“Give the clients what they want” ... that is the mantra at Master Bath & Tile, part of owner David Judd's Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based plumbing contracting business, Master Plumbing. Never say “no” to a client until all avenues have been exhausted.
“If it's out there, we'll find it,” declares Ron Koranda, who manages Master Bath & Tile. If they can't find it, they'll make it. And when they locate that hard-to-find lav or create that frog urinal (more on that later), they charge their clients a premium for that item.
And their customers pay it.
That go-the-extra-mile-for-the-client mentality is one of the things Master Bath & Tile is known for. Another is its unusual and unique product, from the motorcycle-themed bath products to the luxury sinks/faucets to the funky accessories to the upscale tile.
Judd started the showroom, a separate division of Master Plumbing, in the late 1990s with the goal of being “one of the best [showrooms] to be found anywhere in Iowa” (see “Master Plumbing Charges Into The Remodeling Market,” April 1998). Koranda joined the showroom team in 2000; coming from outside the industry, he had no preconceived notions of what a plumbing showroom should be.
“I believe that most plumbing contracting showrooms are established by plumbers who are used to saying, 'No, that doesn't exist,'” Judd says. “Ron's philosophy was 'Never say no.'”
Since then, the showroom has seen an approximate growth of 793 percent with an average gross profit of 50 percent to 55 percent. And Judd and Koranda expect to hit their total sales goal of $1.5 million in the next year. “Of course, we started low and had nowhere to go but up,” Koranda notes. “We did as much business those first six weeks as was done half the previous year.”
In a market that just doesn't have a lot of luxury products, it seems Judd reached his goal, but it wasn't easy getting there. An optimistic guy, Judd admits he's stumbled a few times, but through trial and error he's learned what works and what doesn't for his showroom.
Higher Clientele, Higher-Priced ItemsOne of the things Judd learned was to go after a different type of client. Working with general contractors who only wanted to spec the lowest-cost items didn't seem to be effective. They didn't understand what Judd was trying to do, and didn't believe that their clients would want to upgrade. Koranda steered the showroom in a new direction Ñ working with interior designers and architects.
“Why don't we treat the showroom as what it looks to be Ñ high-end, neat, cool, funky?” Koranda says. “The first thing I thought of was to pursue interior designers.”
Interior designers, as well as architects, are becoming the “ultimate specifier” or project manager on many jobs, he explains. Some designers in larger markets have even gotten their contracting licenses. Working closely with the clients and having control over the project makes the designer or architect the “go-to guy” when Master Bath wants that business. It's what Koranda calls a “noncompeting complementary alliance,” where both parties are involved in similar work yet not direct competitors.
“We have some selective people who have great clients that come back to us again and again because they know that working with our team will result in a unique project that they're not going to get anywhere else,” Judd says. “It's understood that we're going to be more expensive, but the end product is going to be distinctive.”
Master Bath's niche is found in those clients; ultra-luxury clients, high-end customers looking for luxury bath and kitchen products. Maybe those customers have big-budget plans for building a home or modest-budget plans for remodeling the master bath, but the key is luring in those who are looking for something different, something they couldn't find at the local big box retailer or plumbing wholesaler. It was a niche not being served in the greater Cedar Rapids area.
In order to attract this type of client, Judd and Koranda are also developing relationships with the other creative people on a project, a “referral hub” that includes not only the interior designer and architect, but the kitchen cabinet people, the countertop people, even art dealers Ñ anybody involved directly with the client. Cultivating these alliances can, and does, result in a referral of clients to Master Bath & Tile.
“We take these kinds of relationships with this consortium of like-minded, creative people very seriously because we see this as our future,” Koranda states. “It's knowing the right people for the right job with the right product and being comfortable in referring them. We're seeing this as a real matter of survival.
“Every small business is striving for its niche to appeal to customers. Who else appeals to our customers? Who is the Benz dealer in town? We're dealing with the same people, so why not build a relationship there? The referral hub is where we're seeing our best business come from.”
Qualifying CustomersAnother thing Judd learned along the way is that it is OK to tell someone, “I can't work with you.” Spending a day with a client, going over product, giving him the specs and then watching that business walk out the door to someone else was a hard lesson to learn.
“We're not here as a free service to our competitor,” Judd says. “And some builders are locked into working with a certain plumbing contractor.”
But the “expertise” that Master Bath personnel have now comes at a price. Koranda took a professional approach and developed a Sales and Retainer Agreement, which basically states that the client gives Master Bath a down payment for the time spent on discussing products and providing specs. This imparts to the client that the showroom personnel's time is valuable, that the showroom is not a retail area where customers can shop and leave, Judd says. In return, the client gets what he wants Ñ stylish product and specifications for the project.
Some customers balk at such an agreement, while others readily sign on the dotted line. Just as there are customers who are willing to pay extra for a cool fixture, while others would rather buy lower-end products.
Judd took a course from consultant/trainer Peter Schor, called the “Institute of Bathroom Product Knowledge,” on how to operate a successful showroom. One of the things he learned was how to qualify potential customers Ñ find out as much about the project as you can.
Questions to ask when qualifying potential clients include:
- Are you building, remodeling or replacing?
- When is the project starting?
- Where is the project?
- Who is your builder?
- What's your budget?
In instances where the client wants to use product from Master Bath & Tile but Master Plumbing is not the plumbing contractor on the job, Master Bath will sell direct to the project plumber.
“We work it out with the client,” Judd says, “and talk to the plumber because we don't want to alienate him. He has veto power on that job, so we let him know ahead of time if the job will be more difficult and if he needs to add extra labor.”
In other major markets around the country this may seem like old news, but it's a pretty new concept in Iowa. Master Bath has had some resistance, but more from installing unfamiliar product than from plumbers losing the sale. To facilitate this process, Master Bath provides technical guidance to make the install process as easy as possible. A high degree of product knowledge is needed to pull it off.
“We're fortunate to have Dave's experience, and that of the other guys here, on the plumbing and technical side when we've run into these issues,” Koranda notes.
Alternate Sources Of SupplyIn order to fulfill the “give the clients what they want” mantra, Master Bath & Tile has to do some out-of-the-box thinking when looking for product. Sometimes that means going outside the regular distribution channels, such as using the Internet or buying direct from the manufacturer.
“One of the things I saw here was that customers weren't being accommodated according to their schedules or their choices,” Koranda says. “When they did find something they wanted, they found it very difficult to get or they were talked out of it.”
But Master Bath can get the sale by making a “friendly environment” for the customer, and being honest and realistic about price and delivery. If a client is demanding hard-to-find items, Koranda and the other showroom personnel will ask for a budget and a timetable. If the item is needed right away and has to be express-shipped, Master Bath staff tell the customer upfront that the cost will be passed on to him or her.
DiversificationJudd found there was not much competition when he decided to move into the upscale tile business. He added a room at the front of the showroom, encased in glass block, where he displays all kinds of specialty and exotic tiles, even a tile waterfall.
“The installations in the showroom were performed by company plumbers under the guidance of a professional tile setter,” Judd explains. “Many times we offer tile as part of a package with plumbing. We've made some really special projects come together just by controlling another part of the job.”
Another area Master Bath & Tile wants to branch out into is water filtration, Koranda says. Since the plumber is already in the home, why not talk to the customer about filtration? Water is a plumber's expertise, after all.
It all adds up to making the business stand out from the herd. Good marketing and public relations tips can come from local businesses, Koranda says. Are there special incentive programs or public relations opportunities? Who are the car dealerships and clothes retailers aligning themselves with?
Become a local expert for all things plumbing, an industry specialist for your local paper or TV station. Be a sponsor for a local home show, but don't just contribute money. Get your face out there so people know who you are.
“I remember somebody saying that what's passe in one industry will go off like a hydrogen bomb in another,” Koranda notes. “Whatever it is, it works different in our industry.”
Looking For A Frog Urinal?Giving the client what he wants sometimes involves creating product from the ground up. “Ron got me to thinking like him, that if what the client wants isn't on the market, then let's make it ourselves,” Judd says. “And if we can't make it, there's an expert in every single field that you could possibly think of right in our little market.”
For example, Koranda was approached by a designer for a frog urinal. He told the client that if one existed he would find it; if not, he could have one fabricated (depending upon the client's budget, of course). During this process Koranda attended K/BIS in Florida. On his final day in Orlando, he decided to kill a few hours on the rides at Universal Studios. Seeing the character-inspired architecture gave him an idea on how to fabricate the urinal.
One thing led to another, and a partnership between Koranda and nationally recognized sculptor Michele vandenHeuvel (www.benebronze.com) was born. They devised a system of fabrication incorporating a functioning urinal with a custom bronze sculpture. The client absorbed some of the increased development costs as this was a prototype. Without releasing exact figures Koranda would only confirm a cost of more than $25,000.
In response to requests while speaking with several upscale designers, architects and even a luxury aircraft/motor coach fabricator, Koranda and vandenHeuvel (pictured with urinal) will be marketing the custom lavatories, toilets and urinals for the ultra-luxury and celebrity market (not just frogs, but anything the designer can come up with).