West Hartford entrepreneur Lorey Cavanaugh is Owner of Kitchen & Bath Design + Construction (KBDC), a woman-owned, full-service design/build firm that’s been doing business in central Connecticut for more than 25 years.
Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price spoke with Lorey about her entrepreneurial story, lessons learned, and best advice.
NAN PRICE: Let’s talk about the concept of being a business owner and knowing your skillset—that’s been integral to your success.
LOREY CAVANAUGH: My experience has been, if you don’t have a particular skill you need to hire for that early on. When I was a one-person company, I hired an accountant to work with me one day a week. I knew I was strong in sales and design and that I was not going to be the person doing the accounting, payroll and taxes. I probably could have taught myself how to do those things, but it didn’t seem the right place to focus my energy.
NAN: It’s interesting that you had the awareness to know that starting out.
LOREY: Truly, as a business owner, one of the things that has been very clear to me is you should spend your time doing the things you do really well, and you hire people to fill in the blanks.
I probably could have done the accounting, but I needed to be out doing what I do well to generate an income for the business.
I’ve had that same approach in terms of marketing—I’ve always hired people to assist me in the marketing process. I don’t design my own ads or do any of that, but I’m involved, and I have a say in it.
For me, it’s always been better to hire an expert, pay them what they charge to do their work, and then focus on the things I know I do well. I think that has been a secret to my success. Knowing what I don’t know and hiring for that—and not being afraid to ask for help.
NAN: You launched your first business in 1990. Tell us a little about your entrepreneurial evolution.
LOREY: I unintentionally ended up in design school at the University of Connecticut. I went as an English major. At that time, nobody was getting teaching jobs, so I thought: I need a different career. I got hooked into the design department. I minored in business administration because I thought I would probably need some business background for whatever I would do. That decision has served me well.
My degree is in commercial interiors. I spent 10 years doing corporate spaces—insurance companies, doctors’ offices, that kind of thing. It wasn’t my niche; however, it gave me terrific training in space planning, which has been beneficial for what I’m doing now.
My mom was an entrepreneur, which was very innovative in the 1950s. She was a caterer, so I was exposed to food and entertaining early on. I thought maybe kitchen design would be more in my realm.
I became a certified kitchen designer and certified bathroom designer while working for a company in West Hartford. The owner became my mentor in the business. He closed the company at the end of 1989 as the result of an economic climate very similar to “The Great Recession.”
When I worked there, a lot of people approached me about hiring me independently. I thought: Here’s an opportunity, he closed his business, I’m unemployed. What can I do next?
I opened my company, Kitchen and Bath Design Consultants, in 1990. It was a home-based business. My intention was simply supplying design services and consulting specifically around kitchens and baths.
After multiple people told me they needed me to do more than a design, I thought: Maybe there’s a business opportunity here?
I moved the business into West Hartford Center in 1998. At that time, I changed the name of the business to Kitchen & Bath Design + Construction to better reflect what we were offering. It was just me, folding tables, and cardboard boxes—I had more guts than brains at that point! I had a business model I had borrowed from my mentor; I would do a design/build construction model.
Slowly, I started hiring people and developing the concept. I ended up with three stores, 23 people, and five vehicles on the road. It was a big business. From 1998 to 2008, I achieved exactly what I had hoped I would achieve.
When the economy tanked in 2008, I lost most of it and lost all my personal savings. I closed two out of three of the operations. I moved to this space on Sedgwick Road in West Hartford, dropped 20 people, and sold my vehicles, real estate, displays, etc.
NAN: What did you do?
LOREY: I phoned a friend of mine, another woman business owner who I respected tremendously, and asked for help. She told I needed to sell everything and quickly and dramatically downsize, because otherwise I wouldn’t survive.
I had spent 10 years building this business to what I wanted it to be and I had to pull the plug on the whole thing in order to survive. And I listened to her. When somebody you respect gives you advice, your responsibility is to put it into action.
So, I did that. I consulted with a business attorney and followed their directions. It was a pretty crazy time.
I’ve spent the next 10 years rebuilding the business. And you know what? That’s a really important part of the story—being near bankruptcy and figuring out how to deal with that.
I had multiple subcontractors, vendors, and home owners I owed “stuff” to—most of it money—and I had no money. What do you do next? You can’t just file bankruptcy and say: Sorry, the economy was bad and I lost everything so you are going to suffer too.
After getting some guidance and doing plenty of soul searching, I decided I was going to liquidate my assets, put everything into the business, and see if I could bring it back around. I had spent 10 years building it successfully and I decided: I’ve got at least another 10 years (hopefully). Let’s go for it and see if I can do it again.
We managed to deliver everything we promised to the clients we had under contract. I was able to make myself whole with all the subcontractors and vendors. Think about it: If I were to file bankruptcy in construction, at the residential level, who would give me money for deposits on future projects? I knew I needed to stay whole in that regard.
So, I liquidated everything, downsized like crazy, continued the same business model, and slowly built the business up to what it is today. And it’s different. It’s smaller. It’s more focused. I’m back into designing, selling, and customer contact.
That’s the thing I really do best, designing and selling. I’m mentoring and supporting and doing all the things a business owner does, but a big part of what I do now is customer contact. And I love it.
NAN: What lessons learned!
LOREY: Tons. And I believe it all had to happen exactly the way it did.
NAN: Does being in Connecticut play an important role in your company? Are all your clients based here?
LOREY: That’s a great question. I’m from Connecticut and went to school in Connecticut. I decided we would work within a 30-mile radius. It’s what we can service best. We’re very hands on; we are designing and then building, so we’re supervising all the labor. To do that effectively, we really can’t go much beyond 30 miles.
That said, I have travelled further, but it’s not our core business. I’ve done some teaching and consulting nationally and I see that may be in my future as well.
NAN: How are you finding your clients and marketing?
LOREY: From a marketing standpoint, historically, our biggest and best source of business has been referrals and repeat customers.
I’m currently in the process of revisiting marketing. I’ve been in my business a long time and marketing has changed dramatically. We’re really taking a deep dive into social media, trying to figure out what that means for the company, and measuring that.
My marketing and administrative manager is spearheading this effort. She’s going to be taking multiple social media classes through the University of Hartford Entrepreneurial Center. She’s been doing social media, and she will now do it better. We found out about the class through the Innovation Destination Hartford website.
NAN: That’s fantastic!
LOREY: Yes! The resources Innovation Destination Hartford provides—business owners all have to go searching for them, I’m glad I found them offered conveniently in one place.
I also do some print advertising for the arts, which kind of kills two birds with one stone. Those are our clients. For example, the people who are supporting the Hartford Stage are definitely my demographic. And the arts are struggling in terms of finances. So, if I place ads and act as a sponsor for arts organizations, I get something good out of it and I feel like I’m doing something good. I try to give back where we can, for example we offer complimentary consultations at auctions for charitable organizations.
I’m still trying to figure out the marketing piece. Every year I look at: What’s working? What’s not working? How can we change it up? What’s a better thing to do?
That’s one of the things I love about being a business owner, you can keep it fresh if you have that mindset. If you figure out what’s working and what you can do differently. You can go at it and try it.
NAN: It’s being innovative.
LOREY: Right. And being open to change.
What happened in 2008 was the scariest thing I ever went through! I learned that you’ve got to keep your head up and put one foot in front of the other. If you keep making the next right decision, there is a plan, it’s going to unfold, and you’re going to be okay. I guess that’s how I approach the business.
The first quarter of the year we experienced a bit of a lull and it brought back what happened in 2008. Back then I felt like: What is going on?! We went from hugely successful to nothing. When things slowed up, I started to think: Oh no! It’s happening all over again! I have to tell myself: Lorey, just chill! Breathe and keep going.
Every day I come to work—I may not be working with clients, some days I’m working on marketing or working on training my staff. I just keep showing up and we’ll see what happens. I don’t know what it’s going to look like in a month or a year from now. Who knows? But I go to work every day, have fun, do the I best can, and they tell me more shall be revealed!