Very few businesses actually start from nothing, but Express Blinds & Draperies, Victorville, CA, comes as close as any you’d find. Co-owner Bob Sole had 10 years of experience in the industry, and that was about it, when he joined his wife Trish in her part-time decorating business. To go full-time, the Sole’s liquidated every asset they had—including selling Bob’s treasured baseball card collection—to raise money to buy a house and set up shop.
Out in the garage the chop saw buzzed every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
fabricating custom vertical blinds. Trish walked door-to-door delivering
brochures while pushing their infant son in a stroller. Bob did what he
does best: planning and networking and building the relationships every
business needs to grow and be successful.
Over the past 10 years the company has moved several times and has seen
some roller-coaster growth. In the mid-90s it found it actually was growing
too quickly and was spread a bit thin. The Soles deliberately downsized
to make the business more manageable. “We learned the hard way that
sometimes bigger is not better,” Bob says.
Express Blinds & Draperies quit manufacturing to concentrate just
on retail. “There are a lot of hidden costs in manufacturing,”
he continues. “Yes, we can increase our profit margins if we manufactured
some of our own product, but if you throw in overhead and inventory I’d
really be curious what the difference in profit margin truly is. And your
time is worth money. We do what we do best. We design and sell, and we’re
very good at it.”
One constant over the years has been that Express Blinds & Draperies
has continued to grow bringing in sales of more than $1 million a year
the last several years. And things just keep getting better. So far this
year, business is up 50 percent compared to last year, Bob says.
There are two kinds of relationships in Trish and Bob Sole’s business:
those with customers and those with business associates. Each is vital.
Customer relations center on quality products and service. For products,
Express Blinds & Draperies offers all types of hard and soft window
coverings including draperies, shades, wood blinds and shutters. Although
in the high desert less than two hours from Los Angeles, 30 percent of
sales is vertical blinds, Bob says.
“We’re a shop-at-home service,” Sole says. Yet when a customer
enters the showroom, a converted model home, they can see elaborate displays
and get to know the Express Blinds & Draperies sales people. “Ninety-nine
percent of the time we convert them into an in-home appointment,”
Sole says, on average, they are able to sell six out of every 10 customers,
which is just about right. Two will end up going to other retailers, one
will go to one of the box stores and one will decide not to buy anything,
he explains. But he reminds us, “If you’re selling 90 to 100
percent, you’re supposed to raise prices.”
A happy customer becomes a repeat customer. To ensure customers are happy,
the Soles have Pam Wessel, their customer service manager. “Her sole
responsibility is to service all of our past customers. If a tilter mechanism
breaks, if a string or cord breaks, if something happens to a product,
she’s our knight in shining armor,” Bob says. “We do the
best that we can to handle any and all situations.”
The shop’s success with customer relationships is best illustrated
with the number of customers it has served in little less than 10 years.
Express Blinds & Draperies banks some 14,000 past customers—virtually
all of which refer others or become repeat customers. And “banks”
is the proper word. “At our level of volume—not quite, but almost—a
half-million dollars in annual sales will be by referrals,” Sole
The Soles market throughout San Bernardino County. Geographically, it’s
the second largest county in the United States, but its diverse population
holds somewhere between 250,000 and 350,000 with modest growth, Bob says.
Somewhat surprisingly, he reports the area’s per capita household
income at less than $50,000, which makes Express Blinds & Draperies’
success there that much more remarkable.
The other side of the customer relationship coin is vender relations,
and the Soles have that one covered, too. “Our vender relationships
are second to none,” Bob says. “I literally can order blinds
today and have them on my doorstep tomorrow.”
That kind of relationship is especially important to a company that once
fabricated its own products. “I’ve discovered after almost 10
years in the retail end of this business that sometimes dealing with a
mid-size supplier is the best avenue for retailers,” Sole says. “That’s
not to say we don’t deal with the larger suppliers out there, because
we certainly do and they’re certainly wonderful suppliers, but when
you deal with mid-size vendors they are so quick to respond to your needs.
They can turn on a dime and help you with your business—and not only
in pricing, but delivery and other aspects as well.”
Express Blinds & Draperies’ major suppliers are M & W Mfg.
and Ray Ev, Inc. For shutters, the Soles rely on California Shutters and
The Soles believe networking is a contact sport—one that pays off
in the long run. The company is a member of some 10 area Chambers of Commerce,
and they are active in each. Over the last nine-and-a-half years, Bob
Sole has collected 7,500 business cards, contacts that are filed for future
“You are only as good as the people you surround yourself with,”
Sole notes. He and Trish have established the company’s most important
business relationships around eight key people: the company’s CPA,
banker, insurance agent, attorney, local Small Business Development Center
representative, marketing and advertising consultant, human resources
specialist and financial planner.
It’s important to note that none of these people are employees of
Express Blinds & Draperies. Their expertise is outsourced. Doing this
has two important advantages. First, it allows Trish and Bob to do what
they do best: design and sell window coverings. They do not have to be
experts in every aspect of running a business. “I was told by a friend
of mine a few years ago that the problem most retailers have is that we’re
so busy working our business that we don’t have time to work on our
business,” Bob recalls. “That’s my job: to work on how
can we improve and market our business.”
Second, it brings in an outside point-of-view. “An outsider might
give you an idea or two that you may not have thought of,” Bob explains.
The Soles meet with many of these associates on a regular basis, often
weekly. When it comes to their accountant, Paul Messner, Messner &
Hadley, LLP, CPA, is a personal friend, and they meet with him every week
for breakfast to discuss the business.
Sole also meets weekly with the Victor Valley Marketing Group, a marketing
and networking group he founded. The group includes business owners and
managers—one business per profession—who share marketing and
advertising ideas and give each other leads and referrals. Sole believes
in this concept wholeheartedly. “It has been a wealth of resources
as far as business is concerned,” he says.
The Soles also schedule time to “give something back.” Bob Sole
was recently elected to the Board of Directors of the Window Coverings
Association of America (WCAA). He and Trish also devote time to church
groups, youth sports and the Awakening Ranch Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation
Center. All of these efforts have contributed to their nomination as an
Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year for the Orange County/Inland
It’s little wonder that Bob Sole has been given the nickname, Hurricane
Bob. “I try to make every waking moment as productive as possible
both personally and professionally,” he says.
THE POWER OF KNOWLEDGE
Bob Sole is very big on planning. Every year he completes a personal and
business plan. So do Trish and their children. Sole asks his employees
to write down the 10 personal and business goals they want to achieve
in the year ahead. “It’s amazing what you discover about your
staff,” he says. “It’s really enlightening and lets us
know what directions they want to go and helps us to help them achieve
Creating accurate business plans takes information, and Sole is all about
getting and using information on his business and his competition. Every
couple of years or so, Sole invests in a local Mystery Shopper program.
As part of the program, an unknown third-party shopper visits all of Express
Blinds & Draperies’ competitors and rates them on all aspects
of the experience. It is money Sole believes is well spent. “I learned
the strengths and weaknesses of every competitor,” he says. “I
learned what products they sell, what prices they sell at, what they say,
what they don’t say, their follow-up. Most of them were extremely
poor at follow-up. We send out a thank-you letter to everybody, whether
we sell them or not.”
The Mystery Shopper report also returns important information about selling
such as: Price is much more a factor in the minds of the sales people
than in the customers’ minds.
When it comes to marketing, Sole receives detailed reports from his advertising
consultant. “I can tell you what percentage of business comes from
yellow pages, what percent of our business comes from past customers and
referrals. We have it down so I can make better educated advertising decisions
about where to spend my dollars. I do not have an unlimited budget,”
As a result of this information, Sole has learned that Express Blinds
& Draperies can advertise in different ways than it did when the company
first started. “We don’t have to be as aggressive,” he
says. In fact, the company can do less advertising now because of its
large referral source.
Sole also keeps spreadsheets on net costs for every product he sells from
every supplier. It helps in his decision-making on who to deal with. It
also gives him the advantage of a good, better, best philosophy when offering
products to customers, he explains.
Sole never stops planning. Currently he is working on developing a 4,000-square-foot
facility located behind the Express Blinds & Draperies design center.
He’s not sure exactly what he’ll do with it yet, but his first
thought is to lease it to a local floor covering operation that works
with builders. “That will create the whole design center concept
so we will be able to better cater to the builders. They want a one-stop
shop,” Sole says.
If that doesn’t work out, Sole has a few other tenants in mind. “That’s
Option A. We also have Option B and Option C, but I’m holding that
in my hip pocket for now. We’re only scratching the surface of many
areas of our business,” he adds, “That’s why we’re
so excited about our future.”