"Our customers always know there's never an issue of, Is it going to be good?" Fritz Ruhé explains. "It's going to be the best. No one they could have contracted with will do it better than we've done it."
Fritz and Catherine Ruhé are at the core of Ruhé's Window Coverings, a wholesale workroom with a handful of high-end designers; Sight and Sound Installation, an installation service; and Florida On-Site Dry Cleaning, a mostly commercial window treatment cleaning business that Ruhé sees as his biggest growth market beginning with the new year.
What makes each of these businesses so successful is a combination of things: natural talent, more than 20 years of experience, willingness to take the initiative, patience, uncompromising quality and unparalleled customer service and rapport.
"To me it's a very Biblical principle: putting others before yourself," Ruhé says. "Just servicing the people, being patient with them, finding out what they want, and delivering what they actually want has made our business very strong."
He adds, "I only know how to do things one way. My whole thing is serve, serve, serve. Do for others. That's just the way God wired me."
PLUS ONE PERCENT
The Ruhé's philosophy is based on and explained in Kenneth H. Blanchard's "Raving Fans, A Revolutionary Approach to Customer Service." It's based on three principles. First, decide what you want. "If you don't have a vision, then you don't have a goal. If you don't have a goal, then you don't have any plans," Ruhé explains. Second, find out what the customer wants. And third, deliver what the customer wants, plus one percent.
"What we're always doing in the installation business and the dry-cleaning business is asking what can we do for customers that they didn't even ask for, but do it for them anyway," Ruhé says.
To illustrate, Ruhé tells of an installation during which the customer mentioned her husband was having difficulty putting together a new crib. Ruhé pulled out a wrench and put the crib together before installing a bed skirt. The customer was delighted and asked how much he wanted for doing that. He told her, "Don't worry about it. We did your window treatments, you'll pay us handsomely as you will see, but we just wanted to do this for you."
Sometimes, this level of customer service requires a great deal of patience and an ability to talk with clients. On one installation at a new, very large house, the customer was being particularly difficult. When he delivered the custom draperies, the women didn't like what she saw. She threatened to cancel the job and payment. On one level her threats didn't matter to Ruhé, he was doing the install for a designer who pays him for the installation whether the client likes the treatment or not. "But my job at that point is very important," he explains. "Our philosophy is never come back from a job without hanging the job and leaving it there because in the long run the customer will end up liking it anyway."
The secret, Ruhé says, is to be patient and help customers "come back to earth. We're talking about draperies here. We're not talking about life and death. We're able to bring a calm to the situation."
As it turned out, after the woman saw the completed installation she thought the treatment was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.
NIGHT AND DAY
The beautiful custom window treatments created by Ruhé's Window Coverings are the doing of Catherine Ruhé who has been working in the industry for 25 years. "She's the brains of the operation," Fritz Ruhé says. "She can take anything, give her a picture and say here are the measurements for my window and she is able to manufacture it. She has a real gift."
That gift is part natural talent, part inheritance and part experience from working with her parents, who started the first custom fabricating and window treatment installing business in Tampa in 1965. Catherine Ruhé began with retail sales, mostly working out of customers' homes. But she always like to sew and decided she would rather work on fabricating.
As the family business grew, Catherine found herself at a crossroads with so many jobs requested of her. Fritz suggested she work wholesale only for designers. She followed his advice with a great personal initiative and soon Ruhé's Window Coverings began leapfrogging beyond anything that had come before.
One of Ruhé's early designer clients worked with a major home builder in the Tampa area. That connection got them involved in the area's Street of Dreams in which builders construct spec homes to showcase what they can do and contract with designers to do all the interiors. Ticket receipts are then donated to charity. The first year the Ruhés did two model homes. "These are huge, over 50,000-square-foot houses," Fritz Ruhé says.
The Street of Dreams homes receive a lot of publicity in newspapers and magazines, and the Ruhés reputation began to build largely by word of mouth and based on the quality of their work. Some of Catherine's work has since been featured in regional magazines such as Florida Designs. Now, the Ruhés are regulars on the Street of Dreams. "We do all the fabrication of window treatments, upholstery, headboards, canopies and quite a number of things for many of these homes."
As the Ruhé's reputation grew, so did the scope of their projects. The two recently completed work on a $6 million home in which "everything is motorized," Ruhé says. "The difference between what we were doing 10, 15 years ago versus now is just night and day."
Back in those early days, Catherine Ruhé took on several new designer clients in order to build her workroom business. With a few long-time exceptions, her client list has been somewhat whittled down to mostly all high-end designers. The interaction between Ruhé and her designer clients is at a very high level. They all know what to expect of each other, and often a designer will seek Ruhé's advice on a treatment.
Developing this type of relationship requires demanding the best quality possible and getting paid accordingly. "There's no doubt about it that we probably are the most expensive workroom there is," says Fritz Ruhé. "But in doing that, we've eliminated a lot of customers who wouldn't pay our prices. It's part of the 'Raving Fans' philosophy. I'll do anything for you to help you get done what needs to get done, but you're going to pay me to do it. Again, we'll do it second to none."
PAST AND FUTURE
For much of the past 25 years or so Fritz Ruhé has been involved in window coverings on a part-time basis having followed his own varied career path. His "past life" has included training in his own family's craft of cartography, he was a property appraiser and for several years worked as a sound engineer for music concerts, which had Ruhé travelling the country with The Beach Boys. He even continues today as a church leader and pastor.
But for much of that time he helped his father-in-law with installations. "I'd be helping with the bigger jobs, getting up on scaffolding and extension ladders and so on," he says. After his father-in-law's death, Ruhé became more involved in the business and together, he and Catherine have expanded it well beyond what it once was. "Organization and training are my strengths, where design and being the artistic one are Catherine's strengths so we accentuate each other in a very good way," he adds.
In the past two years the company has doubled its output, expanded in scope and added staff. The workroom now has six full-time employees, many of whom have been with the Ruhés for several years—one woman started with Catherine's mother and father. The workroom also is a regular stop for classes from a local technical school, which visit Ruhé's Window Coverings on field trips.
In the past two years, Ruhé also has added in-home cleaning of draperies, alternate window treatments and upholstery. Beginning the first of the year, his goal will be to make Florida On-Site Dry Cleaning the biggest part of the business, and its biggest source of growth. "Right now we are servicing our customers really well," Ruhé says, adding the company is getting calls now from across the state including Fort Lauderdale and Miami.
Sometimes, Ruhé explains, residential customers at first are taken aback at the cost of having their window treatments cleaned. He just explains to them that in relation to what they originally paid for the custom treatment, it might be 10 percent of that total to make them look like the day they were fist installed. Ruhé plans to set up a company Web site so that customers can price out the cleaning costs on their own based on the number of vanes, pleats or square feet before contacting the company.
Ruhé's thrust, however, will be into the commercial cleaning market. He already has some clients with considerable cachet such as Sak's Fifth Avenue and beach hotels including the Hyatt. He has trained several people to do the cleaning, including his nephew Dennis Trujillo, and has five currently working with him. With added equipment, Ruhé plans to cover commercial jobs over a larger area of the state while scheduling residential jobs for those same areas when his crew is there.
To get this end of the business off to a strong start, Ruhé is not above doing some work gratis. "People want to see what you are capable of doing, so with those we actually go to them and say, 'Let's do some work for you, it won't cost you anything and you can tell us what you think,'" he says.
There's little question the company's newest commercial clients will end up like its current customers and rave about Ruhé's work. It's the logical result of Fritz's and Catherine's guiding principle: "Make every effort to do the best quality work that's possible."