Ben Skoldeberg employs people skills and skilled people to bring solar protection to central Texas.
By Sigrid Tornquist
“This business is really about people. The rest is just aluminum and fabric,” says Ben Skoldeberg, co-founder and co-owner of Texas Sun & Shade. Well … high-quality, high-performance aluminum and fabric, one might add. Ben, his wife Gudrun, along with one other partner, started the Austin, Texas-based interior and exterior sun control solution company in 1987 after owning one of the largest awning businesses in Sweden. At that time, retractable awnings were the norm in Sweden but in the United States they were an anomaly. Ben watched many Swedish customers express frustration when they transferred to the U.S. because they couldn’t find awnings like the ones they had at home. The Skoldebergs saw this as an opportunity to supply a need and expand their business.
The Saturday before moving to the United States, Ben sat in the showroom of their flourishing Swedish company and looked at the line of 30 or more families standing there waiting to write orders for retractable awnings. “Then we came [to the U.S.] and sold one mini blind for $100 in the next five months,” Ben says. Not quite the genesis they had imagined. “It was culture shock, of course,” he says. “We had to do a lot of 180-degree changes in what we thought.” They had thought they could work out of their home as they launched the business but soon discovered that they would need a retail space. And for the first two or three years they flew in all the fabrics from Stockholm, which cut into the bottom line.
Promoting business and satisfying customers
Since retractable awnings were uncommon in the U.S., the Skoldebergs needed to educate people on what retractable awnings were and why they might be a wise investment. But the local economy was depressed at that time, and people were hesitant to spend what money they had on a relatively unknown product. “People would say ‘This is great stuff; this is awesome.’ But they never bought,” Ben says. Eventually people did buy, though it took some time for the Skoldebergs’ message to motivate change. After a few years, the business began to gain momentum and, in 1990, the Skoldebergs sold their portion of the Sweden-based business to their partner, and bought him out of the U.S.-based business.
What did not change for the Skoldebergs when they came to the U.S. was their people-centered approach to business—people such as customers, industry partners and employees. The Skoldebergs worked hard at building up a customer base and relationships within the community. “We’ve always tried to take care of our customers at any cost,” Ben says. When there’s a glitch at an installation, which happens from time to time, Ben makes sure the customer ends up satisfied. “At those times I would feel embarrassed that it took so long to get things right,” he says. “But [the customer] said ‘Don’t worry about it. You came back.’ And now some of those same customers are our biggest supporters.” Because of that kind of commitment to customer satisfaction, the company sees a lot of repeat business and referrals.
Relationships create success for Skoldeberg
Ben also credits the company’s success to the relationships they’ve established with local architects and builders. Initially it was difficult to convince builders that awnings and shades should be a part of the construction process as opposed to an add-on after the fact. But homeowners began to request that awnings be installed right from the start, and builders began to see the benefits as well.
Being included in the initial planning process is a win-win situation for the architects/builders, Texas Sun & Shade and their customers. “We can get [architects] to delete architectural details that would prohibit the awning from being installed,” Ben says. “And if the homeowner doesn’t want to get the awning or screen installed right away, we still prewire for it since everything we do is motorized.” Consequently, Texas Sun & Shade has become a preferred vendor for several of the high-rise projects in the area—a fact that has contributed to the 30 percent increase in business within the last year.
Skoldeberg values company employees
The Skoldebergs also make their 17 employees a priority. “We’re a really close-knit company,” Ben says. “Finding dedicated people is a big challenge, though.” And that is why, on occasion, Ben hires people just because he thinks they have good character traits, and then he finds a place for them at the company. It’s an approach that frees the Skoldebergs from having to micromanage employees and frees Ben up to do what he likes to do most—sell, which is easy to do since he wholeheartedly believes in the benefits of his products.
Of course, once the products are sold, they need to be installed. Ben identifies a key moment in the company’s history as being when the company hired an in-house electrician and later, in-house installers. Bringing an electrician and installers into the company meant that Ben could be assured of the quality and timeliness of the work. “It was a turning point for our business,” Ben says. “I guess it is in every business. When you add more people to your team, then the business can grow.”
But the person Ben references most often in relation to the success of the business is his wife and business partner, Gudrun, whose responsibilities include, among other things, bookkeeping and managing the in-house employees. “Sometimes, because I am a man, people will assume that this is my company,” Ben says. “And I say ‘No. This is our company.’ This is very important to me because she has really driven this company. This is an equal partnership.”