BY BOB MIODONSKI of CONTRACTOR’s staff
Splash Galleries will celebrate its grand opening in October,
although the high-end plumbing and decorative hardware showroom has been selling products in the Raleigh, N.C., market for about seven months now.
The 3,000-sq.-ft. showroom exhibits about 30 lines, including Toto, Hansgrohe, California Faucets, Jado, Oliveri, Lebijou and Oceana. Along with product displays and vignettes, Splash Galleries features working models of low-flow toilets and shower systems, so that customers can see the products in action. The showroom shares a 13,000-sq.-ft. building with Raleigh Plumbing & Heating.
Plumber Gary Phillips is president and sole owner of both Splash Galleries and Raleigh Plumbing & Heating, which he started in 1993. He operates the showroom and contracting business as separate companies even though they will have many of the same customers.
“With Splash Galleries, we’re looking to sell to customers outside Raleigh Plumbing & Heating,” he says. “Service is why we’re here. The custom market is our specialty — that’s where we really shine.”
With so many of the contractor’s customers in high-end homes, Phillips started the showroom company to serve them better, he says. Some of the plumbing wholesalers that operate showrooms in Raleigh have not provided a high level of customer service, Phillips says.
“It’s how the customers were treated,” he notes, adding that employees were were rude or not very helpful.
Along with being more courteous and helpful, Splash has the built-in advantage of knowing plumbing. That means a customer can find out not only what products look nice in a bathroom, but also what products work the best in a given design.
“We’re not necessarily going to sell the most expensive product, but the right product for the job,” Phillips says. “That’s because we might have to go back and fix it.”
So far, reaction to the new showroom from other plumbing contractors has been very good, he says.
“They know they can send customers in here,” Phillips explains, “and their customers will talk to someone who knows about plumbing.”
So far, however, Phillips has not advertised Splash Galleries to other plumbing contractors. Business from other plumbers — and their customers — has been by word-of-mouth. Most of the showroom sales have been to home builders, Raleigh Plumbing & Heating and their respective customers.
To encourage sales to other plumbers, as well as to make the showroom profitable, Splash Galleries charges the same prices to all contractors, including Raleigh Plumbing & Heating. Phillips intends to advertise to the trade, but he adds that he isn’t interested in shoppers who are “tire-kickers” in the showroom, and he wants to control the growth of sales.
Such controlled growth would be in marked contrast to the rapid rise of Raleigh Plumbing & Heating. Although the name sounds as though the company has deep roots in the community, no Raleigh Plumbing & Heating existed before 1993. Phillips says that he picked that name for his company because it has an established feel to it.
That’s not to say that Phillips is a newcomer to plumbing. He started his first business, Phillips Plumbing, just outside Rochester, N.Y., when he was 18. He went on to work at two other contracting companies in the Rochester area before his father-in-law took an early retirement, and Phillips moved with his family to North Carolina. There he worked as a field engineer for Bell BCI, a large mechanical.
Once he observed the booming economy in the Raleigh area, however, Phillips decided to start his own plumbing business.
“It was just me and my truck,” he recalls. “I worked mostly new construction, partnering up with builders.”
Today, Raleigh Plumbing & Heating has 52 employees and 30 trucks on the road. Annual sales are $5.5 million, all of which are derived from plumbing. Another fact about the company name is that Raleigh Plumbing & Heating does no heating.
The company does plumbing service work, commercial jobs and multifamily projects, although new residential construction makes up 75% of sales, Phillips says.
“Housing is pretty strong here right now,” he notes. “We had a little dip for a while but from March on it’s been busy. Interest rates are driving the market.”
Since starting Splash Galleries, Phillips spends 85% of his time on the showroom company and the remaining 15% on his contracting business. Other key members of the showroom operation are Bobby Poisella, Joe Estep, Debby Wilson, Vicky Snipes and Crystal Jackson.
Poisella, a locksmith by trade, is service manager for Raleigh Plumbing & Heating and manages the decorative hardware business for Splash Galleries; Estep, a five-year sales veteran, has handled outside sales for Splash Galleries since November. Wilson, who trained as an interior designer, works in the showroom along with showroom consultants Snipes and Jackson, both of whom previously worked in purchasing for Raleigh Plumbing & Heating.
As for competing showrooms, wholesalers don’t display the same breadth of product as Splash Galleries does, Phillips says. They may not be happy with Phillips’ showroom company, he admits, but his contracting company still does business with them. Wholesalers also aren’t pleased that Splash Galleries buys most of its plumbing products direct from manufacturers and manufacturers reps.
Kitchen-and-bath dealers in the area sell more appliances than high-end decorative plumbing, says Poisella, who doesn’t consider them as competitors. Splash Galleries’ high-end product lines also diminish The Home Depot and Lowe’s as showroom competitors, he says.
“Our clientele is different than theirs,” he notes.
Even as a separate corporate entity, Splash Galleries is a natural extension of Phillips’ mission to upgrade the image of plumbing contractors. The lavish, well-appointed showroom was designed with the help of showroom consultant Peter Schor.
“We want to put professionalism back in the plumbing industry,” Phillips says.
Both the showroom and contracting companies have policies in place for employee applications, screening, drug testing and appearance. Phillips has developed proprietary scheduling and job-tracking software for his service and new construction employees.
The building’s conference room is used regularly for technical, sales and customer service training. Raleigh Plumbing & Heating employs a full-time safety coordinator, which shows the company’s commitment to professionalism as well as safety, Phillips says. Jeffra Patton holds that position.
Raleigh Plumbing & Heating is a member of Contractors 2000 and uses training materials developed by the best-practices group for sales, management and customer service. With the opening Splash Galleries, Phillips plans to join the National Kitchen and Bath Association.
A symbol of the professional image that Splash Galleries wants to project is the black stretch limousine it owns to transport builders, customers and manufacturers reps. Perhaps more importantly, the limo is used to pick up out-of-town customers, prospects and visitors at the airport.
“If we have a customer moving into the area, we want them to be comfortable,” Phillips says. “We can talk with them and qualify them during the drive from the airport.”