Central Plumbing Specialties’ Grande Central Showroom uses art to showcase plumbing products.

Standing in front of the 56th St. Grande Central showroom are (L-R) manager Gregory Smith, Jennifer Lawson, Caroline Colon, Aja Wright and Kim Sales.

The new two-story, 4,000-sq.-ft. Grande Central showroom on 56th Street in Manhattan, in the heart of the design district, is intended to be different from the typical plumbing wholesaler’s showroom. Upon entering and before reaching the reception desk, the visitor encounters “Sierra Cascades,” an original collectible print of waterfalls in California signed by photographer Peter Lik. It measures 80 inches by 27 inches vertically and looks so real that the wholesaler installed a fountain from Stone Forest to enhance its impact with sound effects.

Throughout the showroom, various art elements accentuate the beauty of the plumbing products and create the sense of walking through an art gallery. For example, instead of tiling in the two-wall installation of a Duravit bathtub, the wholesaler surrounds it with a color photo of a beautiful flower that measures more than 10 feet by 5 feet. A Wet Style vignette is wrapped in the company’s signature goldfish print and other art elements that complement the highly stylized products.

“We have had positive feedback from sales reps and others who have been to other showrooms in New York,” says Howard Frankel, president of parent company Central Plumbing Specialties, New York City.

Opened in December, this showroom was designed to “blur the lines between high-end artistic kitchen and bath products and other art,” according to Frankel. Grande Central views art and design as being the basis for every beautiful functioning element in the bath and kitchen, he says.

Branding Grande Central

In this showroom the company tried to allocate more space to individual product displays so people can enjoy them from a distance, Frankel notes.

“We don’t want to make the mistake that many showrooms do of packing in more items to maximize choice, but then minimize effect,” he says.

“We all have this same battle daily as lines are added and dealer requirements make it harder to control your own showroom space,” he continues. “We have adopted the philosophy that no manufacturers can dictate the space that we own or rent unless they want to buy it.”

Although Frankel says they are Westchester County’s largest stocking distributor of American Standard, the showroom does not post prices, manufacturer logos or vendor product numbers.

“It would be hard to walk in there and identify the manufacturers on display,” Frankel says. “Although we are proud of the lines we carry, in this showroom the brand is Grande Central. We did not use any display aids from the manufacturers. Most of the vendors only became aware of our new showroom when they received the purchase orders. It cost Central a lot more to remain independent, but at the end of the day to have a completely uniquely designed showroom in the heart of the design district in Manhattan was the overriding concern.”

All of the company’s showrooms have moved away from fully decked-out vignettes, although there are small samples of installed tubs, toilets and lavs arranged, which helps customers create the look they want.

Howard Frankel (left), co-owner and president, with Eugene Bassani, manager of the Park Ave. wholesale facility, in the Park Ave. showroom.

“We appreciate the beauty and individuality of each piece we show and try to put together a unique look, not one we chose from a picture book,” Frankel says. “We let the customer mix and match and guide him or her to a beautiful, functional and personal result.

“Understanding the connection today between art, design and style has changed the way showrooms now sell a white toilet versus what we did in the past,” he comments. “When you sell products from companies such as Duravit, Villeroy & Bach, Lacava and others with European design, it becomes apparent that we are no longer selling the toilet of yesterday. Now customers can choose a toilet based on performance, water-savings or type of installation, such as floor or wall-mounted, or an inside-the-wall installation such as Geberit’s toilet,” he says. Each of the company’s Manhattan showrooms has one of the in-wall mounted toilets installed in a working bathroom so customers can see it in action.

“We want our showrooms to have displays that make it a destination - from art to working KWC faucets with LED lights and water, to functioning steam showers, aromatherapy, chromatherapy, mirrors with DVD players, and tubs and showers with iPod connections and high-quality speakers,” Frankel says.

The midtown showroom also has a flat-screen monitor with recent movies to entertain children while their parents shop.

A tailored mix

The product mix at this location varies somewhat from what the company’s three other showrooms offer, based on the style and taste of area customers. This midtown Manhattan showroom features both traditional and contemporary styles as well as transitional, Frankel says.

“You will see some products by the main brands we carry in all of the showrooms, but it is not likely you will see the exact same product in different showrooms or the same exact display,” he notes.

Because the company’s three Manhattan showrooms are within an easy commute of one another, if a certain product or manufacturer is on display at another location, the customer can visit the other showroom to see it.

Art dominates the entrance to the 56th showroom.

Driving traffic

Both this showroom and the one on Bond Street have ground-floor entrances and a second, lower level. Both have receptionists at the ground floor entrance.

The wholesaler has tried to place all of its Grande Central showrooms at ground level to encourage drop-in traffic. The idea is to attract customers with an enticing window display as they pass by the open front door.

The "Sierra Cascades" original collectible print of waterfalls in California signed by photographer Peter Lik.

Employee support

Central Plumbing Specialties partners with individual manufacturers to provide product knowledge training for its sales staff on Thursday evenings if time permits.  When possible, staff members are sent for training at a manufacturer’s plant. Also, alternating staff attend the Kitchen/Bath Industry Show each year.

What makes a successful showroom salesperson?  “We have hired staff based on word of mouth and previous experience,” Frankel notes. “We had surprising success hiring a car salesman, but less success when we hired someone from a local bar with a great personality but no experience. We have no preconceived notions when we interview.” 

The company’s business philosophy can be summed up in a quote from a book about the Ritz-Carlton chain,The New Gold Standard:“No company can be all things to all people, but it is possible for your organization to be all things to your customers.”

“It’s important to have your employees embrace its message in order to thrive in today’s tougher marketplace,” Frankel says.  “Understand who your customer is and be all to them.”

Left to right: Jennifer Lagana, Margaret Fogarasi, co-owner and VP Warren Frankel, Candace Tighe and showroom manager Sean Brainard at the Yonkers showroom.

The Green revolution

Grande Central showrooms views itself as a market leader in its displays and sales of dual-flush toilets and low-flow showerheads, Frankel says. Its Bond Street and 56th Street showrooms have working dual-flush toilets.

“As the market changes and manufacturers continue to produce good-looking and functioning HETs, demand will lead us to change from mostly 1.6 gallon-per-flush to more 1.28 gpf toilets,” he says. “We already stock and sell the 1.28 gpf products, but we are market driven. Our job is to make suggestions and work with customers’ desires.”

Small samples of fixtures grouped together help customers create the look they want.

Promoting the showroom

The wholesaler has advertised its showrooms in print ads both in New York City and Westchester and in the Yellow Pages. It has also used Internet sites as an information tool more than a sales vehicle.

“Never underestimate the value of positive word of mouth and proper frontage, window design and appropriate signage,” Frankel advises.

Industry expert and design trend analyst Ellen Cheever was the guest speaker at the opening of the Grande Central showroom on Park Ave. Grande Central has also hosted a successful evening event at the Duravit showroom in Manhattan.

Frankel says the company plans to have monthly events sponsored by different manufacturers targeting designers, architects and existing customers at the new showroom on 56th Street.

“We build business one order at a time,” he says. “We opened in midtown December 1 with no signs, fanfare or parties. We just opened the doors and focused on working out any glitches with all the new systems (computers/phones and assorted equipment) and training new employees. We wanted to get to a certain comfort level before moving forward, breaking even or making a profit.”

A grand opening party is being planned for April, when New York City has nice, reliable weather.

(L-R) Monica Persaud, Charlie Haxhaj, showroom manager Marietta Sermonetta (foreground), and Michael Gordon in the Bond Street Grande Central showroom.

DDI Connection

Central Plumbing Specialties views itself as a small independent and has enjoyed considerable growth over the past 15 years. It credits this to hard work by its management, owners and employees at every level; its commitment to making each entity function as a whole; and good luck, Frankel says.

“Some of that luck was realized early on when Adam Waller of DDI Systems was still working for his dad at Wal-Rich and was developing a computer program for our business,” he recalls. “We were one of his first working sites in 1995. He convinced us to expand beyond the one terminal we had at the time to three users. Now we have more than 60 users and more scheduled to come online this year, with more than 10 times the products that we tracked and sold back then. We realize that our growth could not have been accomplished without the technological advances that came with that changeover.” Warren Frankel has appeared in a DDI print ad.

“If I had one piece of advice to anyone thinking about starting a showroom today, it would be to make sure you are not undercapitalized,” Frankel says. “It takes deep pockets - even if all things go as planned - to create a showroom today. If you listen well to your customers, no construction goes as planned. Our showrooms have been no exception. We have paid in time and money and understand that right now going to your friendly local bank might not be an option, so be prepared for anything. If all goes well or you were prepared and weathered the storm, little is more satisfying than to see what you have built and making others’ dreams a reality.”

Darren Theodore and showroom manager Michelle Mackres in the Park Ave. Grande Central showroom.

Company History

Central Plumbing Specialties was started by brothers George and David Rashes before World War II and suspended during the war when both were deployed. The brothers reunited after the war and operated as Rashes Bros. until 1963, when it was incorporated as Central Plumbing Specialties in Manhattan. In 1984 the Rashes sold the business to Seymour (Frank) Frankel, who had been in the plumbing supply business since the late 1950s, and his partner. They operated this as a second location to their business in the Bronx. Each man had two sons to whom they left the business when they both retired in 1989. The two businesses split up in 1994 and Frankel’s sons, Warren and Howard, took control of Central Plumbing Specialties in Manhattan.

In 1995 Central purchased the location where I. Burack Plumbing Supply (a major Westchester wholesaler) had closed. This became its Yonkers facility with a warehouse and later that year, a counter sales area, a 3,000-sq.-ft. showroom and offices. At 40,000 sq. ft., it soon became the main distribution center for the company’s heating and plumbing/showroom lines. Warren Frankel ran the Yonkers facility with managers Bobby Flores and CFO Barry Rosenblum.

In June 2000, Seymour Frankel passed away at age 76. The sons attribute the continued success of their business to their father’s emphasis on honest hard work.

In 2002, when two adjacent storefronts became available on Park Ave., Grande Central Showroom on Park opened as a stand-alone showroom, which won First Place for “Most Innovative Showroom or Use of Displays” from a design industry publication in 2003. The Park Ave. showroom manager is Michelle Mackres.

The company acquired Lexington Plumbing Supply, an 80-plus-year-old family-run business in the Bronx, in 2003. Central also added 14,000 sq. ft. of rental warehouse space in Yonkers for additional inventory to support the expansion. 

The 3,000-sq.-ft. Bond Street Grande Central showroom was added in 2005, the first that was not attached in some way to a wholesale location. Marietta Sermonetta is the manager.

In 2008 Grande Central Showrooms was honored by the Forte Buying Group with an “Outstanding Performance” award for the largest growth of purchases from manufacturers within the group.

Central acquired a 10-acre site in Rockland County in December 2008 and made the 40,000-sq.-ft. building there its new central warehouse and distribution center, closing the 14,000-sq.-ft. rental facility in Yonkers. The company purchased a car dealership, Jim Smith Chevrolet, added seven garage bays and plans to open a wholesale counter and showroom there.

The newest Grande Central showroom opened in December 2009 and is managed by Gregory Smith. Having already achieved success in North and South Manhattan, this opportunity to operate in midtown was too good to pass up, even in the unsure economy, Howard Frankel says. Its “Grande” opening party will be April 1.

One of Grande Central showroom's bathroom vignettes.

Company At A Glance:

Wholesale business:Central Plumbing Specialties, New York City. Three wholesale locations: Westchester, the Bronx and Manhattan.

Showroom business:Grande Central Showrooms. Four locations in New York: Yonkers, 3,000 sq. ft. within the wholesale location; Park Ave., Manhattan, 750 sq. ft. adjacent to a wholesale location; Bond St., Manhattan, 3,000 sq. ft. on two levels with a ground floor walk-in and one level down; 56th Street, Manhattan, 4,000 sq. ft. and two levels. All but one of the showrooms are open for some time on Saturdays in addition to regular weekday hours and some have evening hours once a week.

Executive team:Howard Frankel, president; Warren Frankel, VP; Barry Rosenblum, CFO.

Employees:60, including 15 full-time for showrooms.

Buying group memberships:The Forte Buying Group, Luxury Products Group, Omni.