the drapery business. He had been an installer and knew the business inside and out. He was trying to get into a sales position, so it was perfect for him. He has the same core philosophy of meeting a challenge and doing the job right. He has a very meticulous approach to problem solving and solutions, where I tend to be more of a salesperson. We are a perfect match and have been together eight years.
Now Dave is our sales and special projects manager. He does it all except the administrative end of things. When there were special challenges such with the Reedy Creek Improvement District headquarters, he was there. He will do anything to see the job gets done. We have different personalities but the same philosophies.
Reedy Creek is the governing agency of Walt Disney World, and they have their own, very beautiful headquarters building down in Lake Buena Vista. This building is on a slant. Two of the walls slope in and two of the walls slope out, and the result is that you have a lot of triangles and angles and sloped windows.
We had to put out heads together with the Levolor engineers. About 100 of the blinds had to be handmade and templated and many of them are on inclined wires. We had to build special scaffolding. How do you hang blinds where the glass is sloping out? We got the job done and it was quite special and we won an award from the Association of Builders and Contractors for it. Those blinds are quite beautiful, they're brushed aluminum and perforated.
I've got a wonderful team of really devoted, can-do attitude kind of people—we'll figure something out. Sometimes architects get real creative in their designs and they forget we still have to control heat and light and make it work for the people who are sitting in front of the window.
D&WC: What are your plans for Window Interiors?
Saft: I see the business reaching further geographically. Darden Restaurants has given us the opportunity to work all over the United States. This gives me the opportunity to do other national accounts. I have done 20 to 25 Red Lobster restaurants since 1998.
I've worked out of state before, but not on an organized basis. We have greatly expanded our knowledge of motorized systems and feel we can handle more of that kind of work. You have to be sure you can do it before trying for more work. We've never tried to take a job we weren't prepared for. More of us are trained in this now. We've also taken more space and hired another person and plan to hire a full-time warehouse superintendent.
Something I feel extremely fortunate about is the wonderful employees I have who give their hearts and souls and treat the business like it's theirs. In return, you have to give them ownership in the business too. You have to give them a lot of opportunity to express their ideas and do their jobs the way they see it. My people have stayed year after year. We give them a lot of responsibility. Small businesses need to focus on making employees a team and a family.