Women's Work

Back in the not-so-good-old days of being a woman in the kitchen and the bath industry, Julie Koch, owner of Elegant Additions, in Houston, TX, was called upon to fix a malfunctioning set of door hardware.

"Everybody was upset. The installer said it was a piece of garbage. I go running over there," Koch recalls. "An older man greets me at the door, doesn't even say hello. I say, 'I'm here to look at the hardware.' He looks me up, looks me down, says, 'yeah.'

"The man points out the miscreant hardware with nary another word. I fix the lock, do exactly what I told him to do over the phone, put it back in the door. This entire time he's staring at me like he can't wait for this entire thing to fall apart," Koch recounts with a smile. "The door works perfectly, he stops and says, 'damn, I ain't never seen no one with fingernails like you fix the door hardware''"

Every female veteran of the kitchen and bath industry has a story like that. It's an instant trip down memory lane to an era when women fought for opportunities that are taken for granted today, when being the only woman in the meeting was the norm, and the unspoken question, "Can that lil' lady really handle herself in the field?" followed her everywhere she went.

This month, Kitchen & Bath Design News spoke with women who have managed to carve out brilliant, soaring careers during a time when most people still believed a woman's place was in the kitchen -- not in the kitchen design industry.

Here's how they did it, and what they learned in the process.

'Accidental' Designers
Today, a young woman planning a career in the kitchen and bath industry has a clear path to follow, with college courses in design, architecture and marketing as well as NKBA certification as her guideposts.

Back in the '80s, though, women got into the business mostly by accident, frequently as refugees from the teaching profession. Surprisingly, this actually proved to be an apt background.

"As a teacher, you had to learn to take charge of a classroom, otherwise they took charge of you," says Elaine Mikk, of Cabinet Discounters, in Columbia, MO.

"The kitchen and bath industry, it was easy! I always thought it was more difficult to try and sell [the concept of] learning to read to a child who'd always failed at it. Kitchen and bath [clients] wanted me to show them how their kitchen was going to be better. Their minds were open."

Stephanie Witt, CMKBD, owner of Kitchens by Stephanie, in Grand Rapids, MI, also started out as a schoolteacher, as did Mary Jo Peterson, CKD, CBD, CAPS, nationally renowned Universal Design expert, author, speaker and owner of Mary Jo Peterson Inc., in Brookfield, CT.

"I was looking for a job after I had moved far north in the state of Michigan, and there were no openings whatsoever," Witt recalls. "I saw an ad in the paper looking for a kitchen designer. I decided that being an art teacher, I could certainly design kitchens. I applied and got hired. You couldn't do that today." Witt worked at that company for two years before branching out on her own. "I was very underfunded and very na've, but I'm here, 20-some-odd years later, so I guess it worked," she quips.

Koch, on the other hand, was selling TV advertising for a show that featured builders and designers. A friend was expanding his family plumbing business and kept asking her for advice, so she ended up in a partnership with him. "He stayed for two years, then decided [the kitchen and bath industry] was way too stressful," she remembers. But Koch stuck with it, and turned it into a spectacularly successful enterprise.

The helping-out-a-buddy scenario also worked into the story of Martha Kerr, CMKBD, CR, v.p. of Neil Kelly Design/Build Remodeling, in Portland, OR. It seems her friend, coincidentally Neil Kelly's daughter, wanted to take off to Europe for three months and needed someone to fill in for her as receptionist at her dad's office. Kerr arrived as a temp and never left -- 35 years later, she's a top executive there, as well as a guiding light of the NKBA, having served as that organization's first female president in 1985.

For some women, their accidental entr'e into the business was a family affair. Mikk's brother had a cabinet business; her teenage kids had helped him with a project and thought it was fun. Before they knew it, Mikk and her husband had bought a truckload of leftover cabinets and "we sold in a crazy way, out of the house, in open lots," Mikk recalls. When this method started to get out of hand, they opened a warehouse and started focusing more on the specific needs of their clients. Thus, Cabinet Discounters was born, and has since grown to encompass six locations in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. In addition, Mikk has become a well-known personality for her vastly popular Home Innovations Radio Show, which first began broadcasting in 1996 and currently airs on WMAL Radio, the ABC-owned station in Washington, DC.

For Suzie Williford, v.p./sales at Westheimer Plumbing & Hardware, in Houston, TX, the family plumbing and hardware enterprise was purchased by her father for his sons and sons-in-law. Williford got roped into the deal somewhat reluctantly because, after all, someone needed to answer the phone.

Eighteen years later, she laughs, "the sons and son-in-laws are gone, and it's my father and myself." The business grew and focused more on decorative and commercial plumbing and hardware, surviving hard times -- both the failing Texas economy and Williford's father's serious injury on the job.

"He said, 'you have to take the bull by the horns and run this business,'" she remembers. Williford jumped in the deep end replete with profit and loss sheets, human resources and inventory control. "I immersed myself -- and I knew every facet of [the business] when that year was behind me," she recalls of her trial by fire.

"Most women have more presence than they realize," thinks Mikk. "In the beginning, you had to be a strong woman, not be intimidated, and I still believe that's the case."

Swimming with Sharks
"I am happy to report there are tons of wonderfully talented women in the industry today and that certainly wasn't true when I started out," says Kerr.

Indeed, the industry was fortunate to have such pioneers to light the way as Ellen Cheever, CMKBD, ASID, who wrote the book on kitchen design (quite literally - her kitchen design manual, Beyond the Basics: Advanced Kitchen Design, published in 1978, was considered the Bible of the kitchen design industry for decades), and Florence Perchuk, who was the first woman to be awarded the CKD designation in New York City. But women like these were still few and far between in a male-dominated industry, and despite the inspiration they provided, the average woman starting out in this field still had to jump through hoops to prove herself in what was largely seen as a man's world.

Williford recalls her early days starting out: "I was 24, I was the only non-clerical woman in the showroom, and I had a very difficult time having any of the contractors [or] builders take me seriously."

Ironically, even the clients -- primarily women in those days -- often gave female designers flak for being female. "[Back then], people anticipated that when you bought a kitchen, you bought it from a man, because that was part of the construction industry," notes Witt.

"My husband and I would go out to estimates together and they would always turn to him, not me," adds Mikk.

"Back [in the '80s] there were comments. [One guy would say] he wasn't sure that a woman could manage all the details of this job," remembers Peterson.

Kerr points out that the clearest resistance to women in the industry came from the construction rather than the design segment of a design/build approach. "We were actually managing construction crews, estimating construction costs," she elaborates. "The biggest challenge was being taken seriously, that the 'little girl' could be in charge of a $100,000 remodeling project and do it quite capably."

The women interviewed admitted that challenge number two was catching up to their newly burgeoning careers.

"[My] challenge was, I knew nothing about running a business," admits Witt. "There was not that much information available. Today, there's a vast number of tools, in fact, the NKBA is publishing a brand new volume of kitchen industry manuals on business management."

"I came into an industry [about] which I had absolutely no knowledge," adds Mikk. "I didn't build cabinets and didn't know much about home improvements per se." It was sink or swim, and she decided to learn to swim.

To that end, stringent and dedicated on-the-job education was a must. "I knew the only way anyone would take me seriously was if I knew as much or more than they did," explains Williford. "I immersed myself in catalogs. I would read every catalog that any manufacturer sent me from front to back. Remember, at this time there was no Internet, so every piece of printed material that came into my store, I devoured. I learned all the product numbers, memorized everything. To this day, I can still remember and spout off numbers that existed 30 years ago, because it became that important to me."

"I was not one to go out there and say, 'I know it all, move aside,'" adds Mikk. "Instead, I went out there and said, 'I need your help, I want to learn from you.'

After a while, they'd start taking me under their wing. I read, I talked, I made sure everywhere I was [I was learning]. A lot of it was trial and error in the beginning, [while] keeping the rapport [with] the customer. I never tried to feign knowledge, nor do I believe in that.

"You learn there's a core to anything," she continues. "You learn the basics, you keep learning and adding and tweaking, you keep people around you who have talents you don't. You build your team."

Everything Changes
Kitchens and baths have undergone massive, fundamental design changes since the '80s, of course -- and the evolution of business processes has been just as extensive. Some of these changes were prompted by the marketplace, others have been shepherded in place by the women who came into the industry and changed it from the inside out.

"Twenty-five years ago, we thought of kitchen design as laying out a sink, a refrigerator and a stove and making it work in a neat little square," says Witt. Now, of course, the kitchen is a complex and palatial wonderland of design ideas, with a cornucopia of styles that range from ornate to edgy. And, this very complexity and focus on style has helped women come to the forefront of the industry.

"There's such a demand for a higher level of product, a higher level of design, more sophisticated design, higher quality," says Peterson.

Additionally, the current generation of Baby Boomers holds the greatest concentration of wealth in history. "[They] are the ones who say, 'I want that luxury, I want the best there is,'" says Peterson. "That means we really have to step up our abilities to design and customize, and stay on top of the new technology that's available."

"Today, the sophistication of design and the proliferation of choices have interested women who have interior design backgrounds as well as structural and construction backgrounds," adds Witt. "There's a great deal of consumer confidence in a woman kitchen designer."

In fact, these days, women are sometimes thought of as more qualified to design a kitchen space than a man. "[The perception now is of] the woman as the one who can take and design that kitchen properly," thinks Mikk. "'She understands design, she understands color, furniture."

"We've reached a point in this business where clients oftentimes prefer a woman because they're looking at us as a person who understands a project and these spaces from more angles, from a better perspective," adds Peterson -- not just as a professional designer but also a more active user of the space.

The perception of women as nurturers and caretakers has given them an edge in many cases, as well, as clients looking for personalized spaces seek out designers they believe will empathize with them, and be attuned to their emotional needs, both in terms of the design and the hand-holding that goes into creating it.

Women are also frequently seen in the role of taking care of family, whether it be young children or aging parents. Is it any wonder, then, that women have come to play such a key role in creating spaces where families gather and bond?

For example, Peterson, considered one of the nation's foremost experts on Universal Design, has changed the industry, not only through her design skills but through her strong advocacy of the importance of design that allows mature homeowners to age in place, and multi-generational families to live together.

Attention to detail has also come to be thought of as a "woman's trait" -- and it's one that's a necessity for successful day-to-day functioning in this business.

"Sometimes you get people who don't understand how important it is to be so detail oriented," says Mikk.

"I think women are very sensitive to price for the consumer and for the builders," adds Williford. "And, we're very patient when clients want to change their minds. I think women have the ability to pick up on the subliminal cues that people give -- [when they're] apprehensive because of price, or because what we're showing them is too far out there, or not far enough out there."

Clients, too, have changed and evolved along with attitudes and the industry at large. When Mikk started out, the assumption was that the woman of the house would be the only cook. Men were less interested in the kitchen design process. "The husband might show up at the end to see if he was willing to pay the bill," she notes. Many of the husbands felt more comfortable talking finances with Mikk's husband, her partner in the business. Now, the homeowner husband is likely to do some of the cooking, and be an active participant in, for instance, that discussion about which appliances to purchase. Likewise, women are far more commonly seen everywhere from home centers to hardware stores, and the fact that Mikk's popular home improvement radio show is helmed by a women is no longer considered odd.

The current trend towards open floor plans, Great Rooms and master bedroom suites also changes the scope of a kitchen designer's work. In addition to the bathrooms, spaces such as home entertainment areas, home offices, libraries, closets and laundry rooms have taken a kitchen design/build concept fully into the province of whole house remodels and construction, the last remaining segment of a male-dominated industry.

The Final Frontier
So, is the kitchen and bath industry completely equal? Well, yes and no. "I would daresay in the last decade I have not faced any disrespect from any builder, contractor or architect," says Witt. "The hump has been overcome."

"I still think because it's Texas, even though there's lots of us, women are still looked at a little sideways," counters Koch. "It's a plumber's business, and [there are] those folks who look at me and go, 'What could you possibly know about plumbing?'"

"You [still] see more people who are male going out on the job site," adds Mikk.

For that reason, Witt believes, "It's very important for women getting into the [kitchen and bath] industry to have a sound understanding and background in the construction industry as a whole. The kitchen is no longer a square box in the back of the house. It's an integral part of a huge open space, the Great Room, the gathering room. You have to have a good concept of what can and can't happen with regard to roof lines, structural beams, supporting walls. You have to understand heating, ventilation, air conditioning ducts, electrical wiring, codes. The highest failure rate [today] is for people who think it's pure and simple artistic design, when in reality it's that, coupled with a very sound understanding of the mechanics of the home."

Educating oneself also seems to be the key to surmounting one last existing bias -- against young, inexperienced people -- which applies to designers of both genders. Kerr recounts that Neil Kelly's partnership with the now-NKBA-certified Oregon State University has resulted in her company hiring recent graduates. "We had 22-year-olds handling our business executive clients," she explains. "As the years have gone by, [some of the clients] have come to me and said, 'I think so and so has great ideas, but are they really going to be able to handle the electrician and the plumber and the concrete guy and everybody else?' So it's been my pleasure to advocate for these young people."

"Get education," Peterson advises all young women designers. "Take advantage of every opportunity there is for training." She recommends that newcomers to the industry go beyond NKBA training and gain inspiration from architectural history, from travel. "Sometimes when I go to a kitchen and bath show I learn more from the hotel I stay in than I do from the show," she adds. "I love it when we're in Chicago and I can go to the Museum of Art, or to the Frank Lloyd Wright home in Oak Park." Peterson also cites fashion, cars, color trends for all industries -- all are an integral part of the continuing education of a designer.

Embracing available technology is another key component. "We've always believed in technology," declares Mikk. "Over the years, we've gone from a piece of paper to the integration of CAD [software]." In her firm's custom cabinet division, "we're able to [send] orders directly from the front end, through e-mail. They download them directly, and they're sent to the CNC [link machines]. Technology has changed all of our lives and enhanced our businesses."

"I swore I would never draw by computer, but all of our work is done on computer [now]," adds Witt. "Several of our cabinet companies won't even accept a hand-written order," she notes. Entering specs into a computer program assures a clean line of communication "so there can be no writing errors, transposition of numbers, that you might do by hand. And, it's going to be more and more like that in the future."

"If I didn't have AUTOCAD, I don't know how I'd operate my business," agrees Peterson. "It's such an important part of communicating today. Whether you're proficient or not, you have to have the ability to talk with people about it, and understand what they're doing with it so you can work with them."

"The business is moving so you as an owner have to keep moving," says Koch. "There's a lot of new influences that are over-talked about -- the Internet, the big-box retailers. But all that's done is caused us to reshape and refocus who we are. You have to keep your eye on what's happening in the marketplace, where those dollars are coming from, how they are being spent."

This also applies to a company's construction workforce and subcontractors. "You come back with a new idea from the show, and you want your plumber to implement it, and it's like teaching him to walk again," says Kerr. "In order to get them to be on the same page with you, [you have to] stay on top of technology and keep your workforce on top of it, as well."

The up side of staying current, Kerr adds, is obvious: "People say to me, 'How can you do the same thing [for 35 years]?' But I say, 'I never do the same thing, it changes all the time.' Design ideas change, products change, people change, you're meeting new people every day. You're using your skills to solve clients' problems and make their houses uniquely fit their needs so that they can walk in their door every night and have a big smile on their face because they [live in a] space that makes them feel good."

"The most wonderful thing about this industry is, it affords a woman the ability to excel," declares Williford. "You can rise to the top. There are so many different opportunities, if you apply yourself and learn the product and are an expert in what you do -- the sky's the limit." KBDN

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