Family Firm: Selling Kitchens Isn't Rocket Science

Family Firm: Selling Kitchens Isn't Rocket Science

By Susan Harper


Dick Flaute, owner and president of the Dayton, OH-based Supply One, is a bona-fide aeronautical engineer who spent six years working on missile systems. His last project, the Atlas Missile Program, ended at the same time that Flaute's father, who started the kitchen design firm in 1940, decided to retire. The elder Flaute called his son to come on board; Flaute switched from missiles to cabinets, and says he's enjoyed every minute since.

Supply One is a 59-year-old, family-owned and -run kitchen design firm which specializes in cabinets, countertops and appliances. Flaute's father began Supply One as a plumbing supply company, and Flaute later added kitchen cabinets, which quickly become a substantial part of the business over 50 percent, after the firm purchased a kitchen distributor in 1984. 

Flaute, however, takes special pride in the firm's installation of countertops a job he feels is best left to a specialist. Accordingly, Supply One offers a wide array of countertop materials to choose from, including Wilsonart International, Formica, DuPont Corian, Nevamar and Pionite.

Growing pains
In his 34 years at the helm, Flaute has seen tremendous growth, including the firm's acquisition of its largest competitor, Dayton Showcase, in 1997. The purchase of Dayton Showcase's assets and the hiring of its personnel resulted in the creation of the premier distributor of kitchens and baths in the area. Supply One then sold the plumbing supply portion to concentrate on kitchens. 

Flaute's plan was to use the acquisition to increase his retail business, as he expects the home building market to decrease in future years. And, since the acquisition, Flaute's firm has increased the retail end, up from 15 to 30 percent, and without a significant decrease in the builder portion.

Consumers in Dayton are not trend-oriented, Flaute comments. Dayton is a typical small city in the conservative Midwest, and Flaute notes that this conservatism carries over to customer tastes. He has little call for contemporary lines, though he carries one because he feels it's important to offer a variety of options. 
Although his customers historically have preferred the traditional style, in recent years, Flaute has been bringing a "new" look to Dayton. The addition of two Canadian lines, Kitchen Craft and Neff, has given Supply One a competitive advantage with what Flaute calls the "California look" a look that he describes as "conservative, but with flair." In fact, Kitchen Craft has been Supply One's most successful line this year, Flaute notes.

With Dayton providing more than sufficient challenge to keep Supply One busy and profitable, Flaute is planning to follow his father's example when he retires next year and turn the business over to his own son, Rick, currently v.p. He expects the firm to remain solely a Dayton concern, as he believes that a firm with multiple locations cannot provide the necessary degree of personalization required in the kitchen design business. 

In fact, Flaute cites the relationship between customer and owner as the key ingredient in a successful project, and believes that his business philosophy supports this. "We believe that every family is unique, and that we can design a unique kitchen to meet the unique character, functionality, style, size and budget required to best serve each client," he notes, explaining that understanding the unique needs and desires of the customer is essential in the highly personal kitchen design business.

Although Supply One employs two CKDs and two CKDs-in-training, the firm has also developed its own "grading" system which appraises skills beyond just design expertise. The firm's system uses the designations "Professional Kitchen Designer" and "Master Kitchen Designer," Flaute explains, noting that these designations encompass several important skills in addition to the ability to design well.

Since the employees at Supply One sell to the clients for whom they design, Flaute believes that design talent alone is not sufficient: He wants his designers to be good salespeople and to be able to handle the pressure inherent in such a job. He explains that, while the CKD designation certainly has merit, it does not encompass an evaluation of the sales and organizational talents he needs, thus his own, more comprehensive grading system.

Of course an effective showroom is also key to helping customers to visualize their dream kitchens. To that end, Supply One sports an 11,000 sq.-ft. showroom which displays 35 kitchens, including such cabinet lines as Kitchen Craft, Quality Cabinets, Kemper Cabinets, Mouser Custom Cabinetry, Neff Kitchen Manufac-turers, Kitchen Compact and more.

When Flaute first contacted an architect to build his showroom, he took the architect to the nicest showroom he knew. At that time, the trend in displays was to show only cabinets, but Flaute wanted his displays to look like "real kitchens," with lots of appliances and built-ins. Although other showrooms contain appliances, the number and scope of appliances Flaute wanted to display at Supply One was far beyond what he'd seen done elsewhere. Accordingly, he rented out part of the showroom to Appliance Gallery in a joint venture in order to enhance the selection available to him. Currently, the firm showcases such high-end appliance manufacturers as Sub-Zero, Thermador, ASKO and FiveStar.

Supply One markets primarily to a Dayton audience, using the Yellow Pages and direct mail. Marketing strategies aimed at builders are also utilized, such as golf outings, home shows and Build-A-Ramas, Flaute adds.

Flaute doesn't expect any major changes when his son takes over; rather, he expects that Rick's strong emphasis on customer relations will only continue to grow and strengthen the firm. And if Rick's route to president of Supply One is more direct than his father's, as Flaute likes to point out, "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to sell kitchens."

PRINCIPLES: Dick Flaute, owner, president; Rick Flaute, v.p. (soon-to-be president)
SHOWROOM: 11,000 sq. ft., including offices
HOURS: Monday - Friday,  8 a.m. - 6 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. - 2 p.m.
MAJOR PRODUCT LINES: Kitchen Craft Cabinetry, Quality Cabinets, Kemper Distinctive Cabinetry, Mouser Custom Cabinetry, Neff Kitchen Manu-facturers, Kitchen Kompact, Wilsonart International, DuPont Corian, Formica, Nevamar, Pionite, Sub-Zero, Thermador, ASKO and FiveStar.
BUSINESS PHILOSOPHY: "We believe that every family is unique and that we can design a unique kitchen to meet the unique character, functionality, style, size and budget required to best serve each client."