The Customer is King

April 1, 2009
At Affordable Plumbing & Remodeling, a kitchen and bath showroom and remodeling business, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, selling quality products based on customer brand preference, value and performance, fulfilling customers' needs and maintaining a professional company image have been the main strategies of the company for many years.

At Affordable Plumbing & Remodeling, a kitchen and bath showroom and remodeling business, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, selling quality products based on customer brand preference, value and performance, fulfilling customers' needs and maintaining a professional company image have been the main strategies of the company for many years.

The kitchen and bath showroom was started as a residential and commercial plumbing firm 23 years ago by Donald A. Karr Jr., and his wife, Patricia Karr. According to Karr, as the company grew, they did not see a profit in residential and commercial plumbing, so they opened a showroom in 1995 for bathroom remodeling. Before opening the business, Karr worked as an independent subcontractor, which prepared him for running a showroom and remodeling business.

“While on the job, I'd hear the customer tell us all the negatives about their experience, like being dissatisfied with the quality of the product or not having strong lines of communication with the general contractor,” said Karr. “I listened to all the complaints, learned valuable lessons and then built a consumer driven business, doing it the way it should be done.”

The family-owned business grew fast — Karr moved the showroom from a 1,000-sq.ft. space to a 3,000-sq.ft. building — becoming the largest showroom in eastern Iowa. The company also expanded its kitchen and bathroom product lines, and dropped certain product lines, which were being sold at home improvement centers, because of quality and cost concerns. Even though Karr decided to move out of construction and commercial plumbing, his company still employs plumbers to do remodeling and service work.

“Our plumbing company does all the work for the remodeling,” commented Karr. “We have carpenters and plumbers on staff. Carpenters now have plumbing licenses and plumbers are also carpenters.”

A family affair

Karr and his wife have four children, three of them have careers in the family business. His son, Donnie Karr, is a plumber, and his two daughters, Tamara VonSprecken and Heidi Karr, run the office and work in the showroom. In the field, there are four employees that do installation, plumbing and carpentry work. The company also does service repair every day. The only work that is subcontracted out is the tile and flooring work, painting and electrical.

Karr's two daughters recently bought the family business. According to Karr, Tamara has grown with the business. She oversees the payroll, service department appointments and answers the phones. Heidi came in as an interior designer and now works in company sales, which consists of bidding on jobs, meeting with clients, selling, running jobs and managing the showroom.

“My sister and I worked here so long; it is a natural niche for us to own the business,” said VonSprecken. “Right now, the company vision is to remain the same size and continue to do bathroom remodeling and service, which we are known for.”

Donnie will continue to work as a Master plumber at the business. He started working for the family business in August of 1995 when he went into the plumbing trade. Since neither daughter has a plumbing license, it is imperative that Donnie's license is associated with Affordable Plumbing & Remodeling since plumbing businesses in Iowa are required to have someone with a Master's license within the business.

Women drive the market

According to Karr, more than 95% of business at the company is done with women.

“I learned from the beginning, consumers drive the market, and I follow the consumers,” said Karr. “Our showroom was designed and geared towards the female consumer. When we started the business, the women controlled what went on in the house and controlled the bathroom and kitchen. We had to learn how to communicate in that structure — it was a completely other way of doing business. It was fun, exciting and nicer.

“When we went in there, it was a different program — we were in their home, their most precious thing next to their family, so you had to change the way you did business,” he added.

Karr targets women — the company's main consumer — when advertising. The company has advertised in a variety of different media, including TV, print and the Yellow Pages.

According to Karr, women are the hardest people to reach via advertising since they are constantly busy, working all day and night.

Television commercials have run during programs that attract a female audience such as “The Bachelor” and “Friends.” Commercials also have run on HGTV and network news programs. When targeting men, commercials are run during sports programming.

Karr also places ads in the Yellow Pages, but understands that potential customers need to recognize the company name, so they will remember the company and call it when they see the ad in the Yellow Pages.

According to Karr, service calls have brought the company a good amount of business since the company name is out there in the market place, and people tend to remember it.

When a plumber goes on a service call, the customer is given an Affordable Plumbing & Remodeling goody bag. The plumber also talks to the customer about their kitchen and/or bathroom needs, and possible remodeling options they might consider in the future. This increases the chance that the customer will remember Affordable Plumbing & Remodeling when they are in the market to remodel.

“The No. 1 form of advertising is word of mouth,” commented Karr. “If you give good service to a consumer, they will tell their friends.”

Quality and service

Affordable Plumbing & Remodeling sells on quality, not price. When there are many call backs on a specific product, the company discontinues selling it. The company also prioritizes service and professionalism.

“Our market is at 20%,” said Karr. “This is the consumer who wants quality and service — they are more demanding because of that. So, we put products in the business that fulfills those consumers' needs and what they expect of the product.”

The showroom at Affordable Plumbing & Remodeling is set up so the consumer can see the product, touch it and learn how it works. Consumers are able to see an entire kitchen display, which gives them a better visual of different possibilities. Consumers are also able to find out what their options are and what quality products are available. Since 1995, the showroom has kept up with the latest bathroom and kitchen trends.

“We have changed since consumers change and lifestyles change,” said Karr. “What we sell has changed, and so have the products that manufactures produce.”

When a consumer walks into the Affordable Plumbing & Remodeling showroom, they will see a variety of products from Toto, Danze, Grohe, Sterling, Transolid, Vitra, Warm Rain, MTI and other companies. The bathroom displays are updated yearly, and the kitchen displays are updated every two to three years.

According to Karr, standalone showers and “comfort-height“ toilets are the rage at the moment, along with adult-height vanities, 34½-in. tall. Multiple showerheads and quiet vent fans are popular.

“With aging baby boomers we are taking out tubs and replacing them with showers in the same space,” said Karr. “Oasis and Warm Rain have outstanding quality. Decorative grab bars are getting popular, which has been a big change in the bathroom.”

Kitchens also have changed throughout the years based on lifestyle changes. Euro faucets with the pull-out spray are a trend, and venting of the kitchen is important because of smoke detectors, according to Karr. The venting is no longer recycling air; instead the air goes out of the home, so smoke detectors don't go off when cooking.

“The remodeling market is where our artistic talents came in,” commented Karr. “That is where we had fun because we could help produce a kitchen that when people entertain they could be proud of it and enjoy working in there.”

Company survives flood

Last summer, the Iowa flood of 2008 damaged the showroom. The flood involved most of the rivers and surrounding areas in eastern Iowa from June until the beginning of July.

“The building was outside the 500-year floodplain, so we did not have flood insurance,” said Karr. “Not only did we loose $257,000 in product and inventory, we probably lost another couple hundred thousand dollars in time and job loss.”

The cleanup after the flood was extensive. The entire building was power washed because mud in the building from the flood was contaminated with fuel. Three gas service stations near the showroom dropped gasoline and diesel fuel when the river flooded. Also, several nearby factories dumped chemicals into the river, contaminating the mud.

The staff of Affordable Plumbing & Remodeling worked during and after the flood to help the business pull through the natural disaster. Employees sandbagged, waded in water to move product and cleaned the building. During the cleanup process, damaged product was thrown away — employees created three piles of product that were 90-ft. long and 30-ft. high each.

Even though flood waters and contaminated mud wrecked the showroom, the company has continued to operate. The business is operating out of home offices while the showroom is being rebuilt on a part-time basis.

Karr and his family are rebuilding the showroom themselves since there has been little assistance for the flood — the business received $80,000 from grants. Therefore, rebuilding is taking twice as long as it normally would.

“I could have borrowed, but I didn't want to,” said Karr. “We are only in debt for one thing — the building. Our company owes no money to wholesalers. Everything is paid for except the building, so when we lost everything it was out of our equity, so we don't want to borrow money to recover losses since this would make us less competitive in the market place.”

Manufacturers have also donated products to Affordable Plumbing & Remodeling for when the showroom opens. At this time, the showroom is being redesigned and will open this summer.

“We are changing things with the redesign because of the consumer,” commented Karr. “We are working with companies that care about the industry.“

The new showroom will display many of the products consumers are demanding and be more of a multiple-shower showroom. The company will continue to focus on high quality and user-friendly products, and show bathroom shower change-out units.

Regardless of the set back from the flood, Affordable Plumbing & Remodeling has jobs in the pipeline up to June 2009. Karr not only attributes the success of his showroom and remodeling company to the quality, service and professionalism it prides itself on, he also attributes it to the community of Cedar Rapids.

“Since the 1850s my family has helped build the community,” said Karr. “We have good families and hard working people. It's a good place for families to grow up, and it's a great place to do business.

O'Dowd Plumbing unveils hydronic heating showroom

SAN BRUNO, CALIF. — O'Dowd Plumbing announced the grand opening of its hands-on hydronic heating showroom, featuring working models of hydronic heating systems, including various radiant in-floor and under-floor options, here in March.

According to Jim O'Dowd, owner of O'Dowd Plumbing, the showroom is unique because it is the only radiant/hydronic heating interactive, operational showroom in the San Francisco Bay area where customers can experience the system operating, and feel and touch the heat.

O'Dowd came up with the showroom idea due to the response the company received from an exhibit that was at a local home and garden show in March 2008.

Showroom visitors can see how the system works and feel how the heat radiates through various flooring materials, including tile, hardwood, concrete and carpet. The showroom also features other hydronic equipment and applications, including panel radiators and a towel warmer.

“It took approximately three months for the first display, which included 10 applications of radiant heat, two wall panel radiators, a Knight Lochinvar high efficiency boiler and an indirect DHW tank,” said O'Dowd. “We expanded the showroom approximately one month ago to include a Phoenix Solar water heater, solar panel and in-floor radiant heating in thermal board.”

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