Love’s Labour Lost
In the past, “blame the economy” has been directed at such ills
as inflation, a dismal profit margin, higher taxes and having to
lay people off.
These days, the economy is fostering woes at the other end of
the scale. A nation of newly rich Internet professionals and
upscale baby boomers are deciding that they, too, want a
professional-style range, a granite countertop and a two-person
bathtub with shiatsu-massage whirlpool jets.
But, the resulting building boom is causing many designers,
remodelers and builders to turn down work, expand too hastily and
scramble to find capable employees to execute their existing
projects, according to design firms surveyed by Kitchen & Bath
A dearth of talent
“The labor shortage in the high-end kitchen market has always been
a problem,” declares Sam Warwick, owner, Living Spaces Inc.
Kitchens and Baths, in Sylvan Lake, MI.
‘”You have to determine what is a great kitchen designer. There
are a lot of people out there who are certified kitchen designers
who don’t have enough architectural experience. They put boxes on
the wall but they don’t create a wonderful kitchen [with] a sense
of design and proportion and color.”
Kitchens by Krengel president Lori Jo Krengel (bottom right) cites
a talented, knowledgeable and customer-oriented staff as one of the
primary reason for the firm’s success.
Attracting quality employees is a “challenge,” agrees Lori Jo
Krengel, president of the St. Paul, MN-based Kitchens by Krengel;
however, she believes that a firm’s longevity and good reputation
can make a big difference in attracting employees.
“It’s been a bit of a problem,” concurs Jeff Cannata, CKD,
Designers Showcase Kitchens and Baths Inc., in Carol Stream, IL.
Cannata, who knows about the labor shortage not only from his own
experiences but from his contact with industry colleagues (he is
president of the NKBA’s Chicago Midwest chapter, and a member of
the national board of directors), notes, “We couldn’t get too many
good designers, so we developed a ‘farm system.'”‘
Cannata’s company recruits NKBA-endorsed design students to work
with the firm’s more experienced designers, to good effect. “Right
now, I have a design student working with me, and she’s excellent,”
he notes. “[This approach] gives me an opportunity to see what’s
coming up in the design field, and also gives me an opportunity to
snatch them,” he laughs. “If I can bring them through the ranks,
everything from design to how we run our business, they’re learning
it the way we want them to learn.” The student participates in all
aspects of a project, from pricing to meeting with the client, he
Jeff Cannata of Designer’s Showcase Kitchens & Baths actively
recruits design students as a way to get future employees. The
current staff includes (bottom row, l. to r.): Bill Stewart,
Svetomir Brnica, Jean Cannata, Tyanna Cannata, Michael Walsh; (back
row, l. to r.): Tom Halan, Jan Valdez, Jeff Cannata and Cathy
Tom Trzcinski, CKD, CBD, of Kitchen and Bath Concepts of
Pittsburgh, in Pittsburgh, PA, also recruits from a design school
for drafting positions, though “the way the higher-end design firms
need people now, they can go at a starting rate a little higher
than we can offer. But, we’re doing okay. When we find someone
good, we try as much as we possibly can to keep them.” He’s also
sharpened his interview techniques. “We ask more questions and make
sure they’re interested in residential [work],” he states. “[We]
try to get individuals who want to work as a team.”
“We’re not a training showroom,” counters Kelly Lloyd Stewart,
CKD, of Kitchens by Deane Inc., in Stamford, CT. “We can’t bring in
a neophyte and groom them slowly. We have to get people who can
step right up to the plate we need to steal from another showroom.
We’re running 100 miles an hour and just can’t properly mentor
someone the way we used to.”
Bryan Zolfo of Insignia Kitchen and Bath Design Group, shown here
with Kathy Svendson (l.) of Svendson Associates and Julie Loehner
of Insignia, believes networking is the most effective way to find
top quality designers.
“We’ve gone the skilled route,” adds Bryan Zolfo, sales and
showroom manager for Insignia Kitchen and Bath Design Group
Limited, in Barrington, IL. “We’re at a point now where we could
use somebody to learn the business, but we haven’t found the right
person, and we’re not aggressively looking. We’ve talked to some of
our subcontractors [about it], but to run an ad for somebody
unskilled it’s just too time consuming to find the right
But Cannata says that in his market, experienced designers
already have a job. “I can’t tell you the last time I had a CKD
call me and say, ‘I’m looking for a job,'” he notes.
“And, if someone is bouncing from company to company, my thought
is, why are the bouncing if they’re so valuable?”
For experienced design staff, networking seems to be the method
that garners the best results. “We’ve run ads for designers, and
had much better luck with word of mouth, and through associations,”
The Insignia Kitchen and Bath Design Group showroom is designed to
facilitate easy and comfortable interaction with clients and
potential clients. For that reason, having knowledgeable employees
on hand to sit and answer questions is key.
“We’ve gone headhunting,” adds Stewart. “We’ll put out feelers
to a whole variety of people appliance distributors, architects,
cabinet manufacturer reps plus our own grapevine of relationships
throughout the industry.”
Warwick adds that a European-educated designer who’s proven to
be a great asset located their local newspaper ad on the
Outsourcing to independent designers is another option. “I’m in
an amazing position,” admits Tracy Scalzo, CKD, CBD, of Sarasota,
FL. “I’m an independent designer, I have no employees, I have no
intention of having any employees.” Today’s boom market motivated
Scalzo to leave her award-winning stint at Eurotech Cabinetry,
which continues to use her for projects. “Most of the work I do is
for other kitchen dealers,” she says. “This labor shortage is
probably what keeps me in business. I was fortunate that I had
established a reputation before I left, but I left on a wing and a
prayer,” she laughs. “I haven’t advertised, or spent a penny, but
the phone rings. I’ve turned stuff down.”
Scalzo thinks outsourcing is a great solution for
employee-starved businesses. “I’m probably a lot less expensive to
maintain than a full-time employee,” she explains.
But Trzcinski hasn’t had good luck with hiring independents in
his market. “They’re not advanced enough for what we do,” he
One of the keys to success in today’s competitive market is
retaining good employees once you’ve hired them. To that end,
Krengel notes, “We’ve had many employees who have been with us for
20 plus years we value that experience, and try to reward them for
that by offering competitive salaries, extra vacation time, more
flexible hours or shorter work weeks.” She also suggests “creating
positions that make employees feel empowered,” and she notes that,
above all, “If you have a good employee, let them know they’re
While young, right-out-of-school hires are traditionally seen as
the most obvious source for new employees, some employers report
success from less traditional avenues. Notes Trzcinski, “Right now,
I’m trying to stay away from youth. One of the top people in my
firm is a woman who, after her kids went to school, went back to
school and got her degree. She’s in her forties and just doing a
bang-up job running the design department.”
“People coming out of college now, they don’t have that
old-fashioned work ethic where you go to work for a company and
spend the rest of your life there,” adds Glenn Brody, of the Bronx,
NY-based Kitchen Solutions. “They want to move on.”
Besides salary, benefits and work atmosphere also play a major
role in keeping employees. Cannata cites a team orientation, and
bonuses based on performance as inducements. Stewart, who insists
his company doesn’t have a labor shortage problem, explains that
“we have a pretty nice set of benefits a 401K package, good
insurance, co-pays, a vacation package. Plus, we have a nice,
positive working environment. That can’t be overstated. You can pay
people and give them benefits, but if you treat them like dirt,
they’re still not going to be happy. We have a team approach with
weekly meetings for all personnel, anything is put up on the table.
That makes all the difference.”
Additionally, getting the “right fit” is key, according to
Krengel, since “mis-hires” can be expensive in terms of wasted time
and training. To avoid potential bad fits, she suggests “careful
interviewing, checking references and seeing photos of projects
they’ve worked on,” as well as inviting potential employees to job
sites to help them get an idea of what you do.”
But, it’s not just designers or salespeople where labor shortages
are a problem. Many firms are struggling with a shortage of support
staff to handle an increasingly computerized industry. “Our major
problem is order processing,” declares Brody, whose company
specializes in ultra-high-end appliances. “The industry has gotten
more complicated, and everything has to be done on computer. You
used to be able to send in a written order, [but] more and more
companies are going strictly Internet. It requires a very competent
order processor [and] it’s a learning curve; it takes them six
months to become really competent on [some of the manufacturers’
Brody recruits through New York Times help wanted ads and
networking, but complains, “You have to train them and before you
know it, they move on.” He recalls an employee who got an offer of
a $20,000 salary increase from a competitor, “and he was making a
good income with us. For that, I’d move,” he admits, concluding,
“Sales are not a problem we can sell an unlimited amount of
product, but we can’t process what we sell.”
Others agree that the advent of computerization has its positive
and negative aspects. “We use the 20/20 system [to design], but we
still do all of our pricing with paper and pencil,” says Cannata.
“I always like to double check and make sure it’s right,”
especially with custom work and modifications. “A lot of the
cabinet manufacturer’s vendors, who provide the catalogs, aren’t as
current as some of the programs.”
Zolfo says he has three design programs, but uses them only for
pricing. “The drafting quality just isn’t there,” he
In other areas of the office, computers seem to be an
“We’ve spent almost $60,000 on computers,” says Trzcinski.
“We’re Internetted and inner-netted we’re all networked. There are
10 different computers even our shop guy is on computer.”
“Our project management function has increased our efficiency,
turning jobs over quicker and [being] more organized,” adds Zolfo.
“Also, streamlining the paperwork and adding some support to our
designers increases their productivity.”
The best design won’t help you if it’s installed incorrectly and
the most frequently heard complaint among firms surveyed was
finding good subcontractors.
Jeani Lee, owner, Kitchen, Bath and Home, in Ames, IA, recalls
this horror story about a company that she checked out thoroughly.
“They took on too many jobs, and didn’t have their key people on
the job, which was out of town, so I didn’t visit it every day,”
she notes. “The painters didn’t bother to take the packing stuff
off of the new doors and painted right over it. [They] painted over
all of the tracks on French doors, and didn’t sand in between coats
of new wood. By the time I got there, they had done enough damage
that it was going to take more time to redo and repair it than to
do it right in the first place.”
Eventually, the subcontractor was fired and another company
fixed the job. “We didn’t end up in court, but it was an ordeal,”
Those surveyed agree that, when it comes to installers and
subcontractors, smaller is better. Stewart says his company uses
one- to two-man crews. “We don’t work with any large companies that
have big overheads. We do all of our own internal scheduling,
supervising, organizing” and handle the cabinetry and appliance
installation, subcontracting the rest.
“We’ve basically added to our staff whenever we could find the
right people,” says Zolfo. He describes the company’s in-house
installation team of four as “jack-of-all-trades” whose skills
include plumbing, electrical, drywall, tile and Corian.
How does he keep his installers? “Pay them and pay them,” he
laughs. “We do mid to very high end, and if the quality’s not
there, saving money on the person is throwing good money after
bad.” He also encourages the installers to get their CKBI and “keep
them involved in the loop. We try to make them feel like they’re an
important part of the team.
We’re fortunate to work with some very exclusive homes, and it’s
kind of fun for these guys. They take a lot of pride in their
Adds Stewart, “[Subcontractors are] looking to give us an
invoice, be paid quickly and be given another job promptly, and
have us coordinate well with them so they can be productive. We
have a good supervisory staff that’s a liaison between our
designers and subcontractors to keep them moving on the
Zolfo explains that some of his best installers were skilled
craftsmen who tried having their own business but found they hated
the sales and administration end of it, and welcomed being able to
re-focus on what they really liked to do.
Similarly, Cannata has had good results in recruiting home
framers who are often also skilled at interior trim, offering
employment during their usually slow winter months. He also gets
recommendations from other carpentry crews, and zeroes in on any
capable crew members who seem ready to change companies.
In finding prospects for out-of-state projects, Lee does
physical inspections of a subcontractor’s work. “Of course, they
won’t send you to the ones they [messed up],” she laughs. “I ask
around as much as I can,” surveying area realtors and her clients.
“I like to find people who have done more remodeling than new
constructions. They have to work with so many different parameters,
so they’re a lot more creative.”
Even with good people, designers caution that sometimes a
subcontractor takes too many jobs, and spreads himself too thin.
“They hire more people and don’t have time to train them,”
complains Lee. “We’re in an industry that requires craftsmanship,
right down to the plumbers. It’s not just slapping a valve up on
the wall. It seems like the bigger the outfit, the less likely they
are to be able to do customized work.”
Zolfo notes a tile installer that has up to 30 crew members, but
“there’s maybe three guys we’ve ever used,” he explains. “He knows
when he gets a job from us, he’s gotta send his A or B guy. If I
have a negative complaint about an individual, they know from that
point on that guy is not allowed on the job.”
“We’ve told our guys, we’d rather you struggle along till you
find the right people,” adds Trzcinski. “Try to restructure things
and have their guys work some overtime.” Still, his company has cut
down on less profitable remodeling jobs. “We’re just doing the jobs
we can physically handle. In this business, the money’s in the box”
the cabinetry, he notes. He adds that he makes people commit to
jobs, in writing, early on in the project.
“That way, there’s no pull-out,” he explains.
Brody also emphasizes the importance of developing a strong,
ongoing relationship with a subcontractor. “Even though they’re
independent, we [comprise] 75%-100% of their work. We recommend the
installer and guarantee the installation even though we don’t get
commission. So it works out for both of us there’s a
“You get a rapport,” concurs Cannata. “Jumping around doesn’t
help anybody.” KBDN
Labor Trends at a Glance
- While some companies find the current labor shortage to be an
enormous problem, others see it only as a minor irritant, and some
report no real problems at all.
- Opinions vary as to which job is hardest to fill though finding
quality designers, order processors and installers/subcontractors
is frequently cited as a source of difficulty.
- Opinions vary as to whether it’s best to hire apprentice/
students or experienced designers, with both offering advantages
- Word of mouth seems to be the most popular way of finding new
employees, though some firms report having success with head
hunters, newspaper ads and the Internet.
- Generous pay is a must for attracting and keeping good
employees; benefits packages are secondary in most cases.
- Many employers are increasingly turning to older employees,
believing them to be more efficient and loyal than those just
coming out of school.
- Subcontractors that start off by doing good work often prove to
be problematic on subsequent jobs when they try to expand too
quickly and hire inexperienced workers.
- High-end work requires specialized skills that commercial or
track home work doesn’t, requiring particular care in selecting
both designers and subcontractors, employers report.
- Checking references of subcontractors isn’t enough field visits
to former jobs are a must.
- Design firms report that remodeling specialists generally are
more skilled than new-construction workers
- Computerization is helpful in streamlining a business, though
most surveyed find some aspects of them wanting, and still do many
functions the old-fashioned way
Suggestions for Finding and Retaining Great
- Use your networking skills to prospect for new employees, since
these employees tend to be “pre-screened.”
- Consider instituting an intern program in conjunction with
local colleges’ design programs, in order to recruit students
before they are out in the work force. Interns are less expensive
than design school graduates, and this gives you “first crack” at
them when they are done with school and ready for full-time
- Develop lasting relationships with subcontractors whose work
you are happy with; they will, over time, begin to function like
“employees” in that they will know your firm’s needs and
requirements and have a loyalty to you and your customers.
- Look for smaller subcontracting firms over larger ones; these
frequently provide more personalized service.
- Offer generous pay packages, but don’t neglect to consider the
impact of a positive, pleasant work environment in retaining
- Consider outsourcing to independent designers as a strategy to
address work overflow.
- Computerize in-house functions wherever possible, since this
can sometimes cut down on the number of employees needed.
- Consider bringing installers over from related fields, for
instance, home frame builders to do interior carpentry during the
- Instead of hiring trainees right out of school, consider hiring
older employees, senior citizens or those who have been out of the
work force for a while. Often, older employers are more
appreciative of the opportunity, and possess an “old fashioned”
work ethic that can enhance your business.
- Look for people who have done a lot of remodeling work. They
have to work with so many different parameters, they tend to be
more creative, having learned by necessity.