Changing with the Times

The Watkins Cabinet Co., established in 1952, is finding new ways to grow its customer base
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Watkins Cabinet Co. in Dickerson, Md. has installed thousands of custom kitchens, vanities, bookcases, bars and more over six decades. The shop “manufactures customer happiness”, according to its marketing, so the goal of end-user satisfaction is clear.

Company founder Wilbur “Buster” Watkins, now deceased, set out in 1952 to build the biggest and best custom cabinet business in the area. His daughter Joan Watkins, who joined the family business in 1981, tells the story of how it grew to what it is today.

The team at Watkins Cabinet Co. includes Rudy Day, Rick Thomas and Frank Watkins (pictured on opposite page), finishers and assemblers.

The team at Watkins Cabinet Co. includes Rudy Day, Rick Thomas and Frank Watkins (pictured on opposite page), finishers and assemblers.

“Dad used to go around door to door on contractors’ sites looking for places to sell kitchens, and that’s how he got started. His dad had gotten him into sheet metal working, but he really loved wood and that was his love in high school.

“He came home tired. He was working all day and mom did the bookkeeping, so she was working at night.”

Joan is one of the couple’s seven children involved with the business at some point. She now runs the business with her brother Frank Watkins and sister Gerri Watkins.

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Quick expansion

The shop opened on the family’s property in Germantown, Md., starting in the basement before moving to the garage.

“It eventually evolved from just working for a few builders building those simple things. Then things started getting a little more complicated and people needed more custom work,” says Joan.

In 1967, Buster and his 10 employees outgrew the garage, so he built a 16,000-sq.-ft. shop with offices and a showroom.

The shop currently has 14 employees and a rather concentrated customer base within a 15-mile radius. Dickerson is an unincorporated community in Montgomery County, northwest of Washington D.C., 60 miles from Baltimore, and near the state lines of Virginia and West Virginia. The shop focuses almost entirely on residential work.

“We mostly do work for individual homeowners now and it also evolved from working in new construction to remodeling. It was a real mix back in the ’80s” says Joan.

The shop’s customers favor traditional raised panel and flat Shaker transitional styles of cabinetry, constructed with mortise and tenon joinery and mitered corners. The current finishing trend is white and gray paints.

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New marketing approach

Word of mouth and a great reputation have served the shop well over the years. But the Watkins are updating their marketing efforts to bring a better return.

“For many years we relied on word of mouth, neighbors and friends to share our name. We are starting to advertise now because we found the market around here has changed. It’s very mobile, so people don’t have the people to people connections they used to have. You might not have that same neighbor for 30 years, so you don’t know who to ask.

“We still get some word of mouth inquiries, but we’re finding that a lot of people don’t even know that we’re here, even local people. So, we started advertising and did our first home show earlier this year. We also hired someone to work on social media promotions,” says Joan.

The shop recently merged with KWC Inc., a kitchen and bath remodeling company in nearby Damascus, Md., founded in 1976 by Ken Watkins (son of Buster) and his wife, Kathy.

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“In addition to the custom cabinets manufactured on site at Watkins Cabinet, we will offer some of the stock cabinet lines Ken has been using. In many cases this will lead to shorter lead time and a lower price point for customers who do not need the extra value of custom cabinetry,” says Joan.

The shop is also bidding farewell to in-house designer J. Rudell “Rudy” Day, who is retiring this summer after 62 years with the company.

Watkins produces an average of 40 to 50 kitchens annually with a lot of bath vanities in between. The current backlog is about six to eight weeks, which is good, but far lower than the six to eight months it used to be, when customers had to wait just to get an appointment.

Two of thousands of examples from the shop’s portfolio.

Two of thousands of examples from the shop’s portfolio.

“October 2007 is when I noticed the phones were not ringing like they should have been, and it went down from there. The spring of 2009 was the first time we had to lay people off,” says Joan.

“We had enough cash reserves to get by. We contacted builders but everybody was hurting. If they had something, they brought it to us but it was very difficult. To have weeks on the schedule with nothing on it was pretty devastating.”

Several of the custom shops in the area went out of business. That eliminated some of Watkins’ competition, although there really wasn’t much to begin with.

Two of thousands of examples from the shop’s portfolio.

Two of thousands of examples from the shop’s portfolio.

“Things have picked up some but not as much as we’d like. That’s why a year or so ago we started looking at what we need to do as far as marketing and a business plan. We’d like to see a higher volume. We know we are capable of doing that. We’d like to hire more employees and update machinery.

Contact: Watkins Cabinet Co., 18001 Sellman Road, Dickerson, MD 20842. Tel: 301-428-8510. www.watkinscabinet.com 

This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue.

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