Technology in the window coverings industry is rapidly becoming as important as fashion, says Jon Vrielink, president, BTX Window Automation, Inc., Dallas, TX, which is a significant change that has been taking place over the past 10 years or so.
In this exclusive interview with Draperies & Window Coverings, Vrielink gives his thoughts on the state of the window coverings industry. He looks at how this change came about, what it means to those involved in the business and how, in his words, the industry “has matured significantly.”
Traditionally, window coverings has been a fashion-driven industry—color trends, fabric structure and style driving the market, he says. But today, to some extent, you’d have add operating systems to that list.
“Most homeowners have chosen their shades and draperies to match their interior color schemes, giving some thought to factors such as shading and privacy characteristics,” Vrielink explains. “Once installed however, many shades and blinds were seldom if ever opened or closed. Now however, most consumers realize that the reason we have windows to begin with is to regulate the level of light. They rely on their window coverings to do this, maximizing the physical comfort level inside their homes. Because consumers are rapidly becoming more sophisticated, suppliers of window coverings have to start to place more emphasis on ease of operation.”
D&WC: How did the window treatment automation market develop and how did BTX get involved?
Jon Vrielink: In the mid-’90s, when the home systems industry had just begun to develop, BTX recognized the opportunity for automating the functionally movable window covering. The prospect of making motorization of natural light control a standard convenience similar to that of a motorized garage door was extremely enticing. An automated drapery in an early James Bond movie sparked some interest in the public; however the concept was new and consumer awareness low.
The first demand for motorized systems in the United States was for traversing systems for the interior—mainly motorized draperies and motorized vertical blinds. BTX offered these from the start, and as of today is the leading supplier of these products. During the same time period, motorization of exterior shutters by means of tubular motors became popular in Europe. This gradually led to motorization of interior roller shades and, more recently, to exterior roller shades as well.
Early enthusiasts for window covering automation in the U.S. were few and far between. They were served by a handful of fabricators, most of whom went through a learning curve themselves. Some created controls out of garage door operators and the like. Initial mishaps slowed down market acceptance and caused most of these fabricators to disappear or their operations to stagnate. Thus development came slowly. Even today, the estimate is that less than five percent of all movable window coverings are being automated. The overall picture is changing rapidly however. Opportunity is great, and over the next decade motorization is expected to have a major impact on the industry.
D&WC: Are there specific factors driving the automation market?
Vrielink: A number of compelling factors are driving the growth of the market for automated window coverings. First of all, the market environment in which automation flourishes is expanding. Add to that the growth of the market for luxury homes and second homes, as well as the growth in the sheer size of the homes, plus the growth in the size of the windows. All this creates an increasing demand for window coverings that are easy to operate. Obviously motorization adds cost to the window covering. However, in relationship to the increased value of the home the additional expense is becoming less significant.
The second most compelling factor is the coming of age of a technology minded population. The unfamiliarity with automation that was prevalent in the early ’90s has been replaced by a desire for it. The current generation loves controls and gadgets.
In sync with this, an abundance of devices populate our homes today, providing information and entertainment and making life easier, more productive and safe. A large percentage of all new homes now contain some kind of network system to control various devices or to distribute information. The bottom line is that this generation is ready for the comfort of motorization and the convenience of home network control.
To operate their proprietary devices such as security systems, HVAC systems, lighting systems and the like, a number of corporations have invested hundreds of millions of dollars during the last decade to design home network systems. This has resulted in a large variety of home network systems, almost all of which are proprietary. These systems may be optimal to operate your heating and cooling or your coffee machine, but as a rule they cannot communicate with each other. As a consequence they are not suited to operate your shade. Some lighting systems suppliers have tied one or two specific types of window coverings into their networks, for instance low-voltage shades. But this either locks the window coverings supplier out of the game or leaves little freedom of choice as to system and price.
BTX prides itself in offering the widest range of motorized systems available anywhere. Capable of interfacing with all the various home networks, BTX systems can automate almost any kind of window covering. This corporate strategy is designed to fully support the decorator, dealer and designer who form the core of the window coverings industry. Armed with the power of choice, they can pursue the opportunity to please the most demanding customers in the rapidly rising market for motorized window coverings.
Great efforts are underway to arrive at a uniform network for the entire home that would permit the various subsystems, appliances and the like, to communicate with each other and permit central control, thus eliminating some of the high costs of current proprietary networks. This is fully compatible with the BTX approach to providing easy interfaces between motorization system and control network.
D&WC: So, in your opinion, what is the state of the window coverings industry today?
Vrielink: Over the past 20 years, the window coverings industry has matured significantly. It made the transition from a market with numerous fabricators utilizing a wide variety of hardware systems and sources of fabrics to a rather well organized market in which major suppliers serve a large portion of the market with proprietary hardware systems and fabrics through relatively well controlled distribution channels. This has led to more vertical integration and made it difficult for many independent fabricators to survive. On the upside, the large corporations have been able to introduce many exciting new fashion-driven systems such as Silhouettes and Luminettes [from Hunter Douglas].
A major shift in sourcing has affected the market overall. This will likely have a profound impact in the years to come. It is no secret that a fair amount of the traditional manually operated window coverings products are now imported from countries in Asia, which have lower production costs. This holds true not only for soft fabrics but also for hard coverings such as shutters and woven woods. In many instances the quality levels are excellent. Production and delivery systems have been fine-tuned to a high degree. Imports have introduced a new competitive price level, which has been good for the consumer.
Looking abroad to the European Common Market, we notice that recently several newcomers to the business have been able to take advantage of this new sourcing capability and have built significant market shares in competition with the dominant traditional suppliers. This is having a leveling effect on the pricing and market structure. The same development may take place in the North American markets. It already has in the wood shutter industry.
D&WC: What role does BTX play in the industry and how did it achieve this role?
Vrielink: BTX sees its key role in today’s market in delivering not only the very best in product quality but, equally important, in providing maximum technological support to its dealer customer base. BTX designs its own motors, hardware and controls, many of which are patented. The BTX motorized drapery program is unsurpassed in its performance and its scope. But we also offer a wide range of other motorization systems to provide the power needed at an affordable price. Our years of experience also permit us to custom-design motorized shading systems and controls.
The introduction of our Sofia drapery motor line in early 2006 was hugely successful. It has far exceeded all our sales expectations. The latest development, our patented plug-and-play AC drapery motor, which features the built-in MMC radio control, can be operated by network, computer and either high-voltage or low-voltage switches. It is truly universal and probably the most powerful drapery motor available. Feedback from the market has been extremely positive.
D&WC: Where do see BTX headed?
Vrielink: Developing and operating a company such as BTX takes a great deal of expertise, but it is highly rewarding. Even through 2001 and 2002 we managed to expand, bringing our annual growth to more than 50 percent in 2006. One great contributor to this is our expert team of technical advisors standing ready day in, day out, to counsel our customers.
A pioneer in a field that latecomers seek to conquer, BTX is geared to continue and expand its role as a major supplier of motorization technology and products for the window coverings industry overall.
AN EAGLE’S EYE
|A graduate engineer and former NATO officer, Jon Vrielink came to the United States for the first time under the auspices of the Holland-America Foundation. He met Belinda in Manhattan and after the two were married took her to live in various countries in Europe for 15 years before returning to the States for good.
Once settled in Dallas, TX, Vrielink earned an MBA and abandoned the climb on the corporate ladder of public relations and heavy machinery. Instead, he decided to risk starting his own company, choosing the field of window coverings. At first, it was a one-man show with Belinda cleaning the premises after hours. But after selling a few motorized systems, Vrielink realized the potential for much higher profit margins with these systems than with manual ones. Consumer interest was low, but competitors were few, so opportunity beckoned.
In the 1990s, the more affluent customers of designers and architects began to demand the comfort that automation of window coverings can offer—first, for the vertical blinds in their boardrooms and offices; but then also for the draperies in their homes and for their home theaters. The company took off.
At that point Vrielink formulated the corporate strategy that BTX still follows—becoming and remaining the premiere source for quality window coverings automation. To do this, he keeps an eagle’s eye on the market, seldom missing a trade show or magazine or trend. Tapping his knowledge, most competitors have also become his friends. He has a palpable passion for the window coverings industry and its history. Some of that passion manifests itself in Vrielink’s enthusiasm for his management team and their Monday morning meetings at which the energy crackles.
Vrielink credits weightlifting and his racing bike with sparking his new ideas and inventions. But former teammates still mourn the day five years ago when Jon, the midfielder, hung up his soccer shoes and honored his past by putting his colorful wooden shoes out on the front porch of his house for all to see.