A pipe order is responsible for hatching what is regarded as the longest-running kitchen-and-bath showroom business in the country.

Back in 1940, La Crosse, Wis.-based First Supply secured a large pipe contract that helped it rise out of the Great Depression.

“That contract put us in a financial state where we could expand,” explains Judy Kimble, corporate product and marketing manager of First Supply’s kitchen and bath division. “Back then there weren’t many choices for kitchen and bath products. It was more about basic functionality. Part of that expansion was creating our first showroom.”

And nearly 80 years later, First Supply’s kitchen and bath division hasn’t looked back. It now has 17 locations in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Kansas with 14 falling under the Gerhard’s banner (named after Gerhard Poehling, son of First Supply founder Henry Poehling). Three others are Kohler Signature Stores owned by ASA and AD member First Supply, established in 1897 and now in its 120th year of operation as a PHCP-PVF distributor. The kitchen and bath division has 101 employees (of which 90% are women).

First Supply’s kitchen and bath division has taken things to the next level by putting innovation into overdrive, investing in new stores and assembling a world-class leadership team. For this, it is the recipient of the 2017 Supply House Times Showroom of the Year honor.

“We’re not just a functional business,” Kimble says. “To us, this is a functional fashion business.”


New frontiers

Kimble says innovation has provided a major recent spark to the business, particularly when it comes to finding different ways to get the Gerhard’s message out to its customers. “To bring things to the next level, we’ve tried a lot of different things,” she says. “We’re not afraid of new.”

An example of that is the Gerhard’s Saturday seminar series that features a different product theme in an informative and educational setting. In June, the theme was “Some Like It Hot,” centered around steam products. The July theme is “Bathing Beauties.” A raffle is held each month and the winner receives a product from the manufacturer that sponsors the seminar.

“Steamist helped us with the June seminar,” Kimble says. “The ‘Bathing Beauties’ is all about finding the right tub. A tub is not a tub is not a tub. With this we’ve partnered with MAAX. These seminars are designed to help better educate our customers in making decisions for their kitchens and bathrooms.”

Gerhard’s further reaches its customer base through the social-media-based Gerhard’s Girlfriends video series. “We keep the videos short — less than three minutes,” Kimble says. “Short, humorous and informative. It’s been a monumental achievement communicating out-of-the-box thinking such as these videos. It’s elevated our exposure. If we have 1,800 likes we can get 12,000 reaches with one of our videos.”

Additionally, First Supply’s kitchen and bath division, which is run as a separate entity from the First Supply distribution arm, has embraced the challenges the internet has presented to the kitchen-and-bath showroom industry.

“It’s not a bad thing,” Kimble says. “It’s made everybody step up their game. It’s wonderful that Jenny from Green Bay can have the same access that Mary from Manhattan does, but the key is all about value and not the lowest price.

“If everybody cared only about price we’d all be driving the Nissan Versa, the cheapest car in America. There are choices out there, but you can’t go online and purchase shower trim without knowing what valve you need. We strongly believe people still want to touch, feel and understand the product. If you have a beautiful new appliance in your home, you need to know how it works and what the benefits are of the model you selected. There are intricacies involved. Not everything goes together. You can come into our stores and see the products and be helped by well-trained design professionals.”


Expanding the footprint

Gerhard’s hasn’t been shy when it comes to expansion. Since 2015, five new stores have opened with new Gerhard’s locations in Kenosha, Wis. (September, 2015), Whitefish Bay, Wis. (June 2016) and Delafield, Wis. (April 2017). Kohler Signature Stores by First Supply have opened in Wauwatosa, Wis. (September 2016) and Overland Park, Kan. (April 2017). Wauwatosa and Delafield are Milwaukee suburbs. The new stores, Kimble notes, are state-of-the-art in design and are located in retail-centric areas. The Kohler Signature location in Wauwatosa earned the nation’s first LEED Gold certification under the new v4 guidelines and is the second recognized certification to be awarded in the world. Kimble gives major props to Oconomowoc, Wis.-based MSI General Corp., and MSI architect Jim Olson. MSI designed and built the five above-mentioned stores.

“Consumers want choices and they want to be involved in the process,” Kimble says. “It’s no longer the plumber telling you your two choices are silver or brass. It doesn’t work that way. The internet came and brought exposure to everything. We want to make sure we can provide all those things locally. People are tactile. They want to touch and get a good feel for a product. For us, it all comes down to meeting the consumers’ needs.”

To that point, Gerhard’s has made it a point to change its locations from the traditional showroom moniker to simply being referred to as stores. “We changed the name to stores because a showroom tells people that maybe you can come in but it doesn’t mean you can come in and buy, plus you might need permission to enter,” Kimble says. “With the word store, the message is we are open for business. Come in here and shop and we will help you pick out what you need and help you design your space.”

The Kohler Signature Store concept has been a major plus for the company as well. First Supply is the owner of the original Kohler Signature Store in Edina, Minn., and has followed that up over the last year with the two openings in suburban Milwaukee and Kansas City.

“The Kohler stores have been a huge success,” First Supply COO Katie Poehling Seymour says. “We have had a phenomenal work study with the Kohler stores. We’ve attained a new understanding of hiring the right people and understanding what the consumer wants.”


World-class staff

Gerhard’s also is proud of the women-led leadership team it has in place. Poehling Seymour, daughter of First Supply Chairman Joe Poehling and the fifth generation of family leadership, oversees the First Supply kitchen and bath division.

The company’s leadership team also brings a cadre of diverse backgrounds to the table. Poehling Seymour comes from a financial background, while Kimble came to the company after many years at Kohler. Rick Swanson, district sales and operations manager for the company’s West region, came from Ethan Allen, while Jennifer Piper, district sales and operations manager for the East region, previously worked at Teavana and West Elm. Business Development Manager Matt Durtshe came from the investment banking industry.

“We all understand the business and are passionate about it,” Kimble says. “This isn’t a wholesale business that runs some showrooms. We embrace showrooms and love showrooms. A lot of our success has to do with the team we have created. Katie has done a great job bringing in new perspectives and good people with diverse backgrounds. She deserves credit for taking our kitchen and bath division of First Supply to the next level. We have people who come from retail-centric backgrounds who have a better footing of what the consumer wants. We strive to meet and exceed the expectations of the consumer.”

At the same time, Kimble says it’s critical to partner with like-minded manufacturers. Some of Gerhard’s key product lines include Kohler, Masterbrands, Brizo, ROHL, Moen, Elkay, Hansgrohe, Gerber and Mansfield Plumbing.

“The ones that stand out are the ones that go above and beyond,” she says. “They understand our vision and they collaborate with our objectives and that’s when you have a win-win. We are not traditional. We don’t come in with the same-old, same-old. We think up new ideas and we bring them to our manufacturers and they enjoy it.”

Looking forward, Kimble says the expansion isn’t finished. Gerhard’s is in the process of moving its Dubuque, Iowa, location to a new state-of-the-art facility located in a more retail-centric area. “We are going to keep expanding our footprint with Gerhard’s and with the Kohler Signature Stores,” she says.

But of primary importance is continuing to meet and exceed the needs of its customers. “We have a phenomenal selection of products,” Kimble says. “We are here to take the pain out of the process. We’re solution-based. We are here to make our customers’ dreams come true.”


This article was originally titled “Fashion over function” in the July 2017 print edition of Supply House Times.