Staffing for Cabinet Distribution

At the recent Chicago conference of the North American Building Material Distribution Association (NBMDA), I had the opportunity to moderate two panel discussions conducted by the association's Kitchen/Bath Distribution Alliance (KBDA). Our speakers addressed two subjects of vital interest to cabinet distributors and whotailers: "Finding and Keeping Sales/Design Personnel" and "Controlling Warehouse Costs."

The speakers selected for the first session were Dave and Suzy Reese, president and v.p., respectively, of Reese Kitchen Distributing, Inc. of Indianapolis, and Matt Hibbard, the Lima, OH showroom manager for Superior Kitchens of Toledo. Reese Distributing is an Aristokraft distributor with two existing showrooms, plus a third scheduled to open this spring. Superior Kitchens features Merillat/Amera cabinets plus other lines displayed in five showrooms. Both distributorships sell both wholesale and retail.

Suzy Reese is a registered landscape architect who has transitioned to kitchens. She supervises the high- end sale and design of custom kitchens, while husband Dave concentrates mostly on the sale of stock cabinets. Reese's success in custom kitchens (more than $3 million in annual sales) reveals that the specialization of sales and design personnel for stock versus custom can pay off in terms of sales and profitability. Suzy Reese's lines include Heritage, DBS, Mouser and Decor'.

Comments from the speakers, as well as KBDA members, confirmed the existence of a problem that kitchen and bath firms are facing on a national level: staffing. This is largely due to the fact that job opportunities exceed the current supply of qualified people. The high-end custom cabinet business poses special staffing problems, due to the complexity of the jobs and the high expectations of homeowners.

Some strategies
What follows are some of the thoughts expressed by Dave and Suzy Reese on the subject of finding and retaining qualified cabinet salespeople and designers:

  • Recruiting: "We identify the market we want to sell and the expectations of those customers," notes Dave Reese. "Good personnel can sell to a range of price points, but there's a limit. We look for a good match. When experienced personnel with good attitudes aren't available, we hire for character and train for skills. Good character implies the intent to do the job right for the customer."
    Says Suzy Reese: "My division's market is broken into two categories: custom and high-end custom. The custom cabinet customer may just want a more unique finish or door style than stock or semi-custom offers, or a more creative design than stock cabinets can support. The high-end cabinet customer wants a personalized kitchen reflecting his or her individual tastes and personality. This is a challenging and exciting assignment for a qualified salesperson/designer. However, a few of these customers have such unreasonably high expectations that it's almost impossible to design and install to their satisfaction. I feel it's better to lose such a job than to have a dissatisfied customer.

  • Market for stock cabinets: Reese Distributing's market for stock cabinets is primarily volume builders, small builders, remodeling contractors and price-conscious homeowners. Prospects must be screened to determine their realistic price range in order to make appropriate suggestions as to the choice of cabinets and related products. For the most part, volume builders consider price paramount in making their buying decisions. Filling the space at lowest cost rather than with feature cabinets and imaginative design is their criteria.
  • Sources of personnel: While both Dave and Suzy Reese have different recruiting criteria, some of their approaches are the same. For example, "home center personnel feel that joining our organization is a step up in their professional standing," says Dave. "Cabinet manufacturer salespeople or reps often tire of travel and want to settle down with a company where they can spend more time with their family. They bring with them expertise in sales and design, and the know-how to compete. College graduates generally find cabinet sales rewarding and compensation attractive in a distributorship if they enjoy dealing with people and solving problems. Design graduates often find selling and designing kitchens and baths more monetarily rewarding than working for an interior design firm."

    "In the custom end of the business, sales personnel/designers at Reese are stimulated by continuing education within their job environment - attending design seminars and schools, reading design magazines and meeting with product representatives to learn what's new and exciting," says Suzy. "But custom sales/design personnel must be kept aware that the ultimate success of the design and customer relationship [is found] in getting the order."
  • Compensation: One rigid approach to compensation won't satisfy all situations. These days, where a "team approach" to selling may involve both sales and support personnel, different compensation programs are required. Suzy Reese feels that an experienced support staff is needed to prepare presentation drawings and other detail work, especially in high-end custom situations where the myriad of details can result in burn-out for a do-it-all sales/design person. Reese Distributing's philosophy is to weight the compensation heavily toward high commissions with a relatively low salary or draw. That type of arrangement appeals to the high achiever rather than those with little confidence in their sales ability.

Other ideas

  • Sources of personnel: Promotion from within Superior's organization is preferred, since management is already familiar with the qualifications and potential of the employee. A typical example of this approach would be the promotion of an individual from the company's warehouse, top shop or installation crew into their main office, with duties to include receiving visitors to their showroom. Superior also typically uses the experience in the showroom to qualify this individual as a sales assistant to an experienced sales/design person. Based on performance in this job, he or she can be considered for a sales/design position and the improved earning potential it brings. Another preferred source for personnel are graduates of university interior design programs. Referrals from trusted team members are also welcomed, since existing employees are reluctant to recommend people who won't fit into the organization. Superior, in addition, has had success with applicants who've had their own business in a related field. The least attractive potential employees are applicants who've worked for a competitor. Superior feels, in those cases, that they may be inheriting someone else's problems, according to Hibbard.
  • The "team approach" to sales: Both Reese Distributing and Superior Kitchens find the use of support personnel to allow the salesperson to increase sales volume, to be a cost-effective approach. However, some individuals are reluctant to depend on others for any phase of the sales process.
  • Showroom hours: Both firms agree that operating five weekdays plus a half-day on Saturday beats the seven-day week advocated by home center chains. Sunday is a "family day" that personnel are reluctant to give up, even if it's only one or two days a month. As a result, the "no Sunday" philosophy is an important recruiting tool, prompting qualified job applicants to approach independent distributors or dealers rather than the "big box" stores.
  • Compensation: As at Reese Distributing, Superior Kitchens favors a commission basis with a draw for sales personnel. This avoids a high fixed payroll expense, while providing an incentive for increased productivity.