Leadership and Business Savvy Pave Road to
by Denise Vermeulen
ANAHEIM, CAVanessa Bates personifies the all-American success
story. Starting at the bottom, with no kitchen and bath industry
experience, Bates devoted herself to learning the industry and
working her way through the ranks.
Bates began her journey after dissolving a small business she
had started. In search of a part-time job, she landed in the role
of secretary at Block Tops, Inc., a wholesale countertop and
cabinet manufacturer. She stuck with the young, very small company,
learning the business and growing with it. Eventually, Bates was
named general manager.
After several years, Bates left the company to study full-time.
She was, however, sorely missed at Block Tops, and soon began
consulting for them. After graduating with her M.B.A., Block Tops
made her an offer she couldn’t refuse.
Today, as president of Block Tops, Bates heads up the
multi-million dollar corporation and owns a significant portion of
it. She is also part owner of a granite manufacturing facility
she explains, because
“granite was eroding our market share.”
Initially, Block Tops served customers within a 125-mile radius of
Anaheim. Currently, the company is celebrating its 25th year in
business with the opening of its fourth location in Vista, CA. The
firm’s other offices are located in Phoenix, AZ and Sacramento, CA,
with the main office in Anaheim.
Block Tops has supplied the industry with custom-sized maple or
oak butcher-block countertops since 1977, and now offers a complete
mix of solid surface, granite and quartz surface installed
countertops. The company also supplies custom-sized butcher-block
counters and chopping blocks for self-installation.
With approximately 4,500 installed kitchens and baths annually
and revenues that have doubled since 1998, Block Tops knows
something about being doing and being “tops.” The company has
learned to minimize the effects of economic downturns by
diversifying products and seeking a broader customer base.
The fiscally conservative Bates also tries to look ahead at the
economy and positions the company “to weather the storm.”
Unlike many of her competitors, says Bates, “I don’t let my
fixed asset base get too big.”
A positive attitude and an eye for opportunity may help, as well.
“When interest rates go up,” says Bates, “people remodel they don’t
sell. When interest rates go down, money is cheaper and they still
Bates defines Block Top’s number one specialty as “customer
service.” Not surprisingly, she begins with education and takes
employee training seriously. Monthly training sessions for
management employees focus on improving the work flow. An
apprentice program ensures quality as well as a supply of
well-trained craftspeople who understand the company and its
At Block Tops, which produces products in the medium-high- to
very-high-end range, even the customer is trained. “We’ve created
training models to help the customer understand the product and the
process,” explains Bates.
An emphasis on “controlling the customer’s expectations” is an
essential part of customer service at Block Tops. Bates explains
the importance of setting appropriate expectations for its
customers, which include contractors, designers, architects and
national design centers. She emphasizes the importance of the
basics, such as training all employees to provide the customer with
Timing and reliability are key to the Block Tops’ success story,
as well. “On-time delivery is critical,” says Bates. She claims
that Block Tops will do everything in its power to be on time,
training back-ups and providing clear-cut standards.
“How we manage our mistakes is important to us,” Bates adds.
“Managers have the authority to make customers happy.” They are
also trained to decide how to “rescue” a job gone awry. They can,
for example, bring in a weekend crew.
Bates nurtures a corporate climate that demands the best.
“Leading by example is a good way to lead,” Bates explains. “Our
[corporate] culture is to get the job done for the customers. You
don’t whine and snivel because it’s 3:30 p.m. and you want to go
home!” she adds emphatically.
Although Bates demands a lot from her staff, employees enjoy
generous benefits, including annual profit sharing. Bates explains
that taking care of staff in this way “creates a more loyal
employee base.” Apparently, she’s right: Many of her employees have
worked for Block Tops for more than 15 years.
It comes as little surprise to learn that Bates does not intend
to sit back and relax. “Sitting on our laurels doesn’t work for
me,” she says. Remaining “static or falling back is not healthy for
any business that wants to be competitive,” she adds.
Although she believes Block Tops, Inc. has a life of its own
beyond her, for now it is Bates who leads the
Block Tops, Inc.
LOCATION: Anaheim, CA
PRINCIPALS: Vanessa Bates, president; Kenneth
Christopher, corporate secretary
HOURS OF OPERATION: 7:30 a.m.-6 p.m.
MAJOR PRODUCT LINES: DuPont Corian, Granite,
Butcher Block, Avonite, Fountainhead, Surell, Zodiaq.
DESIGN SOFTWARE: Cabnetware
SPECIALTIES: Business emphasis is on customer
BUSINESS PHILOSOPHY: “a business is successful
because there is strong leadership, a consistent presence and
consistent delivery of the message and the product.”