There are few names so closely linked with the window coverings industry as those we induct this year into the Draperies & Window Coverings’ Hall of Fame.
We set out a year ago to begin formally recognizing the men and women of this industry who serve it well. It should come as no surprise if those selected are instantly recognized—they have made a name for themselves through their dedication, hard work, foresight and understanding of how to attend to customers. In both cases this year, the names Rowley and Kirsch are family names—linked to specific individuals—that have grown beyond that into company names that have come to stand for so much more. Not incidentally, they have a few things in common, too.
This year Kirsch has been celebrating its 100th anniversary. The originator of so many of what have become standards in curtain and drapery rods used throughout the industry from workroom to end-user, Kirsch grew by adding innovative products and business practices that included telescoping drapery rods and offering more options to consumers than ever before. Company founder, Charles W. Kirsch, offered this: “Proper drapery hardware is essential to perfect draping success.”
So much as changed over the past century. Just in this industry alone architecture, design, technology and lifestyles have evolved and Kirsch has responded by paying careful attention to what consumers want. By examining trends and behavior, the company has continually offered products aimed to simplify and compliment their ever-changing lives.
R.H. Rowley Co. has been in and around the workroom and draperies business since the early 1960s. Much of that time has been spent as a manufacturer and distributor of products and supplies for fabricating and installing window treatments, upholstery and custom cushions and quilting.
Rowley Co. also has changed with the times—changed its product lines as processes have changed, added to its offering as requests for new tools and new ideas have come up, and changed its marketing to take advantage of opportunities available through its Web site. Constantly being open to new opportunities to solve problems and simply listening to what customers want are the hallmarks of the Rowley Co.
If there is a common thread here, it’s that: listening to what customers want and need and providing it—even if you have to create it yourself. It sounds simple enough, but of all companies involved in the window coverings industry, we present two names that have consistently met that challenge.
A CENTURY OF KIRSCH
The company that bears the family name was founded 100 years ago, in 1907, by Charles W. Kirsch. That year, C.W. Kirsch began a string of inventions and practices that have forever tied the company name to the window coverings industry. It began with the invention of the first flat curtain rod followed quickly by the first telescoping flat rod and the idea to begin packaging rods complete with brackets.
The company’s success in this market soon was evident. In 1919, the Kirsch Co. sent off its first foreign shipment of products, and four years later broke ground on what would become its 500,000-square-foot headquarters plant in Sturgis, MI (another 250,000 square feet of warehouse and assembly space was added some 30 years later).
The innovations kept coming: The Superfine® adjustable traverse rod in 1953, vertical slat traverse rods and decorative café rods in 1954; and the Architrac® professional line of traverse tracks in 1962.
In 1965, Charles E. Kirsch, the founder’s grandson, became president of the company. In the tradition of working his way up, Charles E. Kirsch started as a sales trainee following college in 1949. He became Central Division manager in 1952, and sales manager of the drapery hardware division in 1955. He was named executive vice president in charge of marketing in 1957 where he remained until becoming president eight years later.
By the time Draperies & Window Coverings magazine published its premiere issue in May 1981 Charles E. Kirsch had been running the company for some 16 years, and all the while new products still were coming. When D&WC No. 1, Vol. 1 mailed, Charles E. Kirsch was its first cover story and the company’s newest product was the Kirsch Continental curtain rod, a 4 1/2-inch rod for shirred curtains or draperies.
What follows is a brief excerpt from that first D&WC cover story. It illustrates a couple of pertinent points. First, that the window coverings industry is a cyclical business and, second, that successful business people have the vision to see the full scope of their industries and to always look ahead.
D&WC asked Charles E. Kirsch for his forecast of business conditions in the window coverings industry for 1981, and in reading his remarks today we find many remarkable similarities to current issues.
Kirsch: In the current recession, as in past recessions, our industry was slower to feel the impact at the beginning . . . . We do expect business to firm up in the months ahead, but at present, with the mortgage rate situation, there is a lot of uncertainty.
D&WC: Do you feel that consumer uncertainty has affected business as much as the lack of new housing?
Kirsch: As important as new housing is to us, over 80 percent of our volume is in the replacement market. That’s where the action is. But the present consumer hesitation greatly affects our industry, as our products are some of the most postponable on the homeowner’s shopping list. We do feel there is a significant, pent-up demand for new housing to be fulfilled . . . over the next few years.
D&WC: How can a retailer cope with the current unsettled situation?
Kirsch: Well, retailers are going through an evolution. They don’t want to stock as much as in the past, and yet, they need to give their customers better service. One of the answers will be to do business with manufacturers who offer better delivery. More and more selling today is done from samples. This gives the dealer a much wider selection to offer, but if the dealer does not get delivery and service support from the manufacturers, problems build up rapidly.
D&WC: Should manufacturers offer their dealers more marketing assistance?
Kirsch . . . Most retailers do a good job of advertising on their own . . . we feel very committed to national advertising. Our goal has always been to motivate the consumer to come in to our dealers’ stores. Once in the store, displays play an important role in product selection, and this is an area where we offer very good assistance to our dealers. We also expect more customer and dealer assistance will be coming from fabric manufacturers as they develop their own marketing plans and ideas.
ROWLEY CO. LISTENS
No one in the custom window treatments industry can attend a trade show or event and not notice Rowley Co. Traditionally, the company’s exhibit booth is just inside to the right, and it will have a crowd around it.
It’s a familiar scene: attendees lined up across the long Rowley Co. booth checking out what’s new, asking questions, getting answers, hearing new ideas and having problems solved. A big part of the reason for all the interest is the number of products the company wholesales and distributes, and it covers any need you might have: scissors, grommets, tapes, screws and fasteners, pillows, shade laminating supplies, tassels, workroom irons, bendable fiber board, welting, patterns, brackets and angle irons, components . . . it goes on and on.
For the last 27 years, the Rowley Co., Gastonia, NC, has been a staple in the industry. Its name has become synonymous with “workroom, installation, upholstery and notions,” as its advertising tagline reads. The Rowley Co. is known for its customer service as much as for its extensive product lines and as a family company. Behind it all is its founder R.H. Rowley, who, minus his wife, Vaughn, would be as incomplete as a needle without a spool of thread.
Never one to call attention to himself, R.H. Rowley is willing to do whatever is necessary to help the company and the industries it serves. It’s the value of the company that’s the important thing, he would say. As far as personal recognition, Rowley doesn’t look for that. “I’m just a country boy,” he says.
Although most closely identified with Gastonia, the family and its business have their beginnings in New England. Originally from Massa-chusetts, R.H. Rowley attended a co-op college, which offered a five-year program where students attended classes for 10 weeks and worked in an industry for 10 weeks. “Boy, what I learned!” he says. “When I finished school, I decided I wasn’t fit to work for anyone else, I was going to work for myself.”
Rowley set out to look at Dallas, TX; Los Angeles, CA; and Atlanta, GA; for a place to settle down, but stopped short. “Went to Atlanta, took a look and decided we didn’t need to look at the others,” he says. That was in 1962. By 1970, the company had grown, but Rowley was a bit concerned it was becoming too much of a local workroom. The Rowleys sold the Atlanta company and returned to New England where they began a wholesale and distribution business for drapery hardware and upholstery products selling directly to the trade. The company grew over the next 10 years when Rowley decided the company couldn’t stay in New England because he could foresee the expansion its was going to need.
Rowley Co. landed in Gastonia in 1980 and has been there ever since. Where does the company stand today? “Pretty much looking straight up,” Rowley says. In fact, he adds, they never see it slowdown. And about that expansion? Rowley Co. today has six warehouses.
“One of the biggest issues we’ve been involved in all these years is marketing. Listen to the customers and what they are looking for, and you see company after company [with the attitude] this is the way we’ve always done it, and this is fine. But you’ve got to be able to address the needs of those customers out there. And needs change, and styles change and so on. That’s what we’ve always done.”
For Rowley Co., it’s that simple: Address the needs of the customer. But despite being so connected to the window coverings industry, those customers actually could be from any one of several industries.
“What happens is you get rollover in your products,” Rowley explains. “For example, we have a measuring tape that’s only about three-quarters of an inch wide and has pressure-sensitive adhesive on the back of it and it’s 20-feet long. You can run it down the edge of a workroom table and the numbers are right side up and upside down so you can read it from both sides. A measuring device company found out about us a number of years ago and they now buy 100 to 200 a month. That’s rollover. We’re selling to the boating industry, the manufactured home industry . . . You’ve got to be open-minded to it and look for those different, other potentials out there.”
But Rowley Co. has always been a big part of the window coverings industry. “That’s not changing,” says R.H. Rowley. What might change, however, is the way business is done. “We’ve done a lot of trade shows. We’ve done them all over the world. But times are changing,” says Rowley, “but that doesn’t mean things are going down. It’s just methods of doing things are changing. You’ve got to be open-minded to this sort of thing. Improve your Web sites and on and on and on . . .”
That familiar scene at the crowded Rowley Co. exhibit booth is likely to continue, and it still would not be unusual for other vendors to come up and ask how Rowley Co. gets so much attention from so many people. R.H. Rowley’s answer: “I don’t know, I’m just a poor country boy eking out a living.”