Solara Iron Doors & Lighting’s ornate, wrought-iron doors and lanterns are hard to miss at The Adophus Hotel, Dragonfly restaurant, and the Gaylord Texan. The iron beauties also are popular with Donald Trump, Sandra Bullock, Britney Spears, and sports celebrities ranging from Mavericks to Rangers.

It’s hard to imagine that 15 years ago, when Alberto Perez opened Solara, few people embraced this Mexican-inspired trend. “No one knew what an iron-door business was,” says CEO Perez, who together with his business partner and vice president of sales Malena Gutierrez has turned Solara into a $5 million-a-year enterprise. In the beginning, Solara sold wrought-iron doors only to luxury homeowners. But it soon became clear that the industry lacked quality outdoor lighting that was ornate and sturdy enough to survive the Texas heat.

So Solara perfected its lighting fixtures, using computer-aided designs to replicate styles from 200 to 300 years ago and developing electronic start and safety valves on the gas models. It also added an e-coat finish—the same that’s used on cars—to the steel fixtures to prevent rust and wear. The company now offers 80 different lighting designs that include 10 choices of custom colors, glass options, and electric or gas preferences, plus thousands of door designs. Custom designs also are popular.

Customers tend to gravitate toward the Old World and Tuscan styles. But a drive through Preston Hollow demonstrates that more are embracing Texas contemporary designs that follow the modern trend in Mexico.

All of the products are hand-forged at Solara’s factory in Monterrey, Mexico, then shipped to the company’s showroom in the Dallas Design District for finishing touches. The pieces are transported from Mexico each weekend, a factor that makes Solara competitive with companies shipping items from China or Italy. Solara has 22 employees in Dallas and 40 in Mexico. It also has a showroom at the Dallas World Trade Center.

“We expanded on what we could do for the total project—gates, railings, and windows—and the ticket sale became different.”

- MALENA GUTIERREZ
Until 2009, Solara’s business model was focused on volume, relying heavily on 680 lighting distributors across the U.S. and Canada for slightly more than half of its lighting sales. At its peak, sales hit $6.5 million. Business was so good that Solara built the Monterrey factory in 2008. Then the economic recession hit, though, and sales screeched to a halt, falling below $3 million. Lantern orders plunged to 40 a week from 150 a week, and distributors were dropping like flies.

“The lighting industry used fax machines [to send in orders], and from one day to the next it was like the fax machine broke,” Perez recalls. “Malena and I considered closing the business, but we [felt] so bad because we have some wonderful people working for us.”

The partners decided to change course, focusing solely on quality and price. Instead of developing made-in-China lines for the under-$500,000-home category, they began concentrating on $1.5 million homes and higher and providing more services.

“We expanded on what we could do for the total project—gates, railings, and windows—and the ticket sale became different,” says Gutierrez. “Since we have a lot of customization capabilities, we are very flexible.”

Most of Solara’s business is from referrals and luxury home designers and architects. While it has a number of commercial projects across the country, some of its biggest jobs lately have come from Oklahoma, Lubbock, and Abilene—residences in oil-rich areas, where homes can require as many as 120 fixtures, 20 doors, outdoor lighting, windows, and iron inserts.

The decision to diversify was a good one, allowing the partners to take on projects such as a 58,000-square-foot medieval home styled after a Spanish convent. “We wouldn’t have had time to do this project before,” Perez says. “It pushed our limits and opened up new doors and possibilities that we never saw before.”

Solara hopes to grow its footprint with the launch of an e-commerce site this spring. Perez says he held off on the site out of respect to his distributors, but, since they now account for just 20 percent of his volume, the time is right.

He acknowledges that lighting sales are highly competitive online, but wants to see how consumers respond to higher-end interior and exterior products. The site offers extensive 2D and 3D details and provides retail and distributor pricing.

“If I could bring every potential customer to our showroom, that would be the best,” he says. “Once they walk in they say, ‘Ah, I get it.’ We have the largest selection of outdoor lighting in the country, and most of what you see [from competitors] is a very boxy, aluminum, machine-made product. They will now see why Solara costs more. This will change a lot for us in sales for lighting.”