For nearly 30 years Gerry MacDonald has found a way to stay a step ahead of everyone else. As owner of MacDonald Awnings & Signs and Nulook Blinds, Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, his determination and ability to see what’s up-and-coming in the marketplace has led his companies through changes and evolutions. He has gone from selling aluminum siding to offering custom window coverings including retractable-arm awnings, horizontal and vertical blinds, shutters, shades and draperies.
What MacDonald has become is the archetypical self-sufficient entrepreneur.
He does it all. His companies manufacture all of the custom treatments
they offer—except California shutters—and sell them wholesale
through a string of dealers across Canada and retail in two showrooms
located at the Kitchener site, which also includes a drapery workroom.
Because this diversified business fabricates and sells, it can offer products
and services like no other, and one side of the business can help the
other through the ups and downs of business cycles. Simply stated, “You
sort of have to,” MacDonald says.
ONE THING LEADS TO ANOTHER
MacDonald’s success is largely based on his willingness to try something
new. His aluminum siding business was his original entrepreneurial endeavor
beginning in 1972, but by 1975 had added aluminum awnings because his
supplier offered them. That same supplier also offered aluminum blind
materials, which eventually got MacDonald to thinking about interior window
He went so far as to purchase a used, hand-operated blind punching machine
at a bankruptcy sale, but didn’t get started right away. In fact,
he says the machine sat idle for up to three months. It wasn’t until
after MacDonald started making a few blinds that he opened Nulook Blinds
in 1980. “It just grew from there,” he says. Eventually Nulook
expanded into eight retail stores.
MacDonald eventually phased back the Nulook Blinds retail operation to
one outlet, a 4,000-square-foot showroom at his Kitchener facility. That’s
the same place he fabricates awnings; back-lighted signs; one-inch and
micro-blinds; pleated and cellular shades; sun shades and custom draperies.
The MacDonald Awnings & Signs showroom features 16 different awnings
on display, some of which also are showcased in the Nulook Blinds showroom.
Because of the recent popularity of fabric awnings, MacDonald says that
business has outgrown the sales of blinds.
WHAT GOES AROUND, COMES AROUND—BETTER
MacDonald has seen many window coverings products enter the market, flourish
and disappear only to return again several years later, often better because
of new designs, hardware or materials. He says everything has turned around
in the last 20 years.
“When I got into window treatments in 1980, Europe was flooded with
Venetian blind manufacturers, then it finally hit here and really took
off in the late ’80s. Now, of course, things have turned around again.
Verticals are kind of passé and Venetian blinds are kind of passé
and people are going to sun screens, fabric, California shutters and these
two-inch foam wood blinds,” MacDonald says.
California shutters are currently the hottest-selling single product Nulook
Blinds offers, but MacDonald adds that woven wood shades are gaining.
“We’ve got some samples in and I think they’re coming back
around as well. They were around when I first got started, but they’re
coming back around again,” he says. MacDonald believes woven woods’
growing popularity is because they are being made better these days, are
more user-friendly and offer better looks than they once did.
Perhaps no other product that MacDonald’s companies offer has seen
a resurgence like awnings. “It’s similar to carpets and hardwood
flooring,” he explains. “Twenty years ago everybody was putting
carpets over hardwood flooring. Now they’re pulling the carpets out
and going back to hardwood.” Of course the awnings offered today
are much different than the one or two styles of aluminum awnings once
sold, and the biggest difference is the fabric. “I think it’s
mainly because of all the acrylic fabrics,” MacDonald says, which
don’t fade or crack. “Decorators have such a choice—over
300 colors and patterns to choose from—plus they are 99 percent UV
protected and they cut down on air conditioning and interior fading.
“They even reduce the heat entering a home by about 75 percent, which
can lower the temperature on a hot summer day by as much as nine degrees,”
Awnings also are problem-solvers that fit the lifestyles of today’s
homeowners. “Today people are building these subdivisions so fast
that there’s absolutely no shade. Everybody has a deck, but no shade.
“The other big comment I get is they can’t believe the extra
living space they generate by having an awning, before they couldn’t
use the deck.”
The two most important factors in selling awnings, MacDonald says, are
installation and motorization. He says many homeowners think they don’t
have enough room on the outside of their homes to attach an awning and
fear having to install an awning from their roofs. But with today’s
systems and hardware, these problems can be eliminated, he explains. MacDonald
has even created a manual for installing awnings, which he provides to
his dealer network, which has reached up to 125 dealers—although,
he admits, not all are as active as others.
The latest business venture for MacDonald is motorizing awnings. “People
are scared to sell them because of the price,” he says, “but
my closure rate on motorization is probably 95 to 98 percent because I
just tell them the pros and cons and why they have to have it—that
they’ll get a lot more use of the awning with motorization.”
Spring is the time of year most awnings are ordered. MacDonald says in
the past week he had sold seven, “every one of them motorized.”
GOT IT COVERED
As a self-sufficient entrepreneur MacDonald may stand alone. For instance,
he says he’s the only awnings fabricator in southwestern Ontario.
But in window coverings, MacDonald’s Nulook Blinds is far from alone.
Big retail chains and warehouse outlets are key players in his market,
which covers a radius of 50 miles or so. MacDonald’s plan is that
he just doesn’t try to compete with them. “I just do my own
thing,” he says.
“Sure we lose a lot of business to them, there’s no two ways
about it,” he adds. “You walk in there and see three or four
blinds in a shopping cart and that’s four blinds you never got a
chance at. On the other hand, I just keep steering customers to other
areas where those stores can’t service.”
One of those areas is service. Another is custom products. MacDonald offers
service: in-home service, in-store service and, because he also fabricates
the product, a repair service like no other. He also stresses to his customers
that everything he offers is custom made. “We don’t just pull
it off the shelf,” he says.
MacDonald’s businesses have built up a loyal clientele over the past
27 years, and whether it’s a homeowner or a dealer customer calling
he’s ready to listen. As in any business cycle, there are ups and
downs to MacDonald’s Awnings & Signs and Nulook Blinds, but either
way, he’s got it covered.
“By doing it both ways—retail and wholesale—if the phone
is not ringing for one,” he says, “it’s ringing for the