Custom Cabinetry Is Prospering

Thinking back to my post-World War II days as sales manager for a dealer-oriented distributor of cabinets and appliances, I recall that stock cabinets were the mainstay of our dealers' remodeling business. However, in three recent interviews with prominent dealers in the Washington, DC metropolitan area who had been among our most valued customers during the 1960s and '70s, I was impressed by how these dealers' cabinet and client mix has changed in more recent days.

In many ways, in fact, these dealers serve as a reflection of how the cabinet and client mix of many of the kitchen/bath's industry's most successful dealerships have evolved over the years.

Their operations certainly contain several important common threads. The dealers I spoke with, for example, are all long-established companies with a strong referral base. They now number many repeat customers among their current clients. In fact, to a great extent, the homeowners seen by the dealers today are replacing stock cabinets purchased 10 to 20 years ago with higher-priced custom cabinets and high-end appliances. Other clients have sold their homes and are now building or buying other homes while showing their appreciation for past performance by awarding new kitchen and bath remodeling jobs to their earlier suppliers.

It's also interesting to note that each of the dealerships featured in this month's column are now managed by the son of the original owner a fact that suggests that genes apparently play a significant role in career choices within the kitchen and bath industry.

Many changes
Remembering back to the years when a typical layout with countertop and bowl sold at retail for $3,000 to $4,000, I was interested to learn that the same layout in stock cabinetry is now averaging close to $10,000! Today's more exotic door styles and finishes, plus solid surface and other types of high-end countertops, contribute to this increased cost.

With an average high-end custom cabinet layout (without appliances) retailing today in the $30,000 to $40,000 range, one wonders where this homeowner affluence was generated. The answer, it seems, is that as the price of homes has increased, homeowners are inclined to invest the same percentage cost of their most expensive homes in the kitchen and bath as they did in their less-affluent years. In addition, a combination of higher incomes plus stock market appreciation has produced wealth among executives and high-tech employees which would, in years past, have marked them as "rich."

Over the years, stock cabinet manufacturers have reacted to the increased popularity of custom cabinets by increasing their selection of specialty cabinets, construction features and accessories in order to better compete.

At the same time, as custom cabinets have increased in popularity, stock cabinet distributors have found themselves increasingly out of the loop. The reason for this is that custom cabinet manufacturers tend to establish dealers with some degree of territorial protection. Distributors, on the other hand, are not inclined to stock the full range of sizes and finishes prevalent in custom lines. Consequently, custom cabinet manufacturers have become comfortable selling direct to displaying dealers.'

As a reaction, many cabinet distributors are now "whotailers" selling both wholesale and retail to maintain volume and profitability.'

This approach has been quite successful, although it does make the whotailer a competitor of cabinet retailers in their market. However, since custom cabinet prices for distributors are similar to prices for dealers, active dealerships like the trio I'm about to cite can generally compete successfully.

High-end success
Since this column is concentrating on custom cabinetry, the independent dealers and home centers who feature stock cabinetry based largely on their location and clientele have been reserved for a future column. Let me introduce you to the three high-end kitchen and bath specialists I interviewed:

  • Creative Kitchens, of Rockville, MD, operates out of an established shopping center on a major traffic artery. Its lines include Wood-Mode and Brookhaven, which are each manufactured in nearby Pennsylvania. Its Premier cabinetry, also produced in Pennsylvania, is its most customized line.
    ' If you're familiar with these cabinet lines, you know that they can all be defined as custom cabinets.'
    Larry Dobbs acquired the Creative Kitchens business from his father, Jay Dobbs, whose history in kitchen sales and design extends back to the 1950s. Larry estimates that 65% of Creative Kitchens' jobs are referrals or'
    past clients.
  • The Kitchen Guild is located in prestigious Chevy Chase on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, DC. The company was founded in 1954 and was subsequently purchased by Robert D. Schafer, CKD, in 1970. His son, Mike, is currently the manager of the operation, although Robert Schafer is still active on an everyday basis.
    The Kitchen Guild's cabinet lines include Wood-Mode/Brookhaven, plus Stylecraft and Plain & Fancy Custom Cabinets.'
    Although Kitchen Guild and Creative Kitchens both represent Wood-Mode/Brookhaven and are geographically in the same metropolitan market, their clientele tends to favor the dealership that is located most conveniently or the one that's most familiar to clients.
  • Custom Crafters is located in a free-standing, two level building on a lightly traveled street in Kensington, MD. Custom Crafters' second floor showroom is 5,000 sq. ft. and is readily visible from the street. Its lower floor contains management offices plus warehouse space.
    ' Despite its side-street location, Custom Crafters' consistent advertising over the years has made it a dominant force in this area. Its cabinet lines include Kountry Kraft, Dura Supreme, plus LesCare frameless. Schrock cabinetry is its only stock line.'
    I remember that, in the 1950s, stock cabinets were Custom Crafters' best-selling cabinet but its customers today are apparently more prosperous and less price conscious than those of the past.
    Several years ago, Custom Crafters purchased Kitchen Classics, an established business in nearby northern Virginia. Both locations cater to a similar clientele. Gary Spates directs sales, while Charles Chwastyk, a certified public accountant, directs operations out of the company's Kensington headquarters.
    Chwastyk and Spates (whose father was a key Custom Crafters salesman for many years) are now partners in the business, which was founded by Richard D. Rutter, who is now retired.
    As I said, it's interesting to note some important similarities between each of the three high-end dealerships that I've cited. It's also interesting to note that despite increased competition including that of prominent home center chains these three organizations continue to be an important factor in kitchen and bath sales within the Washington, DC metropolitan market.