Hands-On Philosophy Sparks Design Firm's Success

Hands-On Philosophy Sparks Design Firm's Success

by Susan Harper

Minochio's career change was one that proved beneficial to Don Walters, who opened his design business 25 years ago, and continues to run the five stores which make up Don Walters Kitchens in a decidedly hands-on fashion.

Walters has several major beliefs that pervade his business, beliefs from which he does not deviate. For instance, he carries only three product lines: Merillat; Amera, Merillat's semi-custom line, and a custom line from Crystal Cabinet Works, Inc. Just as too many cooks can spoil the broth, he believes too many product lines can actually be counter-productive to success. 

And, since his builder-based business has thrived using only these three lines, he sees no need to add any additional lines, or alter a formula that clearly is working.

Walters is also particular about who joins his sales force, seeking out sales and building skills over other credentials. For instance, he does not hire CKDs or CBDs, believing that such certifications aren't necessary to build a proper, fully functioning kitchen. A knowledgeable sales force is, however, hence his preference for hiring cabinetmakers such as Minochio, whose experience supports Walters' hands-on way of doing business.

Minochio notes that the transition from cabinetmaker to salesperson has traditionally been seamless; someone who knows how to make and install the product not only knows what can and what can't be done, but is also able to catch potential mistakes on paper, therefore saving aggravation and budget problems down the road, he believes.

Walters' sales team is also non-commissioned, which creates a more user-friendly customer experience, since it allows the salespeople to give "their complete attention to each customer." 

The salespeople deal directly with customers from day one and hand draft everything, Minochio notes. While the firm works primarily with customers in a 30- to 50-mile range, it is also willing to go the extra mile, literally. In fact, many happy former customers have requested that kitchens be shipped to them in other states, and the firm has happily obliged.

Market challenges
While many businesses are struggling in today's turbulent economy, Walters' stores are doing well, and he notes that one is even having its best year ever. 
The huge building boom in northeast Ohio has helped, Minochio says, but has also brought in competition from mass retailers. He is not worried, however, as he has found that customers "always want someone who can not only meet their budget, but also provide personal service."

In fact, budget is a primary concern for many of Walters' customers. Most of the "dream kitchens" in Streetsboro, for example, range from $3,000 to $5,000, so money is rarely not an object, Minochio notes. That doesn't mean satisfaction isn't critical, however.

To fully understand a customer's needs, Minochio always starts a design with a client's "wish list." He relies heavily on pre-fabricated cabinets, and, given his cabinetmaker background, is able to offer certain "extras," such as supplying elevated dishwashers (which his product lines do not provide). He will also send residential remodeling clients home with samples of products, such as doors, so they can "get the feel of living with them." While he admits that this delays the service, he believes that it also significantly improves client satisfaction, and that, more than anything else, is what brings customers coming back for more. 

While business has been good, Walters is not sanguine about the economy, and wants to start preparing now for the possibility of rough times ahead. While little marketing has been done in recent years, with the emphasis focused primarily on small ads in local papers and mailings, he intends to now aggressively pursue new builder sales as a way of increasing his potential market. 

In the past, the company had made use of open houses for builders and real estate associations, and these may be used again, according to Minochio. 
Don Walters Kitchens has always used model home incentives and Parade of Homes incentives, but Minochio notes that marketing will now begin in earnest, with the firm using periodical advertising and Yellow Pages ads to build more business.

Furthermore, salespeople will carry information to building sites, and the company will increase its participation in Home Building Association meetings, Minochio adds.

building relations
Aggressively protecting his business comes naturally to Walters. At age 82, he is still actively involved in the day-to-day operations of the company. The managers, such as Minochio, are the first line to handle customer problems, but the second line is Walters himself. 

Any customer at any of the five stores who has a complaint gets a personal call from Walters. After 25 years in the business, he notes that there is no problem he has not encountered and solved. Because of his vast experience, his staff relies heavily on his expertise and what they refer to as his "humanity."

One of the main reasons marketing has been little needed in recent years is the extreme loyalty of the builders who use Don Walters Kitchens, Walters notes. The designers go on-site before the rough mechanicals are installed and draw pictures on the floors and walls to alert plumbers where to lay the pipes, and electricians where to install the outlets. This sort of service breeds allegiance and trust among its clients, the Walters believes.

Additionally, each of the stores has its own showroom. For example, the Streetsboro showroom is 8,000 to 10,000 square feet; only the main store has a larger showroom. 

Though the "meat and potatoes" nature of the business does not demand unique or working displays, the clientele does enjoy seeing 80 percent of the products offered on display in full-fledged decorated kitchens, according to Minochio. For that reason, only a few vignettes are utilized in the showrooms, he adds.

But, the extensive kitchen displays provides the "ooh, aah" factor, which Minochio concludes is vital to helping customers make choices that will ultimately make them happy with the product.