Tucked away on a quiet, semi-industrial street near the affluent Sauganash neighborhood on the northwest side of Chicago, National Plumbing & Heating Supply Co. operates a by-appointment showroom that offers higher end bath and kitchen products.
Half of the showroom space, about 1500 sq. ft., is allocated exclusively for Kohler products, with the merchandising and décor designed by Kohler. The other half displays bath and kitchen products by Bemis, Elkay, Moen (including its new ShowHouse line), Grohe, Alson's, Creative Spec, Steamist, Mr. Steam, Brasscraft, Chicago Faucets, Gerber Brass, Mansfield, E.L. Mustee, In-Sink-Erator, National Bathing Products, Sloan Valve and Swanstone, among others.
The wholesaler moved its headquarters to this location in June 2003 because this building offered more than double the space of its former base of operations, about two miles away. The current headquarters facility is 75,000 sq. ft.
The showroom area has been freshly painted and new floors were installed to give it a more upscale look.
It's just a few minutes' drive from the Sauganash neighborhood, where a 3-bedroom home sells for more than $500,000.
The wholesaler opened its first showroom at its previous headquarters location about 10 years ago, according to Robert Higgason, president and co-owner. “The showroom was about 2,000 sq. ft. and we opened it because many of our plumbing contractors were telling us they had no place to send their customers,” Higgason says. “The contractors were concerned that if they sent their customers to a retail showroom they might lose the business.”
The wholesaler was still putting the finishing touches on the showroom at the time of this writing but Higgason says he plans to open it to the public when everything has been completed.
“We get a lot of customers from the Loop (downtown) and North Shore, but they are looking for different things,” says Rita M. Pavone, showroom sales manager. “The Loop customers still like chrome fixtures. They tend to be more contemporary, clean, minimalist. The North Shore customers are more traditional. They like nickel finishes and are starting to look at oil-rubbed bronze.”
The showroom has a number of working displays including an alcove with sinks and working faucets, as well as various tubs including whirlpool and jetted varieties. Murals of city scenes decorate the walls of the alcove, painted by the niece of one of the wholesaler's plumbing contractor customers.
“We like to show high end product for profitability,” Higgason says. “We find it attracts more customers.”
Pavone adds, “When people see the higher end products they may go up to a step below what we show, but it is still a higher price point than what they originally planned to order.”
Customers want to see the best available and are aware that they can always step down to the next lower price point if necessary, Higgason notes.
“If they are taking the time to come here, they don't want to see the builder's grade of product,” Pavone says. “They are usually looking to move up.”
Company HistoryFrank Higgason, father to Robert and Rich Higgason, who now co-own the company, bought National Plumbing & Heating Supply as an existing business in 1967, when the previous owner decided to leave the business. Previously, Frank Higgason had been in business with his brother-in-law - they owned Gateway Supply for 18 years.
Higgason opened a 25,000-sq.-ft. branch in Libertyville, Ill., in 1972 and another branch in Crystal Lake, Ill., in 1977. The Crystal Lake facility is 20,000 sq. ft. with a 1500-sq.-ft. showroom.
In 1985 National Plumbing & Heating Supply acquired Northwest Supply, also based in Chicago. Northwest was merged into National in March 1999.
Frank Higgason retired in 1999.
Rich Higgason manages the Libertyville branch as well as being co-owner of the business. Brian Burns is assistant manager at the Libertyville location.
John Ringler is manager of the Crystal Lake branch and Sarah Parfrey manages the showroom there.
Robert Higgason's sons, Bobby and Mike, also are involved in the company. Bobby, who will be a junior in college, works for the family business during the summer. Mike, who has a degree in marketing, handles marketing for the company and also helps with quotes, purchasing, inventory so he can learn the whole business.
At company headquarters, Matt Stawiarski is MIS manager and Ann Gillmeister is office manager.
Showroom OperationsRobert Higgason says theirs is the only Kohler distributor showroom in the city of Chicago. Other Kohler showrooms in the area are operated by contractors or are retail showrooms.
“Our showroom is a sales tool for the plumbing contractor,” Pavone says. “They don't have to do anything. We will make up a list of what the contractor's customer wants and then everything is billed through the plumbing contractor.”
In addition, National does some retail sales and some Web site sales, (www.nphsc.com), Higgason says. The wholesaler's Web site has links to some of its vendors including Kohler, Grohe, Moen, Elkay.
The showroom is open by appointment but its posted hours are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
CompetitionThe showroom faces competition from Home Depot and Lowe's in Skokie and from another wholesaler, Crawford Supply in Morton Grove, Ill.
“We compete with service and product knowledge,” Pavone says. “Customer service is following the order from A to Z from the time it is placed to delivery. It also means including all of the necessary parts in the order. Then we make sure delivery is on time.
“As part of servicing our customers we do a submittal book,” Pavone says. “If I have a custom house, I will create a whole book with color pictures and spec sheets. If they need installation instructions, they are included. I make three books, one for the homeowner, one for the plumber, one for the contractor. They can refer to it. It is categorized by room. We have received a lot of positive response to that. It takes a lot of time to assemble.”