Customer service, employee training and integrated design distinguish showroom operations.  

Klaff’s showrooms feature a number of beautifully designed displays. This modern kitchen’s breakfast bar uses a mixture of concrete and glass for a unique look (Scarsdale, NY, showroom). Photos courtesy of Klaff’s

I love writing about showrooms forSupply House Times! I get to communicate with lots of folks, I’m able to find out what’s happening out there and, most importantly, I get to share all this information with you! Periodically we try to feature what we believe to be the very best showroom businesses in the United States. This month our featured showroom isKlaff’s, headquartered in South Norwalk, CT.

This has been an easy assignment for me since I’m very familiar with this outstanding business - and its Chairman and Chief Operating Officer Joe Passero. Joe has been/is a longtime friend. I have visited all but Klaff’s newest showroom in Scarsdale, NY, and have kept up to date with these great folks through Joe and General Manager Tim Murphy.         

Klaff’s is a family-run business led by (from left): Debbie Klaff Katz, treasurer; Joe Passero, chairman and COO; and Mollie Klaff Passero, president of Klaff’s.

Wholesaler Roots

First, a little history. Klaff’s is a 90-year-young business started in 1921 by Joe’s maternal grandparents, Joe and Mary Klaff. The business began originally as a pure plumbing wholesale distributor. When Joe and Mary Klaff passed their business on, they turned it over to their two daughters, Debbie Katz and Mollie Passero (Joe Passero’s aunt and mother, respectively).

I love this: They are both still active on a daily basis in helping run the business. Debbie Katz, 82, is in charge of accounts receivable and payable. Mollie Passero, 88, is the lighting buyer and merchandiser.

The company has four showroom locations: South Norwalk, Danbury, and Westport, CT, and Scarsdale, NY. Klaff’s also has two pure plumbing wholesale outlets, in South Norwalk and Danbury. The company employs 170 people, which is down from a high of 250 and up from a recent low of 160.

As the original owners, Joe and Mary Klaff grew the business into one of the very first full-service/all-product “home centers” in the country. They sold everything it would take to build or remodel a home.

In fact, immediately after World War II, Klaff’s sold a “complete home” package. These were known as “K Homes,” and hundreds of them still are occupied in the greater Norwalk area.

When Debbie Katz and Mollie Passero took over in the 1960s, they got out of the complete home center business and concentrated on kitchens, baths and lighting. Maury Passero, Mollie’s husband and Joe’s father, was very involved in their early success until his death in 1990.

Aqua and white-tiled walls give depth to a minimalistic-style bathroom. (Scarsdale showroom)

Showroom Departments

The first time I visited the South Norwalk showroom about 10 years ago, I was greeted by a uniformed security person in the parking lot. He wasn’t there as much for security as he was to help me find a spot in the 65-space parking lot. The place was packed.

I entered into a 33,000-sq.-ft. showroom that was divided into five separate product categories. After walking the complete store I had the impression, “If it’s made, they have it!”

Today Klaff’s still features five separate departments: Decorative Plumbing, Decorative Hardware, Lighting, Kitchens and Tile & Stone. Each department has its own highly trained sales staff.

The business breaks out as 80% “retail” and 20% wholesale. Of this retail business, 50% is to the trades (builders, architects and designers) and 50% is directly to the consumer.

Decorative Plumbing accounts for 35% of total sales. Lighting is next at 30% followed by Decorative Hardware at 15%. Kitchens and Tile & Stone follow at 10% each.

Sales in 2011 will exceed $40 million. This figure is down from a high of about $60 million before the economy took a nosedive.

Please pay attention to this: The company has a gross-profit margin of approximately 40%! Yes, this is an extremely well-run business.

You know how hard I preach a diversity of product, one-stop shopping and agross-profit margin of 40%+? These people are doing it. If the truth be known, I built the business model for my business, The Plumbery, very much after the Klaff’s model. (Don’t tell Joe!)

A view of the entrance to the showroom’s Tile Department in Scarsdale.

Integrated Design

I also have had the pleasure of visiting Klaff’s Danbury showroom. This is 12,000 sq. ft. of beautifully designed displays, harmoniously showcasing exquisite real lifestyle scenarios. Joe Passero told me the new Scarsdale store (15,000 sq. ft. of showroom) surpasses the two mentioned above.

I asked who was responsible for the layout and design of the showrooms. Joe Passero, in his humble way, admitted he was, along with his team and an in-house computer-aided design system. Virtually every vignette incorporates all the types of products Klaff’s sells. For example, a master bath would obviously show the decorative plumbing, but cabinetry, tile and/or stone, lighting, and some decorative door and cabinet hardware also would be displayed. That’s utilizing the power of integrated design.

The showrooms feature a number of working kitchen and bath products (spas, showers and even a lighting lab). The showrooms offer a true hands-on experience.

A French Coutry-style master bath “for her” in Klaff’s Greenwich, CT, Designer Showhouse.

In 2010, the company introduced its own brand of kitchen and bath cabinetry called - what else - Klaff’s Professional and Signature Collections.

A couple of years ago, I had a brief moment when I thought I might start a new business being the importer and distributor of a variety of accessory items. Not towel bars and toilet paper holders, but great quality towels, robes, wastebaskets, tissue boxes, maybe even soaps and fragrances. I tried to talk two of my daughters into doing the business with me in the background. We would sell wholesale to nice folks like you. Neither daughter had any interest, so the idea died.

But Klaff’s has a sixth department and dedicated space in the showrooms that does sell these products. I asked Joe Passero how these products did. “Great!” was his answer. If you ever have visited a Waterworks store, you’ll see these products there also. Sure, folks can buy these products at a number of other places, but why not from you while you have them as a captive audience in your store?

This French Provincial kitchen vignette features a delicately hand-painted ceramic tile backsplash, titled “Bon Appetite.” (Scarsdale showroom)

Klaff's Philosophy

I’ve told you before how important it is to have a great website in today’s competitive world. Check outwww.klaffs.comand you will see a really good one. I was especially impressed with the virtual tour of the showrooms and the several videos available for each product grouping. Take a moment and check these out and you’ll see why I rate Klaff’s as one of the very best showroom operations in our country.

Joe Passero’s personal philosophy for the business is “Klaff’s offers the widest selection of the world’s finest products with unmatched expertise and service - all under one roof!”

The company’s mission statement is: “Service is the foundation of our business.” And from everything I hear, Klaff’s management and employees “walk their talk.”

Klaff’s corporate offices and distribution center are located in South Norwalk and comprise a 54,000-sq.-ft. facility, which houses 35 employees.

The company is active in several industry associations including the Decorative Plumbing and Hardware Association and the National Kitchen and Bath Association. The company is active with the Chamber of Commerce in the towns where it has showrooms.

The bulk of the marketing is done via radio, newspaper and higher-end magazines. Recently Klaff’s has gone deep into social media, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The company regularly participates in designer show homes and currently is working withConnecticut Cottages and Gardensmagazine on The People’s Project, which is a remodel of several rooms of the governor’s mansion. The mansion is celebrating its 100th birthday, and Klaff’s is doing the men’s and women’s public restrooms. This is a $50,000 contribution.

Training obviously is a high priority. Joe told me Klaff’s tries to hire experienced people. They come up to full speed more quickly and bring job-related experience to the company. The company has a corporate training center, which is fully equipped with PowerPoint, projectors, etc. There are dinner training sessions at least once a month, and the vendor reps are continually doing training for all Klaff’s team members.

The company gives salespeople monthly and annual sales and gross profit goals. They are compensated on a salary plus incentive plus commission basis.

I wish space would allow me to share more about this fine company. Suffice it to say, I have visited hundreds of showrooms all across our fruited plains and Klaff’s, in my opinion, has some of the very nicest showrooms I’ve ever seenandis one of the best-run showroom businesses of which I’m aware. My hat’s off to Klaff’s!

If you’re ever in Connecticut or upstate New York, you owe it to yourself to pay Klaff’s a visit. In lieu of that, You, too, will be impressed!