Opening New Doors
J&K Cabinetry’s ‘walkabout’ style redefines wholesale business
Beyond the sustainable materials, beautiful designs and customized characteristics, J&K Cabinetry in Phoenix, now just four years old, is fast becoming an industry leader in large part because of one man’s quest for excellence.
After completing his tour of duty with the U.S. Army, Kong Lee settled in the Phoenix area with his family. Ready to begin the next phase of his life, he established the Phoenix-based distribution center to market his family’s high-quality cabinetry and accessories.
But as a third-generation member of the J&K Cabinetry operation, he felt it was his responsibility to raise the bar by creating an operation that emphasizes not just service and product availability, but environmental responsibility, all managed under a unique team-oriented leadership style.
J&K Cabinetry, Inc., is an independently owned and operated wholesale distributor of household cabinetry with a nationwide presence. Today, there are 17 individually owned and operated J&K wholesalers and distributors, the first of which started in Atlanta in 2003 and now includes Lee’s company in Phoenix, which opened its doors in 2014.
The Phoenix distributorship was formed when Lee and three colleagues leased a 35,000-square-foot warehouse to store and build J&K kitchen and bath cabinets and accessories. New to the area in terms of the cabinetry business, the small team worked tirelessly to build connections with the Phoenix area construction community. Those early days were also a time of bonding, both personally and professionally.
Lee recalls, “We had no marketing department in those early days, so we built a client base by word-of mouth—each of us stamping and mailing fliers to contractors, developers, designers and architects from our warehouse.”
It was also a time to set the groundwork for sustainability. “As the owner and a third-generation member of the J&K family, I strive to provide a healthy and safe environment for our employees as well as products that adhere to sustainable manufacturing practices,” Lee says.
He had a solid foundation to begin his quest to expand his family’s larger distribution business.
J&K Cabinetry kitchen and bath products are made of solid wood construction (no fiber board or medium density fiber) with six-way adjustable hidden metal hinges with soft close doors and drawers.
All J&K hardwood plywood materials meet the California 93120 Compliant for Formaldehyde standards, one of the most stringent regulations in the world. The standard was established by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to limit formaldehyde emissions from wood products. All J&K cabinetry is CARB Phase 2 compliant, which caps formaldehyde emissions to a strict 0.05 parts per million. As well, J&K Cabinetry products only use AkzoNoble sustainable paints and coatings for cabinet finishes. But that wasn’t quite enough for Lee, who took his company’s sustainability commitment one step further, gaining Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association (KCMA) and American National Standards Institute (ANSI) certification (ANSI/KCMA A161.1) for all J&K Cabinetry products built from prefabricated pieces at the J&K Cabinetry in Phoenix warehouse.
To earn ANSI/KCMA certification, cabinets must meet strict standards for performance and durability and must be manufactured in an environmentally sound manner (e.g., raw material sourcing, manufacturing processes and community relations). Certification requires initial cabinet testing, periodic plant inspections and testing, and yearly retesting by accredited independent laboratories.
Finally, Lee and his team emphasize recycling and reuse with its contractor partners. The company works directly with a variety of nonprofit organizations, such as Habitat for Humanity, to donate new and used cabinetry, and they encourage contractor partners to do the same.
With what he believed to be the best products on the market, Lee focused on adapting progressive management techniques.
“We work together every day—and I believe it’s our personal and professional closeness that helps us deliver the best solutions to our clients.” Kong Lee, Founder and Owner, J&K Cabinetry in Phoenix
The Gemba Step
In the last four years, the J&K Cabinetry in Phoenix family has grown from four to 22 employees, which includes account managers, sales associates, warehouse inventory specialists and carpenters. The group remains a closely connected team.
“We work together every day—and I believe it’s our personal and professional closeness that helps us deliver the best solutions to our clients,” Lee says. “We’re one team with one objective—a satisfied client.”
His employees agree, but point to Lee’s management style as powerful testament to the success of the company and their job satisfaction. Lee’s management style is better known as “Gemba,” a Japanese word that means “the real place,” a method that reinforces the lean management principles of management by walking about. Edward Mugits, the firm’s marketing manager, had learned about the management style some years before joining J&K Cabinetry in 2015 and recognized its value to employees and the long-term success of a company.
“Every employee wants to be heard,” Mugits says. “The Gemba walkabout style puts executives on the floor where the work is done. Employees feel more connected and have the opportunity to provide feedback.”
Lee agrees and has fully embraced the technique in his day-to-day activities. “My direct involvement in the operation empowers our employees to take accountability and responsibility,” Lee says. “I believe that success can only be achieved with quality, well-compensated and empowered staff. These three elements are an imperative in today’s society in order to grow and retain individuals. Gemba helps me create an affinity with my team.”
Cautious of growing too quickly, Lee is particularly cognizant of his account managers’ workload. He adds, “Beyond the quality product, service is our trademark. That’s why we don’t exceed capacity of our account managers. We want them to provide a personal touch and be available to any contractor within their account structure.”
In the four years since establishing the business, the Phoenix-based J&K Cabinetry warehouse inventory has doubled from 35,000 square feet in 2014 to 70,000 square feet today—representing only 50 percent of its physical capacity—and sales have almost tripled in the last three years. The firm has grown from 12 accounts in 2014 to over 750 today. To date, the company has worked with 10 percent of the total registered contractors in the state.
As a wholesaler, the J&K Cabinetry client base is largely contractors, interior designers who typically are members of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) or the National Kitchen & Bath Association (NKBA), real estate investors and property developers.
In the last two years, Lee and his team have made a more focused effort to market to the masses by adding a large 3,500-square-foot showroom to display the many different styles of cabinets as well as the latest finishes and colors.
“It’s an important part of our business strategy to market to the masses and let homeowners see the value of our products,” Lee says.
If the success thus far is any indication, J&K Cabinetry in Phoenix is well on its way to becoming a top cabinetry wholesaler in Arizona. The scope and scale of projects to date ranges from single-family residential kitchen and bath projects to large multi-unit housing developers. With walkabout leadership style leading the way, Lee and his enthusiastic team have plans to continue to open new doors to customers and the public for years to come.