When Ross Haisley and John Thomas were seniors at Monterey High, they were roommates, both living with Haisley's parents, and they had a game they played most nights. They tried to turn the TV off without leaving their beds. This was 1978. Not every TV had a remote then.
So they'd roll up socks and toss them at the on/off button. Sometimes it took a lot of socks, but those boys were nothing if not dogged, and it didn't matter if they went through the whole laundry pile. The TV stayed on until someone hit the button.
Fast forward a couple decades, through years of hard work, careful – or sometimes seat-of-the pants – planning, a hard-earned but enormously successful business, a lifelong enduring friendship, a love affair with the Monterey Peninsula, and the light speed progress of the microchip, and you come to the street corner in downtown Monterey where you'll find an extraordinary blend of comfort, design, technology and common sense that is A Shade Above.
Here, TVs – and many other things – turn on and off a bit more easily than with the good aim of a sock fastball.
How Haisley and Thomas got here, doing this, is both a modern American success story and a tail of two guys bonded together who believed in each other, in their ideas, and in the notion that you can always find a better way if you look hard enough.
But to appreciate the journey, it helps to know just what this piece of the world is that they've created and to see the irony of how far they've come from throwing socks.
A Shade Above is an experience center. There is no better way to describe it. It is so astonishingly beyond a 'showroom,' they aren't even the same species.
They sell custom home products there – motorized window shades and coverings, lighting systems, home theaters, sound systems, residential design products – all tied together with an electronic brain and none of it is what you'd expect. What they have and how they do it continually surprises everyone, including clients, architects and designers, even their own suppliers of the high-end products. That's why to really understand, you have to experience it.
The space at Abrego and Pearl streets is on one of the busiest corners in Monterey. It used to be a gas station and a car lot. Now it is a sales and experience center that is also, essentially, a beautiful, airy, slightly European contemporary home – so intimately genuine and inviting that city planners wouldn't issue permits until Haisley and Thomas promised no one would live there on the commercially zoned lot.
"I can kind of understand," Haisley said. "We love hanging out here."
That's only the setting, though to be fair, one reason you feel so instantly serene and a little bit pampered just walking in is very connected to what A Shade Above is all about.
When people enter the experience center, it's as if they were coming home to their own house. The door is closed. The place is dark. You hit a button – it could be on your cell phone or might be your garage door opener if it actually was your house, and the world goes into action.
Lights come on to guide you in. Inside, the fireplace kicks on a low flame, lamps and spots give the house a warm glow. Rich music is floating through the air. (Usually at A Shade Above, the music is a complex mellow jazz, but there's no reason it couldn't be heavy metal if that's what works for you). There's no sign of the speaker or of any technology. The rooms have just become, simply enough, a home.
Here's what people say when they walk in, and you can win money betting this will happen. They say, "I want to live here." Next thing is, "Why don't we have this in our house?"
And that "welcome home" is just the start. Artisan shades, curtains and skylight coverings open or close silently. Lighting is fined tuned, focused and adjusted in layers for cooking, for dining, for name-your-mood. In the bathroom, if you want it on, there's a TV inside the mirror. It's completely invisible when it's off and playfully handy when it's on.
In the living room, an original painting rolls up seamlessly with a vanishing edge in an action so smooth, just watching it go up and down is entertainment. Behind the painting is a sleek flat screen. Or hit a different button and the room becomes a home theater. Without a sound, a screen drops from a hiding space in the ceiling, shades cover windows and doors, and a projection unit appears from somewhere. The sound from 10 speakers is huge. The picture is like crystal. This could be a Century Theater, except there are no cell phones or giggling teens.
This kind of thing goes on and on around the house, and it's all started, stopped and controlled without banks of wall switches or a lineup of remotes. The controls for all this are an iPad, and it operates intuitively and without effort.
"I'm afraid of technology," Thomas said. "I had to be able to use it, and if I can get it, anyone can get it. I also had to feel like I couldn't break it. I remember renting a house in Palms Springs and we couldn't turn on the TV. We don't want that ever to happen to anyone."
"You can hand the iPad to someone," Haisley said, "and just tell them we have all these features. People will figure it out even without us telling them how it works."
It's also got semi-intelligence on its own. When you come home, for instance, it knows the time and date, so it can tell that it's 6 p.m. in January and you need lights turned on or that it's 6 p.m. in July and you'll have plenty of natural light and might want the shades rolled up. Plus, it knows if anyone is already home, so it won't turn off someone's light who, say, is working with a sharp knife in the kitchen.
And that's just the techno side. Everything in the experience center home is graceful and relaxed, because the lines flow easily and nothing gets in the way. That's the design-driven side of A Shade Above. They're not just an integration system for Rolls Royce quality products, they've chosen those products and put them together so they solve problems -- for architects, for designers, for all the homeowners who want their space uncluttered.
The technology and motors that run all this are hidden. They have a dishwasher built invisibly into the side of a kitchen island. They use the revolutionary TRUFIG flush mounted sockets and switches that are nearly imperceptible, or that disappear entirely behind a piece of tile or wood. The window coverings are accents to the room design. Even that iPad control rests on a charger on the wall that makes it looks like a piece of art.
A Shade Above is not just about the space, it's what they add to the space. So there are no clunky interruptions on the walls, no shadow lines or giant black speakers or equipment piles. There's nothing blocking the views of the home or from the windows.
The result of all of that is the sort of thing that architects talk about and designers work for, but it doesn't ring so deeply until you experience it – there is a definitive feeling of effortlessness and calm to the home. It just feels good being there.
You can picture yourself living in that place. It all just flows. You react to the clean, graceful lines and the luxury of it, but it's contemporary and comfortable luxury. It's for living in, not for showing off.
"We don't mind if you want to show it off," Thomas said. "And, really, just using it shows it off."
"But that's not what we offering people," Haisley said. "We're offering products and a system that makes their life better."
This all comes from two people who are not ostentatious guys. They're not the kids who get giant speakers to be loud or get noticed; they're more like, say, Springsteen fans that just love how good the music sounds with a great sound system. That visceral part of the world means something to them, so they built a company that enhances it.
When they started, things were a bit different. But even then, two defining forces steered them. 1. They both look at things whole, and from the outside… always thinking, analyzing and wondering if there's a better way to do something. 2. these two friends are more like brothers, bonded together, intuitive about each other.
"Don't play poker with them," says longtime friend Jack Aiello. "They know what cards each other has."
"The funny thing is," said Haisley, "we disagree on everything."
"People always called us Cat/Dog," Thomas said.
Who's the cat… who's the dog?
They look at each other almost simultaneously and say, "We don't know."
Neither Thomas nor Haisley would really describe themselves as driven. They're just guys trying to earn a living. Even back in high school they were at it. The guys became friends their junior year in high school. Both went to Monterey Peninsula College before transferring to four-year schools. Both finished most of their hard-core classes, but quit before graduating because neither was sure they were headed in the right direction.
Back in Monterey, Haisley was working in an architecture office and Thomas had gotten a job doing sales for an area plumber. He talked Haisley into working with him.
The plumbing business carried an insulated storm window that was added to existing windows, but plumbers didn't try to sell them. This was 1985, before double pane windows were common. Haisley and Thomas saw possibilities, and asked if they could run with it for the plumbing company.
"We asked and asked," Haisley said. "They wouldn't answer and wouldn't answer. Finally we went to the distributor in San Jose directly and asked if we could sell on our own. They said sure, we just had to come up with $20,000."
And so they did though family loans. They named their new company after the place the loved – the Monterey Peninsula – and the new product they were convinced was soon to be hot. They called themselves Peninsulators. They were 24 years old and their office/warehouse/distribution center was Thomas's garage.
That didn't last long. The city booted them out because it was a neighborhood. No commercial permits allowed. They moved to a storage facility in Marina.
Their business started with something of a bang. In late 1985, they exhibited at a home show at Monterey County Fairgrounds, and used an old bit of wisdom: better to show than to tell. So, they built their first experience center.
They constructed a large plywood box and put dry ice in one half, then stuck their insulated window in the middle. People could feel how the cold didn't come through, and they could see that it didn't fog. They also used a boom box with lively – and loud – music to get some attention.
"We killed it," Thomas said.
"We had lines of people," Haisley said, "because we seemed like a really fun stop. Everyone else was so serious."
That helped get them launched, but they did just OK after that.
"This is the Monterey Peninsula. We have pretty mild weather," Haisley said. "There isn't a huge demand for storm windows."
One customer asked if they could tint the windows. Always the entrepreneur and thinking ahead Thomas said "sure". That one question lead to numerous future businesses including vehicle window tinting, a and selling mini blinds.
Those start ups were a snapshot of the entrepreneurial spirit running through both of them. They want to work hard, they keep thinking of twists, they're willing to put in whatever hours it takes and to try new things"
Thomas is, at first glance, the free spirit of the two. Haisley is the more deliberate one. But they are like the rooms they furnish, they have layers of surprises and are much more complex than they seem. See..."cat/dog".
In their early days, they were learning their business and made up for the rookie mistakes more with hustle than well planned, deeply considered choices. And those mini-blinds were as much a leap of faith for them, as they were a good read on the market. And at first, it was only an OK addition. It gave them another product and helped develop more business, but it wasn't any kind of game changer.
So almost all through the '80s, they were scraping by. Barely.
"The money owed us and the money we owed vendors was very, very close," Haisley said. "We were not always on the good side of that."
They were carrying a range of window coverings for commercial buildings, and would go find commercial construction sites, then knock on the trailer doors, asking who to talk to about their window coverings, who to give prices to, whether they were putting in coverings or shades or mini-blinds or what?
They were making connections, and plenty of contractors and builders who worked with Peninsulators liked the guys and liked their attention to detail and their hustle. But they were growing only slowly.
By 1993, they had a crew working for them, and needed more space. They moved into a building in Sand City, a couple miles down the bay from Marina. They continued to grow and had a solid reputation for carrying quality products with quick installation. Project managers they worked with on one commercial building would migrate to new companies and bring in Peninsulators to do their window coverings
"The San Jose area was starting to boom and we had a lot of projects and clients up there," Haisley said. "We were basically sending all our estimators and installers to San Jose every day."
It was time to move.
In the mid 90's, Peninsulators moved into an 1,500-square-foot building off Highway 101 in San Jose. Without traffic, it was an hour drive from Monterey. Haisley and Thomas were carpoolers from the beginning.
"He always had to drive. He's the control freak," Haisley said.
"I'm a good driver," Thomas said.
They settled on a 5 a.m. meet up. And some nights they weren't home until 2 a.m., then it was back up to San Jose bright and early.
By 2000, Peninsulators had become the most successful commercial window covering service in the Bay Area. But Haisley and Thomas knew there had to be a more efficient way to do things. They hired a consultant who not only helped them fine tune their organization, he helped the guys understand they needed to go with their strengths.
"At first, we both did everything, billing, installing, estimating, you name it," Haisley said.
"It was just survival," Thomas said.
"Absolutely," Haisley said.
"But we were still each doing a lot of different jobs," Thomas said.
The consulting firm said they needed one point man, someone to get out and meet potential clients, and to be the face of the company. And someone needed to oversee the details of the operation.
"John can be anybody's friend," Haisley said. "He absolutely should be the one doing sales."
"I preferred not doing paperwork," Thomas said. "I like estimating and talking to people."
"And I really enjoy digging into a set of plans, getting the business organized," Haisley said.
So they were efficient, streamlined and in the right jobs. Everyone was happy.
Today Peninsulators is a national leader in its industry, with 42 employees and $12 million in annual revenue.
"We don't have to knock on any more construction trailer doors," Haisley said. "Now really good people are coming to us."
"We're a 20-year overnight success," Thomas said.
But there were two forces pulling on them: 1. They wanted a new challenge. 2. They wanted to be back in business in Monterey.
"Monterey is our home. This is where we're from," Haisley said. "We had friends here who didn't know what we did."
"We ran into our old landlord from Sand City," Thomas said. "He asked what we were doing now. He had no idea that we had grown so much."
"We knew it was time to come back," Haisley said.
"It was time to feel like part of this community again," Thomas said.
After looking at the market and at what they knew best, motorized window coverings was a no brainer since they were becoming what granite counter tops were a decade ago. This was a niche business no one was doing well in the area.
Thus began A Shade Above in 2010, located in the heart of the Old Monterey Historic District. How the experience came to be… is a whole different story
"We were walking by this building that had been empty since 2007," Thomas said. "It was an eyesore. We looked at each other and said, 'This would be perfect.'" For once cat/dog agreed on the same thing.
The corner is quintessential Monterey -- energetic, urban and busy but not gritty. The air is filled with the sense of the bay and the ocean nearby. The streets are filled with cars and people walking, but it doesn't feel crowded, just busy. Their building is a tall single story, and nothing around it is more than a couple stories high. Everything is at a human scale and it feels like the center of the world.
In April 2011, they started construction, and hired Jack Aiello to be the project supervisor. He had his own plastering business and led Haisley and Thomas to TRUFIG, the company with one-of-a-kind, flush-mounted outlets, switches and other technology that more or less disappears in room.
"They were careful about who they did business with, because lots of guys didn't understand it," Haisley said. "TRUFIG loved Jack because he worked with it so well in his business. He can teach contractors in an hour how to use it. He taught their reps some things."
In an effort to find the leading cutting edge product lines to add to their offerings, Haisley and Thomas attended one of the country's top home product trade shows.
"Everybody there was looking for audio visual," Haisley said. "We didn't want to be just another audio visual company, but we did want to offer sound and video systems as well as lighting.
That vision is why A Shade Above is so appealing…Haisley and Thomas are always adapting, to what is best for the market they serve.
Construction and installation at the experience center took 14 months. During that time they connected to SAVANT, the "technical brain" that smoothly runs everything they offer.
After showing the center to architects, designers, builders and contractors, Haisley and Thomas continued to hear the same mantra; We love this place. "Instantly we realized our clients would be our biggest sales people", said Thomas
The vendors have been equally dazzled, including CONRAD Shades, the Ferrari of window coverings, who's CEO said very nicely that "they didn't do showrooms".
"Until she came into the center and said, 'This is the nicest showroom I've ever seen. I'll take whatever windows you can give me.'"
A Shade Above is now CONRAD's preferred automation company
"She spent all day here, looking at everything we're doing," Haisley said. "She talked about how this is the wave of the future and how important this is for their company."
That's been the story over and over…. vendors seeing their products displayed with other systems for the first time in an environment that offers the homeowner a full living experience.
"They keep sending people in to see how good their products look, and how well they work in a real environment," Thomas said.
Just to give you an idea of how quickly this business got nods on the map, since they started working on it, people have been driving by and honking in support as if to say "finally…thanks for coming back you guys and doing some great with this stellar piece of property!". Even Ross' dad, a well known respected architect in the area, has taken to sending people to the Experience Center. "My dad is a hard egg," Haisley said. "For him to say, "you've got to see this", that's a big deal."
"There are so many times," Haisley said, "when we just look at each other and go, 'This place rocks.'"