Where’s a consumer to go? On one hand, enough news stories are reported every year to fill the NYC Yellow Pages about fly-by-night “do-it-all” contractors who do nothing more than leave holes in walls — not to mention the bigger one in their preys’ wallets. And on the other extreme, there are kitchen and bath dealers. These pricey folks certainly know the fashion side of the business. But K&B dealers often don’t take direct responsibility for the installation, and may contract out the installation to whoever bids cheapest.
For the most part, consumers can never be quite sure what they’re getting into when they undertake a bath or kitchen remodel — work that routinely reaches five figures. So if that’s the case, why shouldn’t a consumer want a plumber in the pilot seat?
“We’re really the guys who should be quarterbacking these projects,” says Bill Schey, president of Professional Plumbing Inc., Barrington, IL. “In a bath remodel, we’re 80 percent of the work! There may be more problem-solving and tighter coordination remodeling the bath than it would take to build a house from the ground up.”
But Schey goes even one better by combining the mechanical knowledge of a plumber with the aesthetic knowledge of a kitchen and bath dealer. Drive by Schey’s business situated on a major thoroughfare of the northwest suburbs of Chicago and the first thing that catches your eye is his showroom, Insignia Kitchen and Bath Design Group.
For all intents and purposes, Insignia, which opened in 1993, is a kitchen and bath dealer. Around 12 people work at the 6,000 sq. ft. space, including five designers. Many on staff belong to the National Kitchen & Bath Association. There’s at least one designer who has earned the trade group’s designation of certified kitchen designer status. There’s even a draftsman on staff for layouts, CAD drawings and blueprints. As Schey notes, with this kind of investment, Insignia isn’t in the business of just selling a faucet now and then. They want to do the whole room, whether it be a kitchen or bath. “There’s always customers who think they can buy from seven different places and still save money,” Schey says. “We’re not set up that way.”
Split Personality: If you were to step outside this typically well-appointed K&B dealer’s showroom, however, and walk around the back, you’d find your basic plumbing contracting business, Professional Plumbing Inc. — albeit a very busy, successful one that specializes in residential new construction in the bedroom communities of Chicago. Depending on construction schedules and the season, the employment of PPI can go as high as 250 plumbers.
“It’s a marriage of the two ideas,” says Bryan Zolfo, sales and showroom manager. “Plumbing is absolutely the most difficult aspect of bath remodeling.” The showroom currently rings in about $3 million in business. Approximately 70 percent of that business comes from remodeling both kitchens and bath, with the bath bringing in the majority of the work.
As Zolfo points out, the typical K&B dealer’s weakness is their limited product knowledge. “They definitely know cabinets,” he explains. “But with what we know about the mechanics, maybe we can place more of an emphasis on a comfortable, luxurious shower system, for example, or do more with pedestal lavs. Most K&B dealers don’t know how many gallons per minute is required or that you need a 3/4 valve for a shower system to make it function. We do this everyday; it’s second nature to us. As a result, we’ve been able to exploit the highest-end of the bath and kitchen remodeling market. We wrap our arms around the job, and increase the comfort level considerably.”
During the early and intermediate phase of project’s life, Insignia, not surprisingly, acts like a K&B dealer. The staff designers show product, visit jobs to take measurements, perform CAD layouts, etc. — all aspects that busy plumbers don’t necessarily dedicate the time to do themselves or otherwise hire talent to delegate the duties.
Zolfo says that the higher up consumers want to go in terms of dollars, the more important it is for them work with a specialist like Insignia.
“With the proliferation of plumbing products, people have a lot of ideas about what’s out there,” Zolfo says. “But they don’t know how much items cost. It’s our job to expose them to options and possibilities, find out what they’re looking for and determine how much they want to spend. How long will they be in the house? What’s the neighborhood like? We have to be an adviser, as much as a psychologist in some cases.”
He adds that customers might still end up with chrome and white, but at least they will know they’ve made a decision based on knowing their options rather than not.
The whole hand-holding process for an extensive remodeling job could take as long as three months. Clearly, that’s another strong suit that a K&B dealers might have over a busy contractor.
Contractor’s Strength: But as soon as the physical work of the remodeling begins, then the advantages of doubling as plumbing contractors become apparent.
“When I tell K&B dealers how many bathrooms we do a year, it really raises their eyebrows,” Zolfo adds. “Most K&B dealers know kitchens and cabinetry. They’ll do a bathroom when they have to.”
With Insignia jobs, it’s the plumbers that essentially serve as the project manager. It’s their job to oversee the work and scheduling. Insignia subs out the non-plumbing aspects of the work, such as carpentry and tile installation. But they keep a close tab on quality.
“We’ve pared down to a select few contractors to work with,” Zolfo says. “As a result, we’re a much bigger customer to these folks, and they’re more attentive to our needs.”
At this point, the plumbing contractor’s knowledge is the best advantage over the K&B dealer.“Sometimes a drawing is nothing more than lines on a piece of paper,” Zolfo says. “Our plumbers see unexpected things everyday. Maybe they thought they’d have a clear stud cavity, and they’ll find ductwork instead. Maybe a past homeowner did some do-it-yourself work on the cheap, and didn’t know the first thing about how to run a stack. We have to be able to improvise and go to Plan B or even C.”
Clearly, the strong suit of a contractor is this behind-the-wall knowledge. It may not launch any more consumer mags, but when everything is said and done, a bath not only has to look appealing, but it also has function properly.
“We know construction, we know coordination and scheduling,” Schey says. “It’s really an art putting it all together. We coordinate finding the right subs to do the work. You can’t check every job when you do as many as we do. So it’s absolutely vital to establish a winning team, and then put your trust in their work.”
And after the remodel is complete, doing business with a K&B dealer/plumbing contractor hybrid has further advantages. “We offer full service,” Zolfo says. “When you buy a product from wherever, rather than a product installed by a professional, you’re shaking the dice. Plumbers know the materials, they know what they’re doing, they know all the rough openings, they know the sizes. Our guys are a little bit better trained in plumbing specialties than most trades. Here, you only have one person to call if there’s a problem — me.”