Jerry French’s early years set him up to be a successful entrepreneur. Working alongside his dad, a general contractor, throughout his younger years helped him develop a strong work ethic. Then, as a technology consultant for Fortune 500 companies, French gained firsthand knowledge of systems and processes that fueled business success. He describes that time in his life as “fantastic.” Every day was exciting, intriguing — and demanding.
“Tech is a fast-paced business, and my job involved a lot of travel,” he explained. “My wife was also in the business, so we both understood the lifestyle. I would leave Monday morning and get home Thursday night or sometime Friday. For the most part, we would just see each other on weekends.”
Things changed when the Frenches found out they had triplets on the way. Parenting became their top priority, so they looked for career changes that would free them to spend time with their children every day. In 2005, they established Awnings Above, a manufacturer and installer of awnings, canopies, shade sails and Bahama shutters for new commercial construction projects in the Southeastern U.S. The business became so successful they launched a sister business, Skyscape Architectural Canopies, four years ago.
“We identified a need for our products in markets beyond the Southeast,” French said. “Through Skyscape Architectural Canopies, we manufacture and ship those products to general contractors across the nation, who manage their installation. The Skyscape business has been part of the growth engine powering our overall company.” That growth engine has been coming on strong, as French reported growth at a year-over-year 50% clip in 2022 and 2023, with continued double-digit growth expected in 2024.
“We could be a lot larger if we wanted to, but I like our methodical growth,” French said. “We don’t want to be the largest company out there. I want to provide for our employees, their families and my family, and be able to go home at the end of the day, and unplug and enjoy the weekend. Those things are really important to us.”
Below, French shared insights into building his businesses and looking ahead.
Why did you choose to start a business in the awning industry?
My wife and I discussed opportunities with a business broker. We looked at many options but knew we ultimately wanted a business-to-business company so we could maintain regular business hours. Working nights and weekends wasn’t appealing to us because that would cut into our family time.
We looked at an awning franchise and discovered that the market was fragmented, with no national player. That was appealing to us: It would give us the flexibility to try different things as we pinpointed our niche. In the end, we didn’t buy the franchise but instead built our own awning business.
How important is relationship-building to your business? What is key to building strong relationships?
Relationships are everything. You build them by doing what you say you’re going to do. In my industry, that means providing quality products backed by exceptional service at a competitive price. When general contractors say, “You have to do better on price, because your competition is offering a lower price,” I explain that price is just one factor in comparing value. Price doesn’t mean anything if your clients can’t count on you to be on the job when they need you — after you’ve done an installation, for example, and they have issues that need to be addressed. We provide a level of service that brings clients back to us again and again. We are not the right company for people who believe you’re only as good as your last low bid. That’s not how we do business.
What challenges have you overcome in building your business?
During the pandemic, material wait times were a challenge. Thankfully, we have really good relationships with our suppliers: We’re good to them, and so they’re good to us. We communicated with them as early as we could so they could anticipate our needs. Then there were pricing challenges. Early in the pandemic, prices fell, but then they quickly skyrocketed. It took a lot of effort on our part to manage these pricing and supply chain issues to make sure we were able to deliver on our commitments to our clients.
Another challenge — one that never ends — is staffing. It has been very difficult to find people to be part of our organization at any level. Our business isn’t different from other companies in this regard: Every business owner I talk with faces the same challenge, no matter their size or industry. We’re continuing to work on solutions.
Do you have mentors or business advisors you rely on?
Several of my friends are business owners. Whenever we’re together, we share stories and challenges, and discuss how we address them. As a first-generation business owner, I am particularly interested in hearing perspectives around succession planning — looking at proven ways of addressing issues related to handing your business off to family members or selling it.
How has PNC helped you and your business?
Our PNC relationship manager is exceptional. She focuses on understanding our challenges and history, and how PNC can help. As one example, when we moved into our current facility, we needed to buy some expensive powder coating [painting] equipment. I discussed it with her, and PNC gave us a loan so we wouldn’t have to put pressure on our cash reserve. Going this route played out quite well for us; having that cushion from PNC really made a difference. Our relationship manager helped us make a sound financial decision that has paid off handsomely for our company over the years.
What is your vision for your company’s future?
We are going to continue to grow our brand throughout the U.S. with a strategy of controlled growth. As a manufacturing business, you have only so much bandwidth. You have to know your limitations and have a sales organization that supports that. Too many people approach business from the perspective of “I have to sell.” Yes, you do, but if you sell too much, you break your business because you’ve sold more than you can produce, and you can destroy service and quality in the process. We have a solid foundation and will continue to build on our relationships, stand accountable to our customers and make sure we’re better than the companies we compete with.
My vision also includes more involvement in the business by three of my four children, who are interested in playing a role in our success going forward. The two who just graduated from Arizona State and Clemson, respectively, joined us in 2023. The third will join after his 2024 graduation from Georgia Southern.
What do you find most gratifying about being an entrepreneur?
I take a lot of pride in knowing we’ve instilled a sense of trust and security in our employees. I have never had to let anyone go because we didn’t have enough business to support their wages. I recognize, too, that the decisions I make influence the well-being of not just these individuals themselves but also their families. I embrace that responsibility and am sometimes overwhelmed by the gratification it can bring.
What words of wisdom do you share with entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
You need to have undying self-confidence to do this. When you’re having a bad day, who are you going to bet on? You have to be able to bet on yourself — to have the drive and wherewithal to forge ahead. You are the leader of your organization, and if you’re distracted or down, everyone else feels it, and your business feels it. Keep your head up and keep marching ahead.