Pitson and Soulema were working at jobs outside the industry when, in 1976, Pitson's father-in-law, Herman Blumenfeld, suggested selling mini-blinds. Blinds were something Blumenfeld knew about-at the time the 30-year veteran was working as plant manager for a California fabricator. Pitson placed an ad in the paper and set out with a 12-color sample deck. "It was the beginning of the mini-blind craze," he recalls. Soon this "little side business" was doing so well Soulema, his cousin, joined him. "We did our own selling, measuring and installing while both holding down full-time jobs," Pitson says.
By 1988 the two were actively looking to purchase a retail store. By fate or coincidence they met Harold Harvey, owner of Aero Shade Co. Inc., a small Los Angeles shade shop founded in 1947, and a deal was made. Aero Shade Co. now is an equal partnership between Jack and Miriam Pitson and Mario and Shelley Soulema, making it truly a family-run business. In fact, Soulema describes Aero Shade as being "like a marriage-there are good days and bad days but everyone gets along and everything runs smoothly." Miriam and Shelley run the office handling the bookkeeping, accounts payable and accounts receivable.
Mario Soulema handles sales, but on a limited basis. His time is spent managing and overseeing production in the company's factory as well as scheduling three full-time installers. Jack Pitson heads Aero Shade's sales force and deals with the company's more prestigious clients including local universities and the top contractors and architects in L.A. who work exclusively with executives and celebrities in the entertainment industry.
A family-run enterprise has its advantages, among them being close control over all aspects of the business and complete trust and confidence in each partner. But it's not always easy. "Our business requires long, hard hours in order to accomplish our goals, which have always been to provide the highest quality products and the best service," Soulema says.
The result of that effort is loyal customers and word-of-mouth referrals that have given Aero Shade its star-quality reputation reaching all the way back to those days of working evenings and weekends. "To this day we get an occasional repeat customer from 20-some-odd years ago," Soulema says. "As a matter of fact, we just did a job last week for one of our old customers."
Based in History
The Aero Shade retail store can be found in an ideal location: "We're a mile from the design center of Los Angeles, and we're right in the Beverly Hills area," Pitson says. At just under 1,000 square feet, the store holds both showroom and offices. The showroom setup, therefore, is critical.
"We have a complete showroom with samples of virtually all products. This gives the customer the opportunity to see, feel and test the products in a hands-on manner," Soulema says. "We try to utilize all our space to the fullest with displays, our books and working tools," he adds.
The majority of Aero Shade's sales is in window shades, which includes laminated shades and a large variety of room darkening and translucent shades, along with an expanding line of sheers. These products make up about 60 percent of the store's sales, Soulema estimates.
"We also sell a large amount of draperies, wood blinds, cellular shades, Roman shades, vertical blinds and are capable of motorizing them all," says Pitson. "Other specialty items include rolling shutters, retractable awnings and exterior porch shades. These products combined make up the rest of our sales," he says.
Mesh shading systems are "extremely popular," Pitson says, especially because they can be motorized. "Here in Southern California we have homes up in the hills with gorgeous views, and we have homes in Malibu with gorgeous views and homes in Pacific Palisades . . . different areas that have views throughout the city that have sun problems," he says.
The store's location affords some walk-in traffic, but stop-ins are mainly because of name recognition. "Aero Shade has been around for more than 50 years and it has been in this neighborhood," Pitson explains. Part of what attracted them to Aero Shade when the two were looking to buy a business was the type of company it was, the product it was manufacturing, how long it had been in business and its reputation. "Basically it was an overall picture that Jack and I saw that had potential," Soulema says. "We did give thought to opening up from scratch, but it would have been too difficult to do, trying to build a clientele with all the competition out there."
"We were looking for a base, an existing business that had all the parts working," Pitson adds.
Actually, the location of their store has always had a shade shop as resident dating back to Aetna Shade in 1929. Even Aero Shade's manufacturing facility has a history in the industry. The building, which Pitson and Soulema purchased 10 years ago, was once a Venetian blind factory. The man they bought it from was part of a father-and-son business and had built the factory with his father. Today Aero Shade uses the facility to manufacture roller shades for its wholesale, retail and contract customer base.
Clients of Distinction
All of the window covering products sold through Aero Shade are custom. "We take special care to work with the customer's wants and needs and feel that a custom product generally does the job best," Soulema says.
That applies to custom drapery treatments as well, whether they are for area hotels, university dormitories, hospitals or residential clients who "require the best of the best for their homes," Pitson adds. Aero Shade Co. works only with outside workrooms that Pitson and Soulema, from their many years in business, believe can provide that type of quality. "It's a big city, but it's really a small city. The industry is small and you get to know who's around. Because of the years we've been around we've made our contacts," he says.
The largest part of Aero Shade's business is conducted in the customer' homes. The company has a staff of five salespeople to make the in-house calls. Given the store's Beverly Hills location, it shouldn't be surprising that many of its customers are well-known.
"It's amazing," Pitson says. "I'll have an appointment and I'll walk into someone's house and I'll have no idea whose it is. The appointments usually are set up through a specific general contractor who handles most of the people in the entertainment business from presidents of studios to celebrities," he says.
Pitson tells of the time he was waiting for the contractor in a customer's home in Malibu. A women walked through the room asking if he is waiting for her. He explained he was waiting for the contractor and the women continued on with whatever she was doing. A few minutes later, Pitson recognized Bruce Willis walking by and realized the woman was Demi Moore.
"We do work for Steven Spielberg and a tremendous number of top executives-and they have more than one home!" Pitson says. "We have one specific decorator in New York who calls us for all their work. They flew us out to Denver to do a ranch house on 30,000 acres. From day to day we never know the type of calls we'll get and where we're going to end up."
To further illustrate that point, Soulema tells about a call Aero Shade received "out of the blue" from a contractor working on the state capitol building in Sacramento. "They were installing a television monitoring system and were getting a lot of glare through the windows. Because it is an historic building, one of the requirements was they could not rip out the window frames or woodwork to put in motorized systems. Jack flew up there and looked at it and worked out a way to put in a low-voltage motorization system. They were thrilled. How we got the call I really can't tell you. Word of mouth travels quite a distance," he says.
Admittedly, Aero Shade Co. Inc. works in a high-end market, but that doesn't necessarily make the job easier. "These customers are savvy. You can't go out and take advantage of people. Word of mouth works in reverse as well," Pitson says. "We always try to keep our prices competitive, but if you're a few percentage points higher than someone else, in today's market people don't mind paying a little more knowing they can count on who they are giving their business to," he says.
"We provide our customers with a service. In today's society there are so many families that are working, their time is very important. When we schedule any of our salespeople or ourselves to go out to a job, if we tell them we're going to be there at 10 o'clock we're there at 10 o'clock. And when we tell them a product is gong to take two weeks, they're going to get a call within two weeks and we'll schedule installation," Pitson says.
"For our customers, time is valuable. They don't want to be sitting at home waiting," Soulema says. "They might request that we call them at work so they can leave to meet the installer. We'll do that. We'll have the installer call and say 'We're on the way. We'll be there in a half hour.' We try to accommodate the customer to the fullest."
"With our background of actually doing the installations ourselves for all those years, we have a very good concept of what it's going to take to get these jobs installed," Pitson adds.
"There's enough business out there for everyone," Soulema advises. "As long as you're doing the right thing and the customers feel comfortable, that goes a long way." Cold Call: Fate or Coincidence?
In the late 1980s, Jack Pitson and Mario Soulema had been selling blinds evening and weekends for nearly 12 years and were ready to make a full-time go of their "side business."
"We had been looking around probably a year or two before we ended up buying Aero Shade. The right opportunity, or the right business, just wasn't there," Pitson says.
One night, after coming home completely frustrated with what was going on at his job, Pitson was ready to make a move. "I opened up the yellow pages and I said, 'Well, let me just start calling people,' and the letter 'A' was first. I called Harold Harvey at Aero Shade and said, 'I'm not a broker, but I'm interested in purchasing a window coverings business,' and he said, 'You know, it's funny you called.' One thing led to another and that was it."