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Right where he wants to be

If you could have your pick of locations to open a cabinet shop, Hilton Head, S.C., would be a pretty good choice. It offers 12 miles of beachfront property, at least 17,000 second homes, a bevy of gated communities, immensely popular tourist destinations and favorable year-long weather conditions.

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We’re not suggesting you move. The island is served by several well-established shops, including Hilton Head Kitchen & Bath, an eight-person operation guided by president Kelley Huppertz with an extensive background in residential and commercial cabinet installations, design and fabrication of custom cabinetry, furniture and retail store fixtures, and as a remodeler.

“What separates us from our competition is the full-service aspect of our business and that we’re a lot more specialized. I don’t think there are too many companies like that around,” Huppertz says.

Diverse background

Originally from Fort Worth, Texas, Huppertz moved around a lot as the son of an Air Force veteran.

“I was always interested in woodworking. I loved shop class in junior high school and taking on challenges with my hands. As I got older, while I was in high school, I took a job installing cabinetry for a custom cabinet shop back in the late ’70s in Atlanta where my father retired.”

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He also worked for a fixture business that built displays for department stores and eventually started his first business.

“I hired a few guys and we’d get hired by Macy’s to build a set of displays for a campaign like Levis to display a new line of jeans or shirts, working with the visual merchandizing departments.”

After a time serving the video gaming industry, he made the move to Hilton Head in the mid-1990s at a business partner’s suggestion.

“I came down here and liked the place. I saw lots of resorts, nice homes and numerous plantations. The buildings were all very dated and people were putting a lot of money into them, so I put a started a new business refacing kitchens and basically worked out of my pickup truck and home office. Then people wanted more done to their homes and I realized there was some business I was missing out on.”

In 1999, he established Hilton Head Kitchen & Bath, which has grown steadily through the years.

Fortunate location

Huppertz says local work opportunities are sufficient to keep the business profitable.

“We stay on Hilton Head Island primarily because there’s just plenty of opportunity right here without having to cross the bridge back onto the mainland. However, there are some plantations, subdivisions and gated communities with high-end homes just over the bridge with the same makeup as some of the properties here, so we sometimes go beyond the island but not much further.”

There are usually about five large residential projects in the pipeline. The shop completes 30 to 40 jobs per, which range from bathroom updates to whole home remodeling. The company isn’t currently involved in commercial work, but Huppertz is licensed to work on condominiums as required in South Carolina.

The shop and showroom is only 3,500 sq. ft., but there’s an additional warehouse for storage. The showroom has a wide range of semicustom cabinetry lines, as well as tile and other decorative items on display. The company also works with subcontractors offering plumbing and electrical supplies so clients can have a one-stop shopping experience.

“We build custom cabinetry in our shop without using any factory line for about 30 percent of our clients. We have several factory lines we show in our showroom. It just depends on the client,” says Huppertz, who doubles as the shop’s designer.

Island life on Hilton Head requires a custom kitchen and wet bar. The shop completes about 30 to 40 jobs per year.

Client preferences

Hilton Head has a rather homogenous design style. Huppertz says Shaker architecture is most prevalent because it’s so flexible in terms of how clients can decorate around it.

“You will rarely see hickory or oak used here. They have a rustic flair and that is not something you will see around here. Clients tend to stay with sleeker woods with tighter grain like exotics and maple and cherry.”

Looking back, Huppertz says he’s learned from many mistakes and has been successful because he’s corrected them.

“One of the biggest mistakes I’ve learned from is not saying no. Now, we don’t take every job like it’s the only one out there. We select our clients similar to how clients select their contractor. We don’t want every person that’s willing to spend money with us because we aren’t young go-getters willing to take every opportunity presented.”

Currently, the shop is extremely busy, but Huppertz describes the economy as a revolving circle of highs and lows.

“Our workload is never middle of the road. It’s always either none or a ton. It’s a roller coaster. Right now we’re seeing more work after six years of fluctuation because there are younger people with money moving in to buy homes as investments or second properties. We’re not seeing nearly as much retiree old money as before. And the people that have lived here a while are remodeling their own personal spaces.”

Huppertz recently spent a lot of money on a website overhaul to try to keep it up to date and increase the number of hits in searches for custom cabinetry and remodeling. Through the years, the company has greatly reduced its print advertising efforts.

Pauli Alfano and Mike Fletcher work in the shop, which has been producing high-end kitchens since 1990.

“We’re doing less and less print advertising. The trend used to be that you always wanted a big fat ad in the Yellow Pages and if you didn’t have that you could not compete with the competition. Then there were a lot of magazines that were specific to home living and a lot of those died and went away in the bad economy.”

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Keeping with the flow

Huppertz says he’d like to expand, but doesn’t anticipate the necessary growth any time soon. His biggest challenge is managing personnel and finding good help.

“I look for people who will do the work and do what they say. We don’t have a high turnover, but this is not like any other industry. Keeping a steady flow of business coming in tends to be a roller coaster and I need reliable help.”

He’s also learned the importance of building long-term relationships with clients, something that definitely keeps his business a success.

“We are upgrading and increasing value of some of the most important investments people have and that is their home. We want to build relationships with those people. You definitely have to have people skills in this business. You have to have a lot of knowledge of the trends and designs and you’ve got to be able to manage people.” 

Contact: Hilton Head Kitchen & Bath, 5 Hunter Road, Suite A-2, Hilton Head Island, SC 29926. Tel: 843-689-3528

This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue.

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