The week before the NAFCD + NBMDA 2015 Annual Convention, Matthias Bulla — executive vice president of the hardware manufacturer Grass America — was eagerly anticipating the event. The company — which crossed the Atlantic nearly four decades ago to establish itself in the United States — isn’t a distributor; but as Bulla points out, distributors do make up approximately 50 percent of the Grass customer base, and a large number of them were scheduled to be in Orlando Nov. 3-5 for the annual convention. “There’s no other platform where you reach so many customers at one time,” he says. “You hear the trends, you hear the opportunities, and you hear the issues. You get a lot of information very quickly; and you’re able to see a lot of people within a very short time, which also makes it very affordable. The event is surrounded with excellent speakers that address topics that distributors as well as manufacturers face within the market or daily business.”
To prepare, Grass reached out to key decision-makers and set up meetings in advance, so that encounters with distribution partners would be more meaningful than just a “walk-by.” In particular, company officials wanted to ensure a sit-down with specific customers for whom they had a new idea or strategy to suggest. As both an event exhibitor and an NBMDA associate board member, Bulla says the general goal for Orlando was to “plan and talk about the current matters and opportunities and how we can move forward with the goal to increase sales and market share.” He and other Grass representatives look forward to the convention each year as another resource they can use to build and strengthen ties to its distributors, which are located across the country. Approximately 50 percent of the firm’s sales go through these distribution partners, making them an integral part of Grass’ business model.
Emphasizing quality over quantity, Grass takes a very tailored approach to interfacing with its distributors, with a high level of contact and collaboration. For each partner, it crafts a strategy based on where that company is located, and what products are sold in that particular market. Programs designed to help them sell the Grass products range from support for media materials and catalog content to special packaging and their own personal contacts with Grass outside sales team.
The manufacturer of drawer slides, hinges, and other cabinet parts has additional ways of nurturing distributor relations, including a full-line manufacturing facility with a proprietary apprenticeship program, full-line product testing, and even its own training institute: the Grass Academy. “Only if the distribution partner is well-trained and knowledgeable on a product is he able to sell it well,” Bulla stresses. “I think it’s important that they identify themselves with Grass – visit the factory, see how the products are made, and get good solid training on our product lines. All that is part of the Grass Academy training program.” Because Grass, despite its Austrian roots, manufactures out of Kernersville, N.C., it is able to deliver that extra insight to distribution and OEM partners alike.
The North Carolina plant is ground central for the company’s face-frame cabinetry products which, contrary to the rest of the world, dominate in the U.S. market. While frameless box construction is the standard around the globe, the United States is considered unconventional in its preference for face-frame design, which accounts for around 80 percent of the domestic cabinet business. Bulla believes the nation’s resistance to frameless is slowly melting, however, holding up IKEA as the likely best example. The Swedish manufacturer has made a strong push into the United States and has been well-received in doing so.
Bulla adds that New York, Los Angeles, and other metropolitan markets have been the early adopters of frameless design, and he says the trend has gained major momentum in the last year or so. “I think the stock cabinet manufacturers can no longer avoid the frameless cabinet construction,” he speculates. Ultimately, Bulla predicts major growth in the frameless segment of the market, and maybe one day even a nationwide shift to frameless. This would have huge implications for the industry as the product changes. He compares it to an automaker having to change its production from standard gas cars to hybrid or even electric-powered vehicles. “For large manufacturers, it would be a change in the way they design and build cabinets. Factories, assembly lines, machinery, and much more need to be changed to build a frameless cabinet. “ I’m sure it’s not going to happen overnight,” Bulla speculates, “but this is definitely the strongest move to frameless cabinetry” since he started working in the industry about 15 years ago.
If the big transition does, in fact, occur down the line, Bulla feels Grass America is well-positioned. Although it strives to manufacture all of the products in America for face-frame cabinets, he notes that the company also has a “huge assortment” of products to support the frameless market through its European parent companies. It also produces certain frameless products out of the Kernersville factory. The biggest change for Grass, Bulla suspects, would involve collaborating with customers to help them work better with the frameless cabinet – for example, by offering design ideas such as how a drawer can be manufactured differently from a design aspect as well as from a labor standpoint. “For Grass America and our customers,” he emphasizes, “it’s more of an opportunity than a threat.”
Bulla also sees opportunity in being there for distributors, as consolidation sweeps their industry. Acquisitions are taking place “left and right,” he observes, all across the country. Albeit a great opportunity for distributors, he continues, the trend is not without its drawbacks and complexities. That’s because merged companies often have different product lines that can be difficult to consolidate; and even when they do so successfully, there is also then the risk of over-distribution in some markets because there are too many firms carrying the same type of product. On top of that, Bulla adds, the broad array of products a distributor sells – especially after a consolidation – may create an educational shortfall. “The customer relies on the distributor not only to purchase the product, but also to supply technical help and product needs and features, kind of like the specialty sales,” he explains. “And sometimes, because of the broad range of products the distributors sell, there’s no way for the distribution salesmen to be specific about the product and have enough product knowledge. That’s where we come in, and we work closely with distribution salespeople in the market.”
That’s just one more way that Grass America plans to connect and grow with its distribution partners, which claim half of its sales. With such valued partners at the heart of its business, it’s no wonder that Grass has been a member of NBMDA for the past quarter of a century. It also shouldn’t be a surprise to see the face of Bulla and other Grass executives at the NBMDA convention for years to come.