Balbes once had dreams of playing baseball professionally, but as president of House of Blinds & Draperies in Southfield, MI, he manages a string of 24 stores in Michigan, Ohio and, most recently, Pennsylvania. The company also has a small franchise division with a few stores in Ohio and Ontario, Canada, and since October 1997 has owned and operated Premier Blind Factory, its newly developed mail order/800-number operation. With approximately 300 employees currently on its roster, the company already is in the big leagues, yet it's pursuing an aggressive growth campaign with the specific goal of operating 100 stores and departments in the very near future.
To reach its goal, Balbes has assembled a young and aggressive systems and management team that is building on House of Blinds & Draperies' double-digit growth. But just as important to its success and future is that it covers all the bases by being both a retail and a manufacturing operation.
"It gives us all of those things necessary for a successful business: control over delivery time and being entrepreneurial with products-to bring in products we think are important without having to wait for a fabricator to dictate to us what products we have to sell," Balbes says.
"This business is really two businesses. It's all about being a retailer-and trying to be good at being a retailer-and being a manufacturer. It's very, very difficult to wear two different hats. It's not for everybody," he says.
House of Blinds & Draperies has put together a hard-hitting lineup of products that all fall under the Infinity Collection brand name leading off with verticals and mini- and micro- horizontal blinds followed by its own house brand of two-inch wood blinds; a two-inch foam/wood product known as Nu-Forest; pleated shades; wood and vinyl shutters; and a limited line of custom top treatments and pillows from its own workroom. The stores carry no stock items, but plenty of products from major-league suppliers including Vertilux, Hunter Douglas, Levolor, Comfortex and Graber.
But growth demands taking action, and Balbes says soon there will be changes to the lineup as the company gets deeper into the drapery business. "A small percentage of our sales have been custom draperies, but we never really made the commitment to it. Now, we're making a huge commitment to go after the soft end of the business," he says.
On deck is a line of custom bedding to coordinate with its fabric window treatments, which Balbes plans on starting in the very near future. Farther down the line, more additions are expected. "I wouldn't be surprised to see bath products, towels and shower curtains-complementary products to create a total look," says Alan Sussman, marketing manager and business consultant to Balbes. Wallpaper, however, is not likely to make the cut. "People would rather paint," Sussman says. But products for stenciling or banding may get a chance to step up to the plate.
The company's commitment to soft product lines led to a recent name change, which saw House of Blinds & More become House of Blinds & Draperies. All new stores and all new signs will reflect that change, Balbes says.
Stores in the chain typically run between 2,000 to 2,500 square feet in size, but Balbes says the game plan calls for opening much larger retail spaces. "New stores will be in the neighborhood of 6,000 to 7,000 square feet," he says. "Some stores may come close to 10,000 square feet," he adds. These new stores are expected to be "mostly showroom" and vignette-driven. Facing the street will be floor-to-ceiling windows featuring five to seven room-setting vignettes clearly visible as potential customers drive by.
To support these stores, a new state-of-the-art factory is planned to come on-line in the next 12 to 15 months, according to Sussman. This central facility is expected to be more than 100,000 square feet in size.
These changes at retail are likely to affect the balance between two important aspects of House of Blinds & Draperies' success: in-store and in-home sales, which is offered as a free service. The company has approximately 50 home decorators on the team.
Balbes estimates a fair percent of sales are made in the customers' homes, but that is likely to drop as more stores are opened. That change, however, will not mean an end to the free shop-at-home service. "There's still a lot of people who need that decorator help," Sussman says. "They're just not comfortable not only with hanging the blinds, which they want help with, but also with coordinating the room and getting the colors right."
Switch-hitting between in-store and in-home sales also is something not offered by every window coverings retailer. "The decorators need vans and require a lot of care and attention as far as closing percentages and what they're selling and how they measure," Balbes explains. "A lot of work and effort goes into the shop-at-home business. That's why a lot of retailers typically avoid it. It's a tremendous work load."
The idea for House of Blinds & Draperies came as Balbes and his brothers saw their father's success in window treatments sales as a sideline complementing his general contracting business. In 1959 Balbes' father started selling only wood shutters. This success ultimately led to the Balbes brothers selling all types of window treatments.
In 1983, Balbes and his brothers returned to the Detroit area "following college and other aspirations" and joined together looking to start a retail business. The brothers immediately opened the first retail store and experienced rapid growth to become one of the largest retailer/fabricators in the country. The brothers' next step was to begin looking for additional retail locations. Since 1986, the company has had at least eight stores.
"All growth initially was in the Detroit metropolitan area," Balbes says, "then we branched out to the outer markets. Once we felt we covered Michigan, we grew into Ohio and then Ontario."
Since then the company has seen its ups and downs, says Balbes, who studied business management in college. Today the corporate structure has changed completely-it's no longer a family business and Barry is the only Balbes still involved with it. "The brothers moved on to different things," he says. The main emphasis behind the restructuring "was to position ourselves for major growth," he says. That means taking a swing at the big guys.
"This is no longer a mom-and-pop world," Sussman says. "We're competing against Home Depot, Lowe's, Kmart, Wal-mart and Bed, Bath & Beyond. These are gigantic businesses with MBAs in every seat. We're growing with that kind of focus," he says. The competition might be stiff, but Sussman has scouted out a weakness: "They're generalists," he says, "pretty damn good at merchandising a lot of different things, but they're not an expert at any one thing."
To attack the competition House of Blinds & Draperies has opened a new 800-number division while advertising on national cable television, national consumer magazines and producing a 48-page catalog distributed nationally. Its spokesperson is actress Mariette Hartley, who has her own line of products.
People are key to the success of any business and for House of Blinds & Draperies, it's the systems and management team that Balbes has put together that is making the difference. "All stores are computerized and on-line 24-hours a day," Balbes says." A customer places an order and as soon as you press the 'go' button it's on our factory floor within a half-hour." In the Detroit area, House of Blinds & Draperies offers a 24-hour delivery program.
Sussman describes management as "young and aggressive to work differently and be more creative. They all have big-business backgrounds and are very talented." Balbes and Sussman describe the business philosophy at House of Blinds & Draperies as: Be entrepreneurial. Be aggressive. Sussman adds, "Play harder than our competition every day."