Talent Search

Today’s “whotailers,” a key link in the kitchen/bath industry’s product supply chain, find themselves faced with more challenges than ever – including a slowdown in the housing sector, competition from “big boxes” and the task of finding and retaining qualified personnel.

Whotailers have always adapted to a changing industry, learning to sell retail as well as wholesale as distribution patterns changed. History has also taught whotailers how to cope with ongoing challenges by becoming more diversified. For example, when the builder business gets soft, whotailers invariably lean on the remodeling and retail sectors to help stay the course. And, when the big boxes start to infringe on their volume, whotailers offer more unique, competitive products to combat the pressure.

However, when it comes to staffing their businesses with qualified people, the challenge becomes even more daunting. Finding the right people to design and sell what they design is no easy task. Whotailers report that they generally find employees who understand the fundamentals of design, but do not have a clue about how to close a sale. Or, they find people with sales experience who could not put the proverbial square peg in a square hole. As a result, the position of sales/designer continues to be an elusive one to fill.

What follows is a look at four major kitchen/bath wholesale/retail firms and how they approach finding and retaining qualified employees.

Markraft Cabinets

Headquartered in Wilmington, NC, Markraft Cabinets is a whotailer that began operations some 22 years ago, and has also been serving the Myrtle Beach, SC market for the past 10 years. The company provides kitchen cabinetry and countertops to the builder and remodeling market segments through four showrooms, with a fifth scheduled to open this month. Markraft employs 110 people.

According to chief operating officer Alan Tew, Markraft has a unique approach to finding new employees. About 18 months ago, it developed and filled a position for a full-time recruiter who relies on the Internet, local publications, supplier referrals and word-of-mouth to find people.

When the process begins, a screening is conducted by telephone to pare a list of some 100 candidates to about 12 – and then, to three or four. Tew notes that using a recruiter to conduct a search has been positive for the company because the recruiter knows the characteristics of the job and is not burdened with other responsibilities.

According to Tew, the most difficult positions to fill are that of the installer and salesperson. The goal in each case, he notes, is to have three people conduct the interviews. The first interview is with the department supervisor; the next is with the store manager; the third is with the division director. All three must agree on a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses before an offer is made.

What makes this process work well is that when Markraft hired the recruiter, it formalized job descriptions in order to clearly define the responsibilities and individual characteristics necessary to meet the demands of each position. This makes it easier for the recruiter to sift through the applications to find qualified candidates. The job description serves another purpose: It clarifies the expectations of the job, so that there is no misconception as to what a person will be doing in that position, eliminating the common defensive statement, “I didn’t know I was supposed to be doing that.”

Training is also key to an employee’s success. Tew says that Markraft has an in-house trainer, and people with no experience receive six weeks of training.

That training, Tew observes, includes going on job sites with installers and learning some of the challenges they face. The training also sees new hires spending time in the warehouse learning the inventory and seeing merchandise received and prepared for job-site deliveries. Major suppliers provide product knowledge, while CAD training is done in house. New employees also learn ordering systems and similar issues. Installers learn on-the-job, he adds.

Tew explains that, during the recruiting and training processes, the company culture is a priority and is continually reinforced.
When asked how he retains employees, Tew points out that every new employee is indoctrinated with Markraft’s values, which are based on “a dedication to finish the job. A job is not complete at 98%; we must meet the customers expectations,” he says.

Markraft has high expectations, but also provides an open environment, he adds. People in top management are accessible. Tew notes, “the culture of today’s workforce – ‘Generations X & Y’ – do not seem to have the need to be more mobile.”
The benefits package at Markraft is another reason people like working there, according to Tew, noting that the company offers health and life insurance, a 401(k) plan that includes a matching provision, and a strong incentive program tied to performance.

Sterling Kitchen Sales

Providing superior quality products, value and customer service is the philosophy of Sterling Kitchen Sales, Inc., a Malvern, PA-based kitchen and bath whotailer.

Sterling Kitchens started with four employees (three of whom are still with the company), with sales growth averaging 15% per year. The company has grown to a staff of 28, according to Doug Pusey, v.p./operations and Dale Smith, v.p./sales and marketing.

Both Pusey and Smith agree there’s currently a shortage of qualified new employees. Smith notes that Sterling’s preferred method for finding new employees is through referral. However, the company has had a fair degree of success from hiring through classified advertising in industry trade magazines.

Past mistakes have taught the company to be more cautious in its hiring, the two executives state, adding that Sterling now focuses more on quality than on quantity. Sterling’s compensation package offers health insurance, 401(k) with a matching provision, and a strong incentive program tied to performance.

Strength of service is emphasized with potential new hires, Smith says, noting that the company’s philosophy, background, track record and future plans are discussed with job candidates.

“We want people whose ideas mesh with our corporate philosophy,” he observes. “We’re seeking people who are team players who want to continually improve themselves and the company.”

Training includes giving people a taste of all of the functions within the company. New hires learn how to order and receive merchandise, with service to the customer as the number one priority. Manufacturers’ training and attending specialty schools for design and CAD are part of the training program, as well.

To retain top talent in an ever-changing, competitive market, Smith and Pusey formally review new hires after 90 days, six months and annually thereafter to evaluate strengths and weaknesses and performance versus expectations. An open door to top management is available to resolve issues.

“We set goals and reward people based on achievement,” Smith comments. “Our people know that their input is valued. The company is financially strong and has strong relationships with vendors, and that helps ensure the success of our designers.”

Designer Kitchens and Baths

Designer Kitchens and Baths is a company that provides a wide variety of products and services, including high-end appliances, custom cabinets, plumbing products and countertops for everyone from the discriminating homeowner to the multi-family builder.

The company, which began operations in 1977, currently employs 54 people at four Missouri locations – in Jefferson City, Osage Beach, Hannibal and at the DKB showroom in Columbia.

According to kitchen division manager Sonny Johnson, CKD, up until two years ago it was difficult to find designers with sales ability. However, the last two years have been far better, he says, “because from 2001 to 2005, we were trying to take the ‘best of the worst’ from some companies that were downsizing. Now, employees from other companies seek us out.”

When asked about his company’s interview process, Johnson notes that DKB lets candidates know that the company doesn’t “require a lot of reports to be compiled, allowing them time to focus on their job requirements.

“If we are hiring outside salespeople [who call on builders and make up about 75% of the company’s sales force], they learn that they’ll have a support person working with them. The remaining 25% of the sales force focuses on inside sales and the retail showroom, where responsibilities have them doing 80% of drawings and estimating,” Johnson explains.

A person can start in inside sales and remain in that position – or move to the showroom or to outside sales. DKB also has a person who calls on the interior design trade, as the company is trying to grow that market due to the high-end cabinetry, appliances and plumbing products it carries.

During the job interview, Johnson asks a candidate, among other questions, to explain the difference between “gross margin” and “markup.”

“If they look like a deer caught in the headlights, I know they don’t know much about business,” he observes. “It doesn’t mean we won’t hire them, but it lets you know where to focus your training.”

All of this takes place during an informal walk through the DKB showroom, “to give people a good look at what we’re about,” while providing Johnson with time to “ask more questions that require thought” in order to determine an individual’s skill level. Training is provided on the job and by vendors. Outside salespeople must first work in inside sales to complete their training.

Johnson says that it’s not difficult for DKB to retain employees, who are judged by their sales performance and ability to generate profitable work while avoiding errors. Showroom managers conduct annual reviews.

The DKB benefits package includes a pleasant working environment, health insurance, a 401(k) plan, two weeks of vacation and compensation by performance. Salary plus commission is paid for inside and showroom people, while straight commission is paid for outside salespeople.

EW Kitchens

EW Kitchens, which started in 1947 as a supplier of tile, countertops, laminate and tools for cabinet makers, maintains a showroom and headquarters in Wixom, MI. The company also operates a luxury showroom (Extraordinary Works by EW) in the Michigan Design Center in Troy.

In the mid 1980s, EW became a full kitchen cabinet distributor, according to v.p. Dennis Palazzolo, who notes that EW employs 26 people, down from 36 people over the last several years.

While production builder construction is down by 50% in the company’s market area, the luxury segment has continued to grow. Palazzolo notes that, five years ago, the company started moving into retail by remodeling its showrooms with a “high-end vision.”

Finding qualified people has not been easy for EW, and the company is always looking to interview sales designers, according to Palazzolo, who notes that EW occasionally looks outside the kitchen and bath industry for new employees. Design and technical schools have yielded employees who have the potential to develop into sales designers, he adds.

“This is sometimes better than hiring people who have to get rid of bad habits,” Palazzolo explains.

EW’s corporate culture, which is based on customer service, is at the forefront of interviews, and the qualities the company seeks in its employees are perhaps best expressed in its job description for “Luxury Sales and Project Consultant,” copied below, with permission from EW’s Website.

“Only top level self-starters with a positive mental attitude need apply. Persons with a proven track record are most welcomed. Selling Skills should include behavioral style recognition, prospecting, closing and follow-up service. Sales candidates must be able to demonstrate people skills and the ability to provide solutions to meet clients’ needs. Design Expertise must include a thorough understanding of architectural, mechanical and construction blueprints and proper execution. Candidates should be proficient in theme and period design using multiple product lines. Other skills should include ‘free-hand’ sketching, drafting and CAD skills; Microsoft Office capabilities; and the administrative and organizational techniques to perform efficiently in a multi-tasking environment. Professionalism in appearance, speaking and presentation is imperative.”

When prospective employees are interviewed, they are given a simple test of 15 to 20 questions, identifying behavioral styles and work environment needs. Once hired, the bulk of the training at EW is conducted by vendors. Staff people provide training in behavioral styles and sales skills.

According to Palazzolo, “people want to stay at EW.” Their compensation package includes health insurance and 401(k), which is funded by company profits and the employee. He said that, for the most part, everyone is paid based on performance with a salary (draw) against commission.

A formal review focused on annual goals is also conducted, so employees have a clear sense of their level of performance.
“Sales and quality design are at the top of the list in terms of people’s goals,” Palazzolo comments. “People fall into two categories, those who are the top performers – professional self starters – and those who need the training to get to that level,” he says.

No Easy Answers

After listening to these executives, it’s clear that there are no easy answers when it comes to the challenge of finding and retaining qualified, top-level people.

Word of mouth, local design and technical schools, the Internet, vendor referrals and people working at similar companies are a few of the ways whotailers find new employees. Taking the time to interview properly, reviewing job descriptions and clearly articulating the company’s expectations can help avoid problems.

Providing a good work environment and competitive benefits are a key, of course. So is making sure that employees receive steady feedback regarding their performance. An open-door policy on the part of top management allows employees an opportunity to be heard.

Kitchen and bath whotailers also recognize that good work should be met with good pay. Rewards provide the incentive to continue to achieve.

This formula has a proven track record in all industry sectors, and it beats the alternative.

Morton Block, CMKBD, IIDA, is president of Morton Block Associates, a kitchen and bath industry consulting firm located in Kennett Square, PA. An author, trainer, facilitator and moderator, he is actively involved with kitchen/bath industry manufacturers and distributors, and maintains a residential showroom design practice. Information about his services is available by visiting his Website, www.mortonblock.com. He can be reached at 610-444-1716 or via e-mail at mortonb@comcast.net