Design Firm Discovers Building Block for Success

Design Firm Discovers Building Block for Success

At first glance, you might think the blocks located in three different positions in the design firm's showroom are designed simply to entertain the children of showroom visitors. The 3D blocks, however, are hardly child's play.
In reality, they're not only Ken Bauer Inc.'s primary design and selling tool, they've become an integral part of the 30-year-old company's identity, growth and longevity. They also stand in sharp contrast to the techniques employed by most kitchen design firms, which are relying more heavily than ever on a computer-aided design and sales approach.

Simulated Products
The blocks, which are made in a countertop shop in the rear of the Ken Bauer Inc. showroom, simulate literally any major component of a kitchen including cabinets, appliances and countertops. Each block is marked with the dimensions of the product it represents, so that room dimensions can be accommodated. New blocks can be produced, or old ones modified, to simulate new products or designs that enter the market.

Ken Bauer Inc. associates ask clients, in advance of a showroom visit, to draw a rough outline of their existing kitchen, including measurements. A simulated room is then quickly built to scale using the blocks, and the firm's designers walk clients through a variety of layout options, arranging and rearranging the blocks as they proceed, based on the client's needs, budget and design/product preferences.

"Using the blocks, their new kitchen takes shape right before their eyes," says company president Ken Bauer. "The blocks give clients and prospects a very good visual sense of how their kitchen will look. It's easy to show them a number of layouts based on the size of their kitchen.

"Literally, within a couple of minutes you can give a prospect a whole new design," Bauer adds.

According to company secretary and designer Sandy Martucci, the use of the blocks represents "a very personalized approach to design and selling."

And, says Martucci, "Clients love it. They want to take the blocks home with them, or have their children play with them."

Instead of leaving the showroom with the blocks, however, clients are able to take with them a digital photo of their new kitchen's design, downloaded onto a CD so that clients can review the design at home on a computer.

Ken Bauer Inc.'s entire block system is based on speed and efficiency. Bauer estimates, for example, that within 90 minutes a client can decide on a floor plan, tour the showroom, review pricing and leave with an estimate. Bauer says his company averages 15 such estimates a week. Taking measurements, producing hand-done drawings and signing an order, he says, takes no more than several additional hours.

This type of speed and client involvement, Bauer notes, enables the company to achieve a closing ratio of 35-40%, while generating between $4 million and $5 million in annual revenue with three salespeople. Currently, the company is doing about five remodeled kitchens a week, averaging some $21,000 per project, just for cabinets, countertops, construction and installation. Clients are referred to nearby retail outlets to purchase their appliances, plumbingware and other projects.

The block system also eliminates the need to charge a design fee.

"Since we don't spend much time at that point in the process," says Bauer, "we figure we can give our customers that much time without charging."

Aside from its unique approach with the 3D blocks, the company can also produce kitchen designs, perspectives and elevations via a CAD program, if a client wishes.

"We recognize that some people feel comfortable with that kind of approach," Bauer points out. "It's important for our customers to know we have a computer system and can handle their designs that way."

However, Bauer notes his designers have not become overly dependent on CAD and, in fact, they prefer using the blocks, he says.

"Computers are certainly a good business tool, but a lot of designers, I think, become overly dependent on them and don't learn as much about the ins and outs of good design as they might otherwise," Bauer says. "And, people still appreciate hand drawings."

Customers have obviously responded to this approach. The firm, in fact, has remodeled an estimated 6,000 kitchens in northern New Jersey over the course of the 30+ years it has been in business since it was founded by Bauer's father, a former appliance dealer.

Many Design Options
Ken Bauer Inc. operates out of a 2,200-sq.-ft. showroom that contains about 10 displays, ranging from full kitchens to vignettes.

"We try to have pretty much everything in the showroom," Bauer points out, adding that about one display is changed out each year. "We try to show a lot of possibilities," he says, "because people tend to buy what they see."

The company carries five different cabinet lines Elm Mfg., LesCare, Hanssem, Hillcraft and CE (Cuisine Expert) and employs 20 people, including five two-man installation crews, two countertop fabricators, a plumber and three designers. The business focuses primarily on remodeled kitchens, but handles a limited number of bathroom projects in new homes, according to Bauer. The showroom is open weekdays and Saturdays; extended hours are offered two evenings during the week.

The company also makes extensive use of a photographic portfolio of the kitchen projects it has completed, with a significant number of photos of those kitchens also available for review on the company's Web site.

CMK Interiors, a separate business owned by designer Christine King, adjoins the Ken Bauer Inc. showroom and produces designs for custom bookcases, office furniture, entertainment units and closets. "We used to turn people away when they asked for those kinds of designs. Now we steer them there," notes Martucci.

Overall, Bauer and Martucci point out, the company's approach to selling is decidedly low-key.

"There's no pressure, no closing area in our showroom," Bauer comments. "We don't pressure people for the sale. We just show them what we can do, keep things simple, make it as easy as possible for the customer, give them a price and let them make a decision.

"Our business is word-of-mouth. People are already comfortable with who we are, to a great degree, when they come into the showroom. We remind people all the time that they're really buying us."

And, there's "a lot of taking care of the customer after the fact," Martucci says. "We bend over backwards for the people who buy from us."


LOCATION: Hillsdale, NJ
PRINCIPLES: Ken Bauer, president; Sandy Martucci, secretary.
9 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday, Wednesday and Friday; 9 a.m.-9 p.m., Tuesday and Thursday; 9 a.m.-3 p.m., Saturday.
$4 million-$5 million.
SPECIALITIES: Custom kitchens; libraries, entertainment centers, office furniture, etc. through its affiliate, CMK Interiors.
BUSINESS PHILOSOPHY: "We remind people all the time that they're really buying us. And we bend over backwards for the people who buy from us."