In 1980 Gober started building vertical blinds in Orlando. In 1985 he moved the company to Jacksonville and began building two-inch horizontal products—back when they had to have all the equipment designed for them because so few others were fabricating the equipment just wasn’t there. During numerous expansions since then, shade products were added and then three lines of shutters. “We now build about 1,000 window treatments a week, 80 percent of that we actually fabricate ourselves,” Gober
All of this is done out of one 35,000-square-foot manufacturing and retail facility with some 70 employees. You see, All About Blinds & Shutters is a one-store operation. It’s probably the largest single-store retailer/fabricator in the nine-state Southeast region—possibly the largest “one store retail chain” in the nation under one roof.
That translates into at least a $5 million-a-year business. Its success is built on customer service, longevity, hard work, maintaining control over products and sales, innovative marketing—and frugality. “We’ve never lived beyond our means. We don’t owe anybody money,” Gober says. “Our facility is paid for. All our stock is paid for. All our vehicles are paid for. We don’t want that burden of debt hanging over our heads, so every day when we come in here we’re not worried about paying our bills.” The title of this article comes from what Gober says he wants as his epitaph. “I want to go out of this not owing anybody a penny.”
But let’s not forget a little self-deprecating honesty, either. “We have done a lot of stupid things over the years,” Gober admits, “but ultimately our hard work and our service toward the customer has been the key to our success.”
SERVICE EQUALS SALES
“Service, to us, is really king,” says Gober. “The one major job I keep for myself in the shop is to go through every service call every day to understand what’s happening with products—what’s going wrong, who’s calling us back, and reviewing to see who the customer is. We have products that come in from 20 years ago, and we will still service them. If it’s warranted, we’ll fix it for free in the shop. Most companies aren’t in business long enough in this industry to do that.”
To maintain his firsthand knowledge of products and customers Gober then hits the road for the rest of the day. “I take four or five appointments a day, so I’m on the front lines every day,” he says.
His work ethic, however, comes from seeing his mother and father struggle with a paint and wall covering store, which taught him an important lesson. “If you’re just going to resell products, you’re going to get your lunch handed to you. You’ve got to pump labor in something.”
That’s what got Gober started fabricating, and the result has been years of experience well beyond anyone else close to his market. In fact, Gober boasts that the top five people at All About Blinds & Shutters, including himself, represent 100 years of total experience. “The experience factor blows competition away,” he says.
And it doesn’t seem to matter where that competition comes from. “Our buying power is large enough now that we can build a shutter for a low enough price point that by the time we burden it with labor, we might be slightly less than what we can import it for and just resell it.”
Gober also knows that with his long-term approach to the business, service equals sales. “We’ve been in business such a long time, our clientele is a who’s who now in this area. The professional golf tour is located here, so most of your PGA stars are all customers of ours. We have a very nice, high-end customer on the shutter end of the business, and that’s typically going to be your customer with shutters: houses in the $250,000-plus range. Under $250,000, there are chances that you are going to do whole houses full of shutters—we’ve put them in mobile homes before—but that customer is typically going to be on a very tight budget and you might do a couple windows in the house in shutters and the rest of the windows in the house will be in blinds.”
IF YOU BUILD IT . . .
Actually, no more than 40 percent of All About Blinds & Shutters’ business is in custom shutters, but it’s a profitable part. “In shear numbers of product, we build more two–inch horizontal blinds than any other product that we sell. In shear dollars, the shutters definitely match the two-inch products, if not exceed them, yet we’re talking about building many fewer a week,” Gober explains. “There are probably 30 percent more bodies in the shutter department than there are in the two-inch department building one-third the amount of product. [Shutters] are labor-intensive if you’re going to do them properly.”
Gober saw the interest in shutters coming, but didn’t feel comfortable at first building custom wood shutters that had to be built within a sixteenth-of-an-inch tolerance. So he started building hollow vinyl shutters: “Cut-and-dry, squared panels, no finishing required. We cut our teeth on that for about a year,” he says.
Since then, step-by-step, he took on more control of building custom shutters. First came the popularity of brow-top, slant-top and arch-top windows. As long as he was working in solid materials—wood or solid vinyl—the panel rails could be curved or angled to fit any window. But once he got into specialty shapes he found he had to begin applying his own finish—there’s just no way to match the finish of a custom component to a pre-finished panel. It made more sense, then, to just finish the whole panel himself. That’s when All About Blinds & Shutters began ordering raw goods and forming its own panels and doing its own finishing.
It’s also a control thing. To do custom products right, you have to control all the details and, except for custom draperies, few other products have as many details as shutters.
“If you get five windows in the same room, one window is 59 inches long, one window is 59 1/4 inches long and you might get one as long as 59 3/4 inches long. You’re custom making those products to every single window—and I don’t know if these numbers jive—but the 59-inch window might come in with X number of louvers on it, and that 59 3/4-inch window might have an extra louver in that panel and it might have different sizes for the top and bottom rails. So now I have five windows in somebody’s room and one of them has more louvers on it than the rest of them,” Gober says.
“When we do a shutter job for somebody, before that job goes into production, it goes into the computer and we get the printouts back on it. We look at the printouts and we line up all the printouts together because what will happen is you might get a louver being added or dropped, or you might get a top rail or a bottom rail that varies substantially, or you might get a divider rail that floats as much as an inch.”
“There’s a thought process that it’s easy to enter the [shutter] marketplace,” Gober says. “But, you better not be doing anything beyond squared panels. You better not be doing anything beyond two finish colors, because the moment you have to start applying the paint, and you have to start doing the angles, you’re opening yourself up to a huge possible loss if you screw up a job.”
TAKING A HIT
There’s an area of Gober’s shop that he refers to as The Wall of Shame. Actually, its stacks of shutter panels representing tens of thousands of dollars worth of unacceptable or returned product.
“We’re human,” he says. “Some of them are salesman miss-measurers. Some of them are factory problems. Some of them are the wrong paint or stain colors—especially stain colors. And some of them are due to fickle customers.”
Gober tells the story of one four-time repeat customer who ended up in divorce. Neither the husband nor the wife showed up at the closing, and All About Blinds & Shutters had to eat a $10,000 shutter job.
And then sometimes, he says, you just can’t explain to a customer why a shutter in a west-facing window doesn’t seem to block as much sunlight as a shutter in a north-facing window. “You try to be nice about it, but if you can’t convince them that they should accept that product, ultimately I’ll back up and say, ‘You know, I’m sorry you’re unhappy with it. The only thing I can do at this point is to take it all down and refund you on it.’
“The way I look at it is I’m never going to make that customer happy. I have to take the hit and walk away from the job. First of all, if they complain to their neighbor and say they had the worst experience and All About Blinds couldn’t make me happy, but they took everything down and gave me my money back, then where’s the problem? Then, they can go and buy from my competitor and he does the same job and won’t make six trips out to their house to try to keep them happy and tells them, ‘You ordered it, it’s yours.’
“That’s part of this industry. You better be able to suck up a loss like that. Yeah, we take a hit every now and then, and it might take 10 years to pay off for you but, boy, does it pay huge dividends down the road.”
READY FOR READY-MADE
Even today, Gober is trying to stay ahead of the curve, looking for his next customers. “The immediate dollars are what’s important, it seems like, to everybody. The money to be made in this business is really made 10 years down the road,” Gober advises.
“The ready-made customers don’t seem important, in a sense, to most people because they are not going to make any dollars off of them. But that ready-made customer is your custom customer 10 years from now. We used to get in and do the real low-end in those communities and those people—somebody I sold a $59.99 vertical blind to back in 1985—just moved into a $2 million house and I’m putting $20,000 worth of shutters in
“We’re trying to figure out how to recapture that market right now, and we’re figuring about the only way we can do it is to go into the ready-made business. So we’re thinking about opening a second shop adjacent to ours—we’re going to build another 30,000 square feet at the back of our property—and in one of those units we’re going to put in a company where you can come in in the morning and give us your dimensions and you’ll have your blinds by 12 o’clock, but it will only be cut-down ready-mades. But we’ll alter the lengths.”
The pay-off Gober is working towards is turning the ready-made customer into a custom client. “Ten years from now, you better have had that person in your shop at some point. And then, of course, keeping it adjacent to our main shop they’ll make the immediate affiliation to the custom end of the business.”
All About Blinds & Shutters does some typical advertising—mainly newspaper ads. But Gober is concentrating on two more inventive and effective means of marketing—one involving The Big Six consortium. To learn more, visit www.DWConline.com for this Web-only story.