Tapping commercial niche markets

Big profits come from big jobs.

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The jack-of-all-trades: able to complete any project and do it well—now that role is more marketable than ever.

In today’s highly competitive world, expanding your skills could be just what your lagging business needs. Some upholsterers are taking this sentiment to heart and finding work within smaller, sometimes overlooked commercial markets. Within these niches, they’ve found increased customer loyalty and have brought in a steady stream of work in the process. To help find the right fit for your business, four upholsterers from specialized commercial markets have shared experiences and tips on how to break in and find your niche.

Restaurant work

Nothing quite compares to a restaurant for a high-traffic environment. Furniture needs to be tough to stand up to the constant wear and tear of this around-the-clock industry. Restaurant owners want quality work, and they want it done quickly—time, literally, is money. Luckily, shops such as Furniture Concepts, located in Malden, Mass., offers just that.

As president, Kevin McMahon oversees the 11-person shop catering to the restaurant, designer and hotel industries. The shop does everything from renovations for restaurants and hotels, construction, refurbishing of existing pieces and completion of high-end designer work.

McMahon initially decided to focus his business on these niche markets when he noticed a huge market in his area that needed to be serviced. Instead of traditional advertising, McMahon contacted businesses to explain what his shop could do for them. Now he relies solely on repeat business and word-of-mouth advertising.

“If you treat them fairly, give them a fair price and a good product, they will come back to you,” McMahon says. He stresses the importance of service and offering quality products in order to keep customers coming back.

Turn-around time is critical when working with restaurants. The quicker you can have pieces back, the better. Some shops will work at night to have items ready by morning. “We will pick up during their off hours or a day when they are closed, so they are not without seating,” McMahon says. “We can pick up a dozen chairs at 8 a.m. and have them back by 11 a.m.” It is not uncommon to encounter customers who do not close, so being able to work around their schedule will set your business apart.

In order to accomplish the quick turn-around needed for this niche market, shops need adequate human resources and the appropriate equipment. “You have to take the product out, turn it around and bring it back,” McMahon says. “It eliminates so many of the smaller shops because they just aren’t able to do it.”

Becoming familiar with your city’s fire codes is beneficial. McMahon says customers are typically looking for someone that knows the fire codes so there won’t be future problems with the fire department. Periodically, McMahon will send a full-sized piece to the GovMark Organization in Farmingdale, N.Y., for a full-scale burn test to make sure everything meets the California Technical Bulletin 133 (CAL TB 133) fire code.

McMahon notes that you never know when a job well done for a business might bring in other work. “When you work for people, they intertwine and interconnect,” McMahon says. “You might just end up renovating the house of the general manager.”

Hotel stay

Hotel furniture is likely not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of quality pieces. Many times, managers simply import the cheapest, blandest furniture available and throw pieces away instead of repairing. Upholsterers, though, are reaching out and showing hotels just what adding quality pieces can do for their business.

One such upholsterer is Seth Emtage. Along with his brother, Jerry, Emtage oversees Queen Anne Upholstery in Seattle, Wash., a shop committed to producing high-quality pieces. In addition to residential and other commercial work, their shop handles any type of furniture repair or upholstery service hotels may need, from guest rooms to lobbies, common areas, restaurants and banquet areas.

Emtage says the commercial side has allowed the business to grow at a steady pace and keep a great crew through the ups and downs of the residential market. “If residential is slow, commercial is usually busy, or vice-versa,” Emtage says.

Emtage warns that this niche market might not be for everyone. “You have to be structured, organized, and disciplined, as schedule timelines are very important and capital is required, as these are not typically cash-on-delivery orders,” Emtage says. The size of your shop is an important factor before tackling this market. “This should only be considered if you have a good-sized, reliable crew,” Emtage says. He warns that the demands will overpower an upholsterer’s ability to serve existing customers.

One of the challenges Emtage has encountered is convincing hotel managers to go with upholstery instead of buying new. “This can be a new concept for some,” Emtage says. “They have to see past the initial cheaper price of buying inferior quality imported furniture that in the long run will cost them more money and much more inconvenience and down time.”

When working with hesistant managers, Emtage has found that showing them items that can be repaired, as opposed to those needing to be fully re-upholstered, often leads to return work. Getting your business’ foot in the door with these smaller repairs can highlight your services. “Once we have done a few jobs for a manager, it almost always becomes a long-term working relationship,” Emtage says. “In most cases if they move on to a different hotel or restaurant, they will continue working with us there as well.”

Cruise control

In the boating industry, it doesn’t get much bigger than a cruise ship. And the same might be said for a marine upholsterer. Securing a cruise ship renovation can offer upholsterers a long-term project that employs a variety of skills. For Krisha Plauche, the principal designer for Onboard Interiors, a Marblehead, Mass., shop specializing in marine interiors, her recent entry into the cruise ship market proved to be a business success.

Unlike smaller, private jobs, there are more hoops to jump through. Instead of dealing with one owner, there are often several people or corporations responsible for the boats. “It wasn’t meeting with the boat owner, it was meeting with the corporation,” Plauche says. “Everyone has to sign off: the boat captain, captain of the business and corporate owners.”

A major difference in cruise ship work is that you are working with a longer period of time, yet with tight deadlines. The approval process can be long, and Plauche says you generally have about a month to do the job. Planning ahead is essential because when the boat is in dry dock, it has to be taken out of commission. “You have to be sure the project has been approved and the products are there,” Plauche says.

In one month, a crew of four from Onboard Interiors tackled the challenge of renovating a casino cruise ship. When it was all said and done, they replaced the ship’s carpet, renovated slot machines, dining cars, exterior seats, benches, chairs, produced several upholstery pieces and created draperies, which were fixed to the walls.

Plauche recommends keeping the scale of the project to prevent future problems from arising. “You have to be educated in the space, as the spaces are large. You have to have transitional hallways and carpet areas,” Plauche says. “So be conscious of the area. Will there be a hallway? Will anything be covered by furniture? Make sure the designs are appropriate for the boat. Do your research.”

On top of that, regulations for cruise ships are tight. “The most difficult part of it is getting all of the information for the Coast Guard rating,” Plauche says. “Everything has to be approved.”

When first starting out, Plauche suggests researching contact people in the business and sending them a portfolio. Starting with smaller entertainment ships, such as riverboats or sightseeing boats, can also help you get your feet wet before moving on to bigger projects. “The first one you do, there is such a huge learning curve,” Plauche says. “But once you have paved the way, it gets a little easier because you know the avenues.”

Health care options

While many industries across the country continue to wane, the health care industry remains steadily on the rise. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, health care will generate 3.2 million new wage and salary jobs between 2008 and 2018, more than any other industry. For upholsterers this means a chance to take advantage and lend their skills to this growing industry.

Chris Kallem of Upholstery Specialties in Scandia, Minn., has been specializing in upholstery for the health care industry for over 23 years, after seeing a need for upholsterers in the field. “Many upholsterers do household items and cars,” Kallem says, “but not many do the health industry.” Nowadays, the small family-owned business works mainly in dental offices, working with dental chairs, stools and other office furniture.

Much like other niche markets, the health care field requires a quick turn-around time. As cancelling patients is costly, and the equipment is almost always in use, upholsterers have to be willing to complete an entire office in only a day or weekend. “We are always on a time crunch,” Kallem says. “But through the years, we’ve mastered those problems.”

One way Kallem recommends handling tight deadlines is to reuse previous patterns. “After years of upholstering dental chairs, we have obtained many patterns,” Kallem says. “The repeat of the same dental chairs allows us to work quickly and be in and out of the office in hours, rather than days.”

Kallem’s largest challenge has been to let area businesses know about his services. To get the word out, the shop mainly relies on word-of-mouth and mass mailings. “We usually get a pretty good response from our mailings,” Kallem says. “We just kept working away at it. Hours of hard work and advertising soon pay off.” Kallem says that once you have gained customers’ confidence, often they will keep calling back.

When working in the health care field, you also have to be able to go with the flow and adopt new techniques. “The market is constantly changing,” Kallem says. “You no sooner learn a new technique and something else comes along.” But Kallem says these skills carry over and can help boost your expertise as an upholsterer. “The strength and ability that has come from certain projects soon expands onto others later.”

New techniques many times come in the form of custom items. Kallem enjoys the challenge of working with businesses to identify customer needs and help craft custom pieces often requested for the comfort of the patients. For those looking to find their own specialized market, Kallem suggests finding something different. “There is always a need for something out of the ordinary,” Kallem says. “It might be airplanes, or chiropractic tables, but find your niche and stick to it.”

Expanding your skills into a commercial niche market can help to bring in new customers and keep them coming back to your shop. You won’t be limiting yourself to just one market either. New knowledge and techniques can cross industries and help to make you—and your business—more marketable. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box; you never know where you just might find your niche.

Mara Whitten is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis, Minn.


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