Perhaps not large by Texas standards, the showroom at Milton Frank Plumbing Co. holds its own against the big-box home centers.
BY ROBERT P. MADER of CONTRACTOR’s staff
We’re kind of addicted to plumbing,” says Patty Frank, which is a good thing, considering her line of work. Patty and husband Milton run Milton Frank Plumbing Co., a service and repair contractor in Spring, Texas, just north of Houston, along with an attached 2,000-sq.-ft. plumbing showroom.
They founded the $2.7 million firm in 1984. Patty Frank is also the newly elected chairman of the Quality Service Contractors enhanced service group of Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors - National Association.
Patty and Milton Frank say they opened their first 400-sq.-ft. showroom in 1999 just to be more in control over what they sell and install for their customers. They want to install quality products that they can warranty for two years and for which it’s easy to find repair parts. Before, they would install anything a customer supplied, but the customers sometimes would buy 4-in. center sets when they needed a widespread faucet, bring home a box from the home center with parts missing, or buy poor quality fixtures and fittings.
“It’s frustrating to try to repair a high-end faucet that you can’t even pronounce the name and can’t find parts for it,” Patty Frank says. “It’s frustrating to try to explain this to the customer. If they really want it, we will get it, but we let them know it will be hard to service.”
The small showroom was starting to pay dividends when the two took a trip to the Kohler Design Center in Kohler, Wis., and decided to really do the showroom up big. In 2002 they bought Milton Frank’s childhood home from his mother and tacked a metal building on the back for their office and warehouse. Then they gutted the one-story ranch house, including the ceiling and the rafters, which were replaced with new beams and cables to hold up the roof. Commercial lighting, which makes the showroom look better, needs higher ceilings, Patty Frank explains.
“We’re in a real residential area with subdivisions all around us and we wanted it to look friendly. We left all the trees in place,” she says. “It does look like a business, but it doesn’t look imposing.”
They stocked the new showroom with products from Kohler, Moen, Delta, Blanco, Elkay, Santec faucets and Price Pfister. They have a stand with operating American Standard, Kohler and Toto toilets, which Milton Frank says are the three best flushers on the market.
They have Ginger grab bars for aging baby boomers, Alsons showerheads and the full In-Sink-Erator line. They have a smattering of products from brands such as Ondine, Jado, Plumbtrim, Bates & Bates and St. Thomas, and accessories from Mountain Plumbing Products, BrassCraft and Geberit.
The showroom is locking in customers, they say, keeping them out of the home centers altogether. The Franks can offer better customer service, a two-year warranty and service the product down the road. Their service technicians have become better salespeople because they have more product knowledge. Patty Frank says she stays in the industry “loop” better because manufacturers reps come in more often with news and gossip.
The retail world
The downside of the showroom operation is that it’s retail, which is alien territory for most plumbers.
“If you never worked in retail, it’s a whole new ballgame,” Patty Frank says. “You’ve got to make sure everything looks good. The glass on the front door has to be clean. The parking lot has to be accessible. There can be nothing dangerous so the kids can’t hurt themselves. The accounting is different.”
She notes that after all these years, the company is just getting its accounting straight. The Franks always considered the showroom an enhancement to their service operation. Now their CPA is insisting on breaking it out as a separate profit center so they can tell if a sale came from a service technician or the showroom.
It’s also made a world of difference to bring in a showroom pro, Suzanne Kelly. The Franks advertised on their sign outside the shop that they were looking for a showroom manager. Kelly saw it driving past on her way to work at the Expo Design Center. The Franks are closer to her home and she gets to work better hours. In return, they got a degreed professional who’s a member of the American Society of Interior Designers.
Now when a customer walks in, she’s greeted by the receptionist and by Kelly, if she’s not already with a customer. No big-box home center does that.
“It made such a difference because she knows how to talk to people,” Patty Frank says. “It took a lot of worry away.”
Talking to the customers makes such a huge difference, the Franks say, because the customers often don’t know what’s available. For example, if customers come in to replace a kitchen sink, they usually think they have to replace it with the same double sink. The Franks ask the customers questions such as, do you cook a lot? Not cook at all? Wash your hair in the sink? Bathe your grandchild or the dog? Nine times out of 10, Milton Frank says, the customers leave with a different sink than the one they thought they wanted.
The Franks market the showroom constantly. They run an ad in the Yellow Pages under Plumbing Showrooms and have participated in the local home show. They insert flyers in their subdivision’s newsletter and directory. Service technicians get showroom flyers to leave at every house.
Patty Frank gives away tape measures that read “immeasurable service” on one side and has the company’s Website address on the other. They have rubber ducks with their name and logo floating in their whirlpool bath that kids can take home (and they make good dog toys too). They have wooden oven pull sticks, which are 12-in. sticks with their logo on them that can be used to pull out hot oven racks. They also have the usual magnets and pins.
One unexpected promotional tool is the marquee on the sign outside their shop. They’ve come to realize from the phone calls they receive that more people than they thought read the sign. The wording has to change at least once a week, Milton Frank notes. They’re also down the street from a high school that asks the contractor to advertise special events on the sign.
The showroom is currently open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and after hours by appointment. Milton Frank acknowledges that the company will have to be open more than the “banker’s hours” it is now. Saturday has been a problem in the past because it only drew in “tire kickers,” Patty Frank says. In addition, with the exception of wholesaler Ferguson Enterprises being online, the company can’t call any of its suppliers on Saturday to check availability.
The showroom has to be continually turned over, Milton Frank says, to keep it fresh. He figures it may cost the company $25,000 a year to rotate in new products and displays. In the front of the showroom, he has a working Kohler SoK tub, which is the Dodge Viper of tubs — it draws people in but the Franks don’t sell many. However, that gives them the opportunity to demonstrate the wall-hung instantaneous water heater that supplies hot water to the tub.
Milton Frank also plans to take out some of the tubs, which are proving less popular, and replace them with more shower displays.
Only the tubs are built-in. The rest of the products are displayed on wrought iron or wooden stands that the company’s technicians made in-house. Patty Frank prefers it that way because the displays are easier to move and rearrange. She’s also afraid that customers wouldn’t be able to see beyond her concepts of cabinetry if the showroom had realistic mockups. Speaking of seeing beyond, she also has a Kohler cook-sink and a blue Kohler tub and sink, not because customers would like blue, she explains, but because she’s trying to get them thinking beyond white and chrome.
The Franks haven’t run into any competition beyond the big boxes. They say that Ferguson sends customers to them because it only wants to see builders in its showroom. Westheimer Plumbing & Hardware in The Woodlands, Texas, has an American Standard showroom, but Patty Frank doesn’t think the company provides installation services.
PHCC-NA Past President Eddie Hollub’s Modern Plumbing has a showroom, but it is in Pasadena, Texas, far to the east and south. Village Plumbing has a showroom in central Houston, but it is not in the same trading area.
If another plumber, say, a member of QSC, came to her and said they wanted to open a showroom, what advice would Patty Frank give him?
“Visit with someone who had done it before, a plumbing contractor, not a wholesaler,” she says. “If you don’t have a passion for it, don’t go into it, because it’s a lot of work. There’s the accounting thing, there’s a space issue. It involves your employees, because you’ll have to bring a different type of employee into your organization because they’ve got to have a design background.
“Go into it with your eyes wide open after you talk to a plumbing contractor.”