METAIRIE, LA — In business, Randall L. Shaw has certainly encountered his fair share of obstacles.
Shaw, president of Nordic Kitchen & Bath, endured Hurricane Katrina, which flooded his business with four inches of water. While this challenged his firm’s resolve, it also set the stage for an almost equally challenging landscape, as many opportunists set up temporary kitchen and bath shops around New Orleans shortly thereafter.
Now, as an economic “hurricane” sweeps through many industries in the U.S., he finds his firm challenged once again. But Shaw – along with Michael Haase, CKD, and five other staff members – is intent on doing what he’s done since the firm’s inception nearly 14 years ago: weathering the storm.
“Having a disaster plan allowed us to reopen quickly after Hurricane Katrina, and it enabled our business to withstand the immediate after-effects,” he reports. “Although the procedures we had in place kept losses of time and money to a minimum, we realized that there were issues we hadn’t taken into account. This prompted us to revise and improve our disaster plan for the next time.
“We’ve always been a very technologically advanced company, and doing such high volume after the storm required us to add new software to track our products, which made us more organized and efficient than ever. It forced us to revisit our policies, revise as needed and keep a closer eye on accounts receivable,” Shaw adds.
He realized that, if the firm was to handle the increased business efficiently, he didn’t necessarily need to add sales staff as much as additional support staff. He is currently seeking to add a design assistant.
“Customer service has always been our top priority, and I believe it is why the majority of our new business is referred to us from previous clients,” Shaw stresses.
Weathering the Storm
A mere week after Katrina hit, Shaw and his staff reopened their doors, doing their best to salvage displays.
“Initially, business was manageable, but after a few weeks, it became apparent it would increase exponentially,” he remarks.
Without the time to train new employees adequately, the existing staff at Nordic Kitchen & Bath started working much longer hours – some as much as 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for up to a year after the storm.
“We also reduced the days our showroom was open to four per week at the time, closing on Mondays to complete designs, enter orders and handle paperwork,” Shaw reports. “Salespeople and designers began assisting with shipping and receiving as well.
“Having a great staff that actually cares about the customers and the business goes a long way in [maintaining the operations and] fulfilling the customers’ desires and expectations,” he continues.
The challenge of keeping up with the increased workload was compounded by carpetbaggers, who opened satellite showrooms around the area.
“There were dealers relocating to the area from as far away as Seattle,” he notes. “As they saw their business grow, some of the local dealers began adding more salespeople and ‘designers’ to their staffs, although many were hardly qualified.
“Other local dealers moved into newer and larger showrooms, and some actually opened multiple locations,” he adds.
Many of the showrooms that opened multiple locations after Katrina have since closed, or gone out of business completely, he reports.
“With no long-term interest in the city, these firms pulled out as the choice jobs were completed. It left little or no service structure for the homeowners,” Shaw adds, which is where his staff stepped up.
For Shaw, the business survival instincts that kicked in during Katrina have greatly empowered the firm to overcome the current economic recession.
“Katrina and the years that followed proved that we did the right thing by sticking to our business model. We didn’t make the mistake of using the opportunity to grow too quickly, and kept our overhead to a minimum,” he explains.
“Though we learned through clients and vendors that some dealers in our market had increased their prices by up to 50%, we did not waiver,” Shaw stresses. “Our business philosophy has always been to operate at specific margins, and we did not adjust that after Katrina.
“Certainly we made our share of mistakes,” adds Shaw, “but we have always rectified the problems at our own expense. We never shrug off the responsibility or pass it on to the client.”
To that end, Shaw stresses that he always sells at the same prices and will not negotiate price. “That way, we don’t develop a reputation that we can be talked down, and our customers know that they are getting the best possible price. Even under the demands of the dramatic increase in clients, we never [wavered on cost and never] stopped providing great customer service,” he says.
“The key is to know who your customer is and know when to walk away from a project, even if business is slow,” he continues. “If you specialize in mid- to high-end projects and take on low-end jobs to get cash flow, then you just might find that you’ve earned the reputation of doing low-end jobs – even when things pick up.”
And, as witnessed during the aftermath of Katrina, “when the economy is good, don’t allow your own firm to grow too quickly,” he advises. “You need to think about the long-term.”
Shaw states: “When business is good, it’s sometimes easy to not stay focused on your bottom line. But, you should always be prepared for a downturn in business and be creative in the ways you market your firm.
“In addition, you should always try to build relationships and give great customer service,” he continues. “Your clients will always refer new clients that are pre-sold on your services.”
Show your Stuff
Part of that customer service is tied to the offerings in the firm’s showroom – a standout draw for the Nordic Kitchen & Bath customer.
“We’ve been told by countless clients and vendors that our showroom is the most impressive one in our area,” Shaw reports.
Each display is in its own accessorized setting with its own unique floor. Because there is no signage, each looks like an actual kitchen and not a showroom display,” he says.
He continues: “We often hold the client’s hand from design to completion, tweaking and fine-tuning details after many would consider the project done. We will even follow up with the client a year afterward to ensure that everything is performing properly.”
In addition to relying on its customer service and design acumen to build word-of-mouth referrals, the firm hosts open houses for builders and CEU presentations for architects, and advertises in local magazines.
The firm will continue to focus on creating kitchens, baths and outdoor kitchens for remodels and new construction for discriminating clientele, Shaw concludes.