Shenandoah Shutters, Richmond, VA, is a manufacturer, retailer and installer of custom plantation shutters. That's it. But that's a lot, too. In the
8 1/2 years Imbur has been in business, he has built his company from a one-person operation to a sales and production staff of 18. He also has added a second showroom in the booming Washington, D.C., market and is prepared for the business it will provide.
Along the way Imbur has made one decision that might raise an eyebrow or two among window coverings retailers-especially those trying to be all things to all customers. Instead of adding products to his business in a whole-room or whole-house decorating approach, Imbur has narrowly focused Shenandoah Shutters' product line. "Earlier this year I made the decision to eliminate all of the other products we had," Imbur says. Those lines included wood blinds, shutters from two other manufacturers, 1 1/4-inch traditional shutters, raised panel shutters, exterior shutters and a line of shutter components that the company distributed.
The way Imbur sees it, the move was a natural. "Working with various manufacturers and distributors you wind up with different ways of measuring and pricing and installing. You wind up with shipping damage you've got to take care of and all sorts of things that interfere with your main business," Imbur explains. "Our business was growing rapidly and we wanted to focus on one product, one program, and put all of our time and effort into it," he adds.
"We have a crystal clear concept of what our goals are," Imbur says. "We focus like a laser on them, and we are willing to sacrifice business opportunities that are not compatible with those goals-that includes other products and lower-end shutters."
A Classic Look
Imbur opened shop in Richmond in April 1990. He had decided to go it alone after 14 years with a major national brand-name supplier. From the very start he planned his company to become vertically oriented by manufacturing, selling and installing custom shutters. "I knew from past experience with wholesaling that it's very difficult when you've got too many levels of distribution involved. Companies often have distributors, retailers, subcontracted installers and so on. When there are a lot of people between the manufacturer and the home owner, a lot gets lost in the translation and the expense to the home owner is higher," he says.
Imbur chose Richmond because after living and working there since 1981 it was familiar territory. He knew the area and knew it would be an excellent location to start his business, particularly with Washington, D.C., only 100 miles away. He also knew shutters held long-lasting appeal for customers, they have worked well in residential interiors for centuries and would continue to do so. "As I analyzed the various window coverings in the region, the most stable window covering over the decades has been shutters. They seem to wax and wane a little bit in popularity, but they always look right and always will. They're very much a classic item," Imbur says.
Manufacturing and selling shutters also takes time and effort, which from Imbur's point of view meant an opportunity existed. "Shutters take quite a bit of expertise-which I knew we could develop here. So it's nowhere near as crowded as other fields. It just requires a much higher level of skill and knowledge." By the end of its third year in business Shenandoah Shutters had begun manufacturing its own shutter panels. "We had much better control in terms of manufacturing, installing and designing something for a very specific application," Imbur says. "It reduced costs as well."
As for Imbur, he understands his business philosophy may buck current conventional wisdom, but says it actually follows a cycle he sees developing. "The trend across the country is toward small local shops with expertise in their particular geographic areas along with expertise in customer preferences. They have firsthand knowledge of their customers, their homes, everything all the way through."
Right at Home
Visiting the Shenandoah Shutters showroom and workshop is a unique experience for customers, and one that usually closes the sale for Imbur. It begins outside where customers find an English garden setting complete with white picket fence. The foyer is decorated like a porch with wicker furniture and the showroom is set up almost as if it were someone's home. "We got rid of all the fluorescent lights. We have table lamps, a sofa, chairs and an armoire," Imbur says.
Attention, no doubt, is drawn to the 30 feet of windows covered with shutters. Imbur notes the importance for customers to see actual product in a variety of louver sizes, shapes and installations on a window instead of hanging on a wall. "What's really nice is that when customers come in, they not only get the effect of full-size samples in a room full of shutters, but they have a chance to see how the light can be controlled and the privacy shutters afford. They can see the finish quality and see exactly what to expect," Imbur says.
From there, customers usually are taken on a tour of Shenandoah Shutters' wood shop where they can see how the shutters are made, how the louvers are processed, how the panels are assembled and how the finish is applied. "Customers like seeing how that's all done. They rarely go elsewhere after they visit our showroom and shop," Imbur says.
Although the company has recently added a sanding machine station, much of the work still is done by hand. "That's crucial," Imbur says. "There's still no machine that will give you anywhere near the final quality of doing the final sanding by hand. That's something you have to do by touch and sight."
Near the end of the line is one of two state-of-the-art spray booths that maintain the perfect conditions for applying the finish. "We have the ability to maintain the temperature you need for a fine finish. You cannot get a fine finish at a low temperature or with too high humidity," Imbur explains. Shutters suspended on an overhead conveyor travel around the spray rooms where they can be sorted and handled efficiently.
Shenandoah Shutters was moved into a new 13,700-square-foot facility last year. Its latest move, however, has been into a second showroom in Vienna, VA, this year. Imbur describes it as an ideal, central location for expanding into the Washington, D.C., market. "Washington is such a huge market. We've always had a presence there," he says, "but never a showroom to really showcase the product."
In preparation for the added business the new showroom is likely to mean, Imbur has invested in workshop equipment including machinery to manufacture angle-top shutter panels. A small second shift already working in the production department can be expanded, Imbur believes, to cover an increase in orders.
Chose to Stand Out
Important to Shenandoah Shutter's success has been Imbur's efforts to differentiate his company and its products from anything else available to customers. "We focus on the fact that what we make is significantly different than what's available from other manufacturers-particularly in the quality of the finish. We spend a lot of time on the finish, and we have a patented European concealed hinge system that has been very successful. Customers can't get this same product from other places," Imbur explains.
"Quite honestly, no one else in this market or in the Washington, D.C., market offers a comparable product," he adds. "We're very serious about what we do, which is make solid hardwood shutters with a fine furniture finish, and that's pretty much what sets us apart from the competition. We're very narrowly focused, not only on shutters, but on the upper end of the custom shutter market," he adds.
"What a lot of other retailers are doing is bringing on products that are identical from one retailer to another. That leads to price wars, low profitability and confusion among customers. So we've gone a different route. We like to stand out and be unique," he adds.
Imbur's customers appreciate the difference in quality Shenandoah Shutters provides. "Our typical customer is not necessarily in a large, sprawling house. Some of them are in more modest homes. But basically, they are very concerned with the overall quality of their furnishings. They are very careful about what they put in their houses and they look a product over very carefully before they decide," he says.
Shenandoah Shutters' customers predominately are residential, and despite the historic nature of the area, most of the business comes from clients in newer homes. Richmond is a strong market with lots of building going on especially in new homes and high-tech businesses, Imbur says. Still, there are the occasional 130-year-old homes like the one Imbur is currently involved with. "They've got walnut trim on the first floor and chestnut on the second floor. If they decide to go with matching wood it will be interesting to try to find some old chestnut to work with since chestnut is extinct," Imbur laughs.
Other client requests have included a house with 13 Palladian windows, the largest 10 1/2 feet wide, and a dog gate a retired Army colonel wanted made out of shutters for her living room.
Imbur's commercial clients have included the Country Club of Virginia, law firms and churches. He also worked on a job for the National Symphony House in Washington-a 20,000-square-foot space that included windows 15 feet tall.
One of the reasons Imbur can focus so intently on custom shutters has everything to do with the product itself. "There really are only two types of shutters: right ones and wrong ones," he says. "There's really very little room for errors. There's very little room for miscommunication. It's quite intensive from the time you sell, measure, design the job, work with the customer and come back to the shop and manufacture, finish and install the product. You really have to focus. It's not an easy product to work with if you do it properly."
Most of Shenandoah Shutters' customers are referrals from previous customers or from a handful of designers with which Imbur works. The sales process almost always begins with an in-home visit. "People need to see exactly how you are going to install the shutters and what designs you are suggesting and that needs to be done on their windows," Imbur says. "We believe in customers having a clear idea of what we're about to do and make sure they are comfortable with what we suggest," he adds. "People look for us to be the experts and make the designing suggestions, but the decision still is up to them. We're very careful not to shut the customer out of the decision-making. They've got to want it and be comfortable with what we suggest."
"We focus on the customers and what their needs and wants are. We found that if you are very honest and straightforward and professional with them you can do quite a bit of business. The real key is to earn their trust. People buy from who they are comfortable with, and they buy from people they trust," Imbur advises. In achieving that trust, Imbur credits Shenandoah Shutters' hardworking staff. "We maintain a high level of effort. It's hard work and very demanding. I'm very proud of the employees here because they've risen to the challenge."