Fourth generation awning man

The 1904 photo of F. Thoms’ awning shop on Mission Street in San Francisco shows the city’s original wooden sidewalks—and just how long businesses in the city relied on awnings for protection and shade. To this day, many of the commercial neighborhoods of San Francisco are lined with awnings—some of which were first made by Tim McGill’s great-grandfather, who bought out Thoms in 1911 and founded the company that is now American Canvas and Awnings. McGill’s grandfather’s cast iron crank arms and hand-built gear boxes still crop up around San Francisco.

“It’s nice to find an old gear box from my grandfather’s time,” McGill says. “We’ve recovered a few and rebuilt pieces on a few.”

But McGill wasn’t always altogether serious about the family business. “I got fired a couple of times,” he says. “I was a young kid growing up and I was rebelling against Dad.”

Ok, I’m ready

He had plans to study photography and take a backpack to Europe for a couple of years, but in 1987 his dad died, and either McGill had to take over, or the business would likely be sold. “The thought of closing the company after it had supported our lives for as long as I can remember, it was just unthinkable,” he says. “Ok, I’m ready,” he thought, and his life’s work began.

Not that it was easy. Pricing was hard, although “I had a feeling for it,” he says, and personnel issues were a challenge because many of his core employees left at the same time. “There’s no real training for an awning man,” he says. “To get good awning people in here, we just had to start from scratch.”

With plenty of hands-on experience but no other business training, he relied on his mother, the president of the company, to be his “right-hand man.” But he also had a spirit of adventure, acquired as much from family vacations as his summer job working for his dad.

“We did a lot of travelling around the Yucatan into Guatemala,” he says. “We rode buses through the jungle all day, went down the river in a dugout canoe— not your average family trip to Mexico. It was an incredible experience.”

Looking up

Today, he’s married and raising two young boys, “the center of my life, now,” he says, and he’s quite content to spend weekends at home riding bikes with the kids or doing yard work. One would not be surprised to find him an understanding father, given his own experience growing up. “That’s one of the things I’m most happy about, that I got to be friends again with my dad. He taught me a lot about what’s important in life.”

For McGill, it’s now all about family and taking care of his customers. “The enjoyable part is getting out in the field and meeting the customers,” he says. “A lot of customers need to be led to the question. Over 25 years, you figure out what they’re looking for.

“I got into this business mainly because of the family and I’ve never regretted it. I spend my life tripping over things walking down the street because I’m always looking up at the awnings. There’s a kaleidoscope of life going by you in the awning business.”

by Janet Preus, editor, Specialty Fabrics Review