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Kitchen Solvers Franchise Review: Gary Schmidt of Marion, Iowa

Gary Schmidt’s desire for a woodworking business led him to Kitchen Solvers

Gary and Jean Schmidt own the Kitchen Solvers in Marion, Iowa.

Gary Schmidt’s love of woodworking led him to look for a business that would allow him to indulge his passion. The Marion, Iowa man found it with Kitchen Solvers. He has been a franchise owner since 1997, when he purchased the Cedar Rapids territory. A few years later, he added nearby Iowa City.

What were you doing before Kitchen Solvers?
I sold industrial chemicals for about 10 years and was doing a little woodworking as a hobby. I had a lot of sales experience. Selling chemicals is a dog-eat-dog world, and two to three years before I got out of it, I bought a woodworking machine, and I started to come home earlier and earlier to do that. I decided, “Let’s see if I can find a business that will allow me to do something of the same order.” I took shop in high school and was born and raised on the farm, so I was used to hard work and working with my hands. My brother is in remodeling in another town a few miles from here, so it’s kind of in our blood.

How did you find out about Kitchen Solvers?
I saw an ad in the paper that the local franchise was for sale, and I inquired into it. I had looked into another franchise company, and they turned me off because they wouldn’t send a list of franchisees that you could call. When I checked with Kitchen Solvers, they sent the whole nine yards. I called some franchises in Iowa, and they gave me nothing but “thumbs up” reviews, so I took a chance and went out for a Discovery Day. At the time, I knew very little about cabinet refacing. I knew about installing cabinets — I’d done that in one of our kitchens. As a business opportunity, it sounded like a good deal.

How have they helped you?
They helped me get started. They bent over backward helping me, telling me what to do and what not to do to grow my business. I didn’t have any regrets getting into the business. The marketing manager, Bill Weber, he would do anything for you.

What sets Kitchen Solvers apart?
There’s nothing to compare them to. All I can say is that the way they teach you to do refacing is probably the best that’s out there. There’s nobody in this area that does a similar thing. I have nothing to compare my business to.

Who makes a good Kitchen Solvers franchisee? What attracted you to it?
What attracted me was the fact that I wanted to do something like this. The people that I was going to be working with were really helpful and supportive. They treated you like one of the family, and that was very important. The help up there, from Bill Weber and Gerry Henley, they’re more than helpful. I mostly get help with marketing and advertising. I’ll ask them to help set up an ad or something like that. I’ve gotten largely self-sufficient after 15 years, but every now and then I have a marketing question or an estimating question.

How large is the opportunity?
Things took a nosedive after 2008, but they’re starting to climb back up. For the population in my area, I feel like I do quite well. My territory covers three counties, but the population is less than 200,000.

Who are your main customers? Who are your best customers?
It used to be people in their 50s, 60s, 70s. Now, it’s any age group. People who want to remodel their kitchens, they look at us to help decide whether to reface or remodel. I would say that most of the time the household makes less than $100,000 a year, but I never ask. I don’t do any new construction to speak of. I do more refacing than new cabinets, but that’s slowly changing around a little bit. Every year, we’re doing more new cabinets versus the year before. We’re pushing new cabinets more. It’s more gratifying, because you can change the layout of the kitchen and change the way it functions. On some jobs, quality refacing is creeping closer to the cost of new cabinets, so it’s getting to where you might as well rip out and start over. You can usually save 30 percent by doing refacing, but where it starts getting closer is when you want to put an island in, or a dishwasher in, or move the stove.

Did you have craftsman experience before owning the franchise?
Nope, I didn’t. I was doing woodworking projects for around the house. I built bookcases and end tables. My wife had all sorts of things lined up for me to make. I’ve picked up so many skills during my time with Kitchen Solvers that I have progressed a lot from what I did 18 years ago. I’ve built three china hutches: One for myself, one for my daughter and one for a customer, and they all turned out really nice.

How long do most jobs take?
Refacing, we try to do one a week. With new cabinets, we’re in and out in two weeks, tops. The longest job we’ve ever taken on took three weeks. Spring is a busy time of year for us. That is the time when people get their tax returns back, and they’re ready to spend money through summer. Holidays are a slow time of year. When I first opened, I sold a kitchen to a couple near the holidays, and I told them I had a week open before Thanksgiving — there aren’t a lot of people that want a kitchen remodel happening around Thanksgiving — but they were like, “Heck yeah! We’re going out of town. Here’s the key.”

What would be a big and a small job for Kitchen Solvers?
A small job usually takes about two-and-a-half days. I just got done with a couple of those while teaching another guy how to do things. A big job takes well over a week. An example of a two- to three-day job is a reface, keeping the same countertop. The customer might want to add a few draw boxes, and that’s about it. I had a job that was three weeks long that entailed tearing out all the drywall. We discovered that there was no insulation in the outside wall, and there was water damage in the ceiling. We took that kitchen down to the joists. It was a major, major job. Three weeks later, they were eating in their kitchen again.

What does your typical day look like?
My typical day, if we’re doing an install, is to be to the customer by 8, then work until 4 or 5. Today, I did a little work in my shop, and I visited with a customer about a bathroom job. I’ll have two sales calls, then I will wind up back at my shop working. Typically, I work during the day on kitchen installs, and I go on sales calls in the evening or on weekends. Sales calls vary. In the Spring, I might go on six or seven in a week. By summer, it might be three a week. Last year, I went on 70 sales calls. Other years, I’ve gone on over 100. Last year, about 50 percent of the sales calls become contracts. Most years, it’s 30 percent to 35 percent. This year, we’re batting really well. In 2011, I think, we did 25 kitchens. In 2012, I’m hoping to do 35.

Do you own one territory, or several? Why?
I’ve got two franchises. Between the two, it covers three counties, which includes the Cedar Rapids area and the Iowa City area. I started out with just the Cedar Rapids area. Iowa City is only a 40-minute drive from my home, and it’s a college town and had really good potential, so I bought that territory since it’s close enough that I can handle both of them. It’s been a good move. I don’t have to worry about someone else moving in and taking over part of my area. I try to stay within an hour of my home.

What is a secret to your success?
When I go in for a sales call, I spend an hour-and-a-half to two hours with the customer, asking a lot of personal and business questions about how I can help make their kitchen more enjoyable and more efficient. I give a 5 percent discount if they sign with me the very same night. That may work a third of the time, but it’s been a good strategy for me. I tried it once or twice this year with an 8 percent discount. People will bite because they want that discount. The biggest thing, though, is giving people the time to ask you questions. The more they ask, the more you know that they’re interested in what you’re doing. I know I’ve got a competitor who goes in and is only there for 20 or 30 minutes. That doesn’t give a customer enough time to ask questions.

Seventy percent of my business is referrals. Another 10 to 15 percent is from home shows. Another 5 percent  of my business comes from the phone book. I’m getting more and more business from the Internet, but the majority is from referrals. People at the home shows ask to see my list of references, and when they see people they know on the list that’s an automatic sale right there. It makes a big difference. Kitchen Solvers told me when I joined to get a reference list that I can hand out, and it’s something I’ve followed all the years I’ve been in business.

What does franchise ownership allow you to do that you couldn’t before?
You’re working for you. Whatever you do to improve your business, you benefit from it. Everybody would like to run their own business, but a lot of people don’t. To me, it’s an achievement to start a business and make it a success. I’m satisfied with where I’m at and where I’m going to go. The last couple of years, it’s been tighter. For four to five years before the market crashed, I was doing very well. Now I’m building the business back up to where it was before the recession. The sky is the limit, but there’s only so much you can do about the economy.

Would you recommend a Kitchen Solvers franchise to someone else?
Yes, I would. I got in 15 years ago, in part for the name recognition. People in my area know Kitchen Solvers. You’ve got to be a people person and build your business up and make it recognizable. You can’t just say, “I’m going to be a franchisee for Kitchen Solvers and see what happens.” You have to be willing to work hard and make it a success. Kitchen Solvers will give you the tools you need. They will get good quality products from the suppliers, which is important, too.

What do you enjoy about owning a Kitchen Solvers?
I get satisfaction knowing I’ve made people happy and that they will refer us. It’s a good experience for customers. I have customers that I did work for 13 years ago who come visit me at the home show and praise me up and down. I’ve got a lot of customers like that. I can’t count them on both hands. You’re not going to please everybody in this life, but 99 percent of customers are totally happy with what we did. I’ve also learned how to do a lot of things. I plan to continue with woodworking once I retire, and I get a great deal of satisfaction from seeing what I am able to do.

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