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Exceeding expectations

No challenge is too big—or too small—for Shari Albertson to take on, from million-dollar projects in the middle of a pandemic to proving why she’s the best woman for the job.

Features | March 1, 2022 | By: Holly Eamon

Shari Albertson is vice president of sales at Austin Canvas & Awning, a commercial and residential awning manufacturer and installer in Charlotte, N.C. She has over 15 years of awning sales experience and is the qualifying representative for the company’s general contractor’s licenses in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. 

Yet nearly every time Albertson approaches a job site, the men she meets assume she hasn’t come prepared with a “worthy” tape measure. “Then I surprise them by whipping out the FATMAX® I always carry in my designer measuring bag,” she laughs. “It’s just one of many examples where I have the opportunity to prove that women can do anything.”

However, even women are often shocked to see her during sales calls, expressing disbelief that women can “do this type of job,” Albertson says. “But the fact is, women are naturals for this job—and industry. It hits all the marks. You can explore your creative side, connect with people and solve problems, all while beautifying your community.”

For some, this ongoing exchange could become draining. But for Albertson, exceeding expectations is a way of life—and business.

No shortcuts

In Charlotte and its surrounding areas, the Austin name carries a legacy of excellence. In 1946, a man named Buck Austin established an industrial fabric business, providing several high-quality services. When he retired, he split it into three companies: Austin Canvas & Awning, Austin Tarp & Cargo Controls and Austin Cushion & Canvas.

It has been highly respected ever since. And Albertson—along with her husband and company president, Josh—is committed to delivering above and beyond its reputation for every project, big or small. 

“We live and die by the details; that’s what sets us apart,” Albertson says. “Unfortunately, some competitors are not providing customers with a quality product. What’s worse is that most customers do not understand the products enough to know if they are getting a high-quality, well-designed and well-implemented one. But we don’t take any shortcuts. We employ the expertise of structural engineers and do everything in-house, in accordance with local building codes. A project isn’t over until both the customer and I know it’s the best it can be. If I see even a smudge or a lacing that could be better, I send a team member back out to fix it.”

Developing such intricate knowledge about the industry was a slow progression for Albertson. Before moving to Charlotte 25 years ago, she and Josh were living in Portland, Ore. Albertson sold capacity on a global fiber optic cable system to companies around the world. She helped remodel homes with Josh in her spare time.

In 1996, an opportunity arose to move to Charlotte and help run Austin Tarp & Cargo Controls. Austin Canvas & Awning was purchased and brought back into the fold. And eventually, Columbia Tent & Awning, established in 1908, was added to the family of businesses. In 2014, Albertson and her husband became sole owners of all three companies.

Albertson was finishing her college degree when they moved. After having children, she started working for the awning business part time, providing sales support as she learned the industry. The people skills Albertson sharpened during her former telecommunications career transitioned quickly and easily. 

After a few years of turnover within the awning sales department, the company shifted its structure to include Albertson as the sole salesperson with a team of supporting project managers and estimators. “Customers like the consistency,” she says. 

To streamline internal processes, they also implemented an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system to assist with functions such as accounting and sales quoting. And they developed an estimating system called TubeCAD with an overseas engineer who works with CAD.

The extra efficiency made a world of difference a few years later when Austin Canvas & Awning moved its entire operation in the middle of completing two separate million-dollar projects—and the COVID-19 pandemic.

A move worth making

A well-established plan to expand the shop was hastened by the two immense projects, which were on similar deadlines, but the timing couldn’t have been worse. As North Carolina was implementing COVID lockdowns, Albertson and her team were moving four miles down the road into a new 80,000-square-foot facility.

Ongoing projects for the trucking industry and new construction required them to continue working to stay on schedule. “There was no time to waste; we had to stay operational,” Albertson says. “We didn’t have a choice but to put into place every protocol we knew of to protect our staff in the office and field.”

Despite inspection delays and logistical nightmares, all employees were kept safe—and all projects were completed on time. “In spite of the odds, our team juggled it all. We have continued to remain busy and feel grateful for it,” Alberton says. “You have to stay nimble and adaptable in this industry.”

In conjunction with the move, Austin Canvas & Awning launched its powder coating division, applying AAMA 2603, AAMA 2604 and AAMA 2605 powder coat finishes on its awning and canopy frames and Aluma Shield® extruded aluminum architectural metal products.  

The business met the criteria to become an “elite” approved applicator by Sherwin Williams of the 2604 and 2605 finishes and is one of the only applicators of the higher-grade finishes in three Southern states. They not only powder coat their own products but also offer this service to end users. It’s all part of a broader growth strategy as the company pursues opportunities outside of the Charlotte region.

Creating quality connections

Until recently, name recognition has brought in more than enough business. “Customer referrals are worth their weight in gold,” Albertson says. “But with so much new construction in our region, we are expanding our reach to gain recognition outside of our area.”

Austin Canvas & Awning has completed projects nationwide, from New Jersey to Florida to California. Albertson’s knack for connecting with people is a key contributor to this expansion. She often attends customer-centric networking events and maintains membership in various trade organizations, including the Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI).

Albertson recently completed a three-year board term for IFAI’s Professional Awning Manufacturers Association (PAMA). She credits this experience with opening several doors for both personal and professional growth and encourages others to serve on similar committees to cultivate connections and strengthen the industry.

Austin Canvas & Awning has also shifted its advertising efforts from print to online and Blue Book only. But getting new business isn’t as much of a concern as getting supplies on time to complete new projects. Albertson expects fabric to become more popular among customers as building material costs rise, but textile shortages are growing right alongside them. 

The joy of problem-solving

Echoing many of her peers, Albertson says supply chain and staffing issues have been an endless challenge. “So many hours every day are spent trying to resource the right item that is in stock now but may not be in stock later when the order is placed—or vice versa. Luckily, we have developed relationships with other suppliers who have helped us keep our delivery schedules, and we maintain a large inventory of aluminum and stock fabric as a buffer.”

The construction boom in Charlotte has also made hiring new employees difficult, with more job openings than people to fill them. “It is important to show grace during this challenging time,” Albertson says. “We are all just trying to do our best with what is available to us.”

For Albertson, though, the most challenging projects have always been the most satisfying. “I love finding unique solutions to unique problems; that’s what my job is all about. Bringing others joy by not only meeting but exceeding their needs makes me happy.” 

Holly Eamon is a business writer and editor based in Minneapolis, Minn.

Photography by ©Rick Hovis Photography

What do you love most about your work?

I love our customers! My favorite part is building relationships with them and making connections. Once I can connect with them, I can bring their vision to life.  

I’m also happy to be able to provide good jobs to our employees so they can have a secure future for their families, and provide our community with a needed service, earning enough to give back to those in need and support local charitable committees.

Stadium structure requires traffic-stopping transport

Manufacturing and transporting a shade structure requiring complicated installation under tight deadlines is just another day at the office for the team at Austin Canvas & Awning in Charlotte, N.C. 

In 2017, mere months before the Charlotte Knights’ season opener, the company was tasked with replacing a corporate event shade structure within the minor baseball team’s stadium. 

Using Marine Blue Serge Ferrari Proof 502, Austin Canvas & Awning manufactured a 66-foot-wide canopy with a 6-foot drop and 37-foot projection, complete with a 52-by-12-foot multicolored logo printed in-house.

North Carolina has a 15-foot projection limit on fabric canopies, so it is designated for the building permit as a frame-supported membrane structure, based on its occupancy.

“The structure can be seen on television during the games, which is exciting,” says Shari Albertson, vice president of sales. “This is just one of many high-visibility projects we have accomplished over the past 25 years. We can drive around and see our work all around us. That brings me joy!”

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