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The Casa Darlington roundtable crew, from left: Kim Frechette, Paula Mueller, Faye Norton, Hank Darlington, Marilyn Hermance, Kathy Fennema and Cynthia Carter. Photo courtesy of Hank Darlington.

This is an article I’ve been looking forward to doing for the past several months. It’s different! It’s insightful and the meat of it comes from five industry veterans. Here’s a short synopsis of how this all-star roundtable with five pillars of our industry came about.

My wife, Carol, and I own a home in a small fishing village in Baja Sur, Mexico. We’ve enjoyed living there part-time over the past 18 years. It’s safe, it’s beautiful and the kayaking, fishing, snorkeling, scuba diving and exploring are all outstanding.

Several years ago Carol and I helped start a college scholarship fund as part of the Decorative Plumbing and Hardware Association where we’ve helped raise more than $70,000 via bicycle rides and auctioning off (at DPHA’s annual conference) time at the above mentioned casa. In April, six women who do an annual getaway arrived in Los Barriles, Baja Sur and took over Casa Darlington. I moved into a neighbor’s guest house for the week, but had the pleasure of being a tour guide and showed these energetic gals how to kayak, snorkel, ride quads and where to find the best eating spots. We all had a ball!

Not to miss an opportunity to talk shop and share industry insights, we all sat down with a glass of wine and my list of questions with the goal of creating this fun and informative article. I think we accomplished our goal. See if you don’t agree. Allow me to introduce these super women:

Faye Norton was the founder and owner of Designer Hardware by Faye in Oklahoma City. The business started in 1982 and grew to a 6,000-sq.-ft. showroom featuring decorative plumbing and hardware products. Faye sold her business in January.

Marilyn Hermance is the founder and owner of Westheimer Plumbing, a 9,000-sq.-ft. showroom in Houston. Her son,Doug Hermance, is the current Forte buying group president and was featured in the March issue of Supply House Times. Marilyn’s original business was custom accessories where she was a true pioneer in the industry, opening her first showroom in 1979.

Kathy Fennema, is the owner, along with husband, Bob Fennema, of Santa Fe by Design in Santa Fe, N.M. The company was started in 2002 and now operates a 4,000-sq.-ft. showroom.

Kim Frechette is the Eastern regional manager of Thermasol and is a 23-year veteran working for three different manufacturers of great products for our great industry.

Cynthia Carter is the owner, along with her brother, Kevin, of Next Generation Marketing, an independent rep firm covering Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas.

Throw in yours truly and there was more than 150 years of experience sitting around the table overlooking the beautiful Sea of Cortez. The following is a summary of our very spirited, opinionated, insightful and fun two-hour conversation. 

Hank: What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the showroom business the past 30 years?

Faye: The emergence of the kitchen and bath as the most important rooms in the home. The original 5-by-8
bath where folks spent as little time as possible has grown into a sanctuary of health and fitness. Following that same line, we now see kitchens opened up to be the focal point of the home.

Marilyn: When I opened my first showroom there were only three major decorative faucet lines: Artistic Brass, Phylrich and Broadway Collection. Today there are hundreds! The availability of beautiful decorative products for baths and kitchens has grown 100-fold in the past 30 years.

Kim: When I started traveling the country, the independent dealers were the dominate players in many areas. Today there is a nice mix of well-run wholesaler showrooms and independents, and both have learned to be pretty good marketers of the great products available to them.

Faye: With so many new manufacturers and products, the showroom salespeople had to become much more knowledgeable than they were back in the beginning. It’s my perception that there now are a lot more women in the industry than there were even 15 years ago. Our industry use to be male-dominated and that’s not true anymore.

Marilyn: With all the styles, colors, finishes, etc., changing all the time, we have had to become stronger in the area of design in order to help our clients.

Cynthia: The look of the showrooms also has changed. It used to be all manufacturer boxes and boards. Today, many showrooms are going to their own displays, which create much more continuity. Plus, many products are being grouped together by style and price point – not by manufacturer.

Kathy: In just the 12 short years that I’ve owned my business we’ve seen the introduction of bathroom furniture, lighting and tile as products we now display and sell. It adds to the all-important sales revenue and gross profit margin figures. 

Then, they all chimed in at once, “Don’t forget the Internet.” We proceeded to beat this topic around pretty good. I think it even prompted us to open another bottle of wine! Everyone agreed the Internet is a tough competitor and you have to learn how to “sell” your value and make sure the client knows why doing business with you is smarter, and in many cases, more cost-effective in the long run.

Marilyn made a valid statement, “If you’re going to spend plus or minus three hours with a client, you should have plenty of time to convince them doing business with you is much smarter and safer than doing business with the unknown entity of the Internet.”


Hank: Luxury products for the kitchen and bath have almost become the norm. Do you think this trend will last?

Cynthia: Absolutely (everyone agreed with her answer). The trend might have started with the boomers and folks with more money, but now almost everyone wants the master bath, powder room and kitchen to be the focal points of their homes. The size of homes may be trending downward, but the amenities that go in them will continue to grow and be popular.


Hank: What are the most effective means of marketing your showroom business today?

Marilyn:You must have a great website. This is the first place clients will go to see what options might be available to them.

Faye: I hired a young, savvy marketing director and she has put our company out in front of everyone else by updating our website, getting us involved with several social media sites and doing a once-a-month event in the showroom. We have more buzz circulating about our business than ever before.

Kathy: I agree with both Marilyn and Faye, but in addition to that we continue to advertise in several high-end designer-oriented magazines. Santa Fe is a smaller community and we’re fortunate to be known as the “go-to” place for both kitchen and bath products.


Hank: What trends are you seeing in products and how showrooms are being built?

Kim and Cynthia: The current style seems to be transitional, a nice combination of the older traditional look and the more European contemporary look. White continues to be the favorite color for fixtures, and antique brass seems to be making a comeback in the finish of faucets and accessories. Plus, we’re seeing more live displays in the showroom, especially with showers, tubs, kitchen faucets and even live-steam units.

Faye: I see more showrooms going to their own brand, meaning there are fewer manufacturer names being shown in the display areas. Also, flat-screen TVs and kiosks are starting to be used more to help educate the clients. Sales consultants are starting to use tablets while working with clients. The age of technology is here and you better be taking advantage of it.

Marilyn: Branded products that only one showroom will be able to show and sell in an area also is becoming more popular. We belong to Forte, a buying group for our type of products, and the group recently has come out with a line of faucets and accessories that only its members can access.


Hank: Along that line, how many of you belong to DPHA and why?

All five women said they not only belong to DPHA but are (and have been) active in various capacities since the inception of the organization some 10 years ago. The reasons why were unanimous: education, networking, raising the awareness of our industry to the consumer and elevating the overall quality of showrooms across America.

Finally, I asked the three women that own and operate showrooms what their gross profit margin on sales was. The answers were 42.5%; 41.2% and 40.7%. This is very impressive. I just wish more wholesaler showroom businesses would try and emulate these numbers. You’re investing more and more into your showrooms and you deserve to maximize that all-important return on investment.

I owe a big thank-you to these nice women for sharing their thoughts on our industry.

Before I sign off, and with egg on my face, I must apologize to the fine people at WinWholesale, Kohler, my bosses at Supply House Times and all of you for a very large mistake I made in my March 2014 article where I discussed the big changes taking place with Ferguson, Kohler, TOTO and others. I incorrectly stated WinWholesale signed a national sales agreement with Kohler to sell their products. This was not an accurate statement and I apologize to all concerned.