A Well Dressed Window

An Interview with Kathy & Bill Kiefer, Owners of A Well-Dressed Window
By Geetha Ramamurthy and Matthew Ung, Creighton University MBA students

A Well-Dressed Window is located in Rockbrook Village Shopping Center at 108th and W. Center Road, just off the I-680 exit. This Hunter Douglas Windows Fashion Gallery offers services ranging from free design consultations to installation by certified professional installers for all types and styles of custom window coverings.

Kathy and her associates have focused on providing superior customer service with a small, but experienced, staff. All designers are excellent seamstresses and have knowledge gained from covering windows in the Omaha/Council Bluffs area for over 25 years.

The BBB Integrity Awards are often very close contests, and the 2009 Award for A Well-Dressed Window is no exception. Kathy is very proud of being a BBB Integrity Awards winner. After seeing the award prominently noted on the store’s front windows, we saw the actual award displayed in the showroom.

Endeavoring to give back to the community, A Well-Dressed Window is again coordinating a charity coat drive called “Give Warmth” during the holiday season. Last year, they collected, with the help of other Rockbrook merchants, over 700 pounds of coats for the Open Door Mission.

They also have hosted local events in their gallery which have benefited charitable organizations such as Harper's Hope, A Service of Estabrook Methodist Cancer Center and Tom Osborne’s TeamMates Mentoring Program.

Give us a little background about yourself and the business.

[Kathy] My career in window fashions began in 1983 as a shop-at-home dealer. Branching out, I created a window fashions department for a local furniture store that wanted to be a full-service design center for their clientele. Moving on, I worked for a local to-the-trade showroom for designers where I learned the wholesale side of the business. Just prior to opening the Gallery, I worked as office manager for an interior designer and experienced that side of the business. While there, I had an opportunity to open this Gallery. So I jumped in. That was over four years ago.

Did you grow up in Omaha?

[Kathy] Yes, all of my siblings were born in Omaha. My family moved out of Omaha in 1972 after my youngest brother was born. Dad thought a small town would be a good place to raise his family, especially the boys.

Do you think being in Omaha helped you get the award? Is there a concentration of ethical businesses in Omaha?

[Kathy] I think, more than anything, getting the award was more about who I am personally and what I believe. That said, I do feel that Omaha has a high concentration of ethical people.

I have been in the window fashions business since 1983 in various facets of the business.

It seems like everyone has a business or personal mentor who guides them and helps them make ethical decisions. Do you have business or personal mentors?

[Kathy] Mostly personal.

Can you elaborate?

[Kathy] My values were instilled in me as a child. I have 13 siblings and my father was very strict. He expected us to do the right thing. He was quite a stickler on doing things correctly. It's how I was raised.

Was your father involved in a business?

[Kathy] While he was alive he owned and operated a tax service in Western Nebraska.

So was it his personal teachings to you that...?

[Kathy] I suppose you could say that. He expected certain things of us, and we knew it. He taught by example. Isn’t that the best way?

Do any of the 13 siblings own businesses?

[Kathy] My older brother owns a tax service in Western Nebraska, following my father’s lead. One of my sisters and her husband are involved in the business of farming, also in Western Nebraska. The rest of them work for someone else.

What does 'Ethics' mean to you?

[Kathy] To me, it means doing the right thing in all situations.

Can you give us an example from your career of a situation that was hard to handle ethically—that is—it posed an ethical quandary?

[Kathy] We do advertising with a local radio station. We offer gift certificates in exchange for advertising. Listeners can purchase them either online or by calling in. There was one instance where a young man bid on several gift certificates without realizing there were restrictions as he called in while driving to work. When he came in to use the certificates, I did what I could to make it fair to both parties. It was a misunderstanding on his part, but we were able to work it out. I feel good about how it was resolved. I hope he did, too.

Was there anything difficult about your decision process in that situation?

[Kathy] Just how to make it fair to both parties because I can't keep the doors open if I give product away.

Was there an easy ethical situation you faced that still had large effects?

[Kathy] I guess one thing is that we treat all our clients the same. Everyone who walks through the door gets the same buying experience. I think everybody should be treated fairly. It just makes doing business a lot easier when you treat everybody the same.

Does your business have a code of ethics either written or applied?

[Kathy] We do not have a formal written code of ethics, but my staff knows how I feel about the way we do business. And the award is a testament to that.

How many people do you employ?

[Kathy] I have two talented ladies that are working with me. They’ve both owned businesses selling window fashions. We joined forces to take advantage of the benefits of being Gallery dealers. They know what to do and do not need guidance from me. There’s a lot to know to be successful in this business. It's not simple. That’s why I value the experience they bring to the Gallery.

Are there specific ethical traits or values you would look for in a new hire?

[Kathy] I have never had to advertise to hire someone. Typically, we're kind of a small industry, so if I need to look for help, I usually ask around for recommendations. If I can get a personal recommendation, I’m confident that the person will be ethical. Omaha’s a pretty small community and, usually, you can find someone who can vouch for any potential employee.

Sometimes [ethics] is hard to do but, being the way I was raised, it has to be done.

[Bill] Well, I look at their background, where they have been, what were they doing before, how often they have changed jobs. You can also find out in a real hurry when you call to check on references. If references are good, people are generally pretty open. If they're not, they always have the standard line that they don't give out information on former employees. As soon as you hear that, you can figure it out.

When you consider your vendors, suppliers, or any other peers in business, have you noticed a pretty high ethical standard in them, too, or have you found them wanting in some aspects relating to ethics?

[Kathy] I have not had any experiences where I thought a supplier was unethical. A lot of them are family-owned businesses, and I think when you get in a family-owned business, and the family has the kind of upbringing that is typical of this part of the country, you're pretty safe. I know that there are people out there that are not honest and fair. You just hope you can avoid them.

Omaha was recently named the most recession proof city in the country. Do you think the presence of high ethical standards in the business environment has something to do with it? Is there anything special about Omaha? The water...perhaps, that is the reason for the success?

[Bill] I have travelled all over the country. You are exactly right. There is a strong ethical movement of “Doing Things Right” in this part of the world that does not exist, especially on the West Coast and a lot of the Southeast. Omaha, Kansas City, Minneapolis and, really, a lot of the towns right up and down the middle of the country have the same values.

What would you attribute it to?

[Kathy] I think it’s connected to the way they were raised. It would be interesting to see if you can find a connection between the percentage of intact families in this part of the country versus other areas. I personally think family values are what mold you into the person you become.

[Bill] The economy is tough and it is better here. When we were in California recently, we noticed that if you drive into shopping centers the size of Rockbrook Village, probably half of the space is unoccupied. Around here, it is probably more in the 20% range.

Would you say that with the downturn of the economy, businesses are more or less ethical?

[Bill] That's a really good question. Probably less.

[Kathy] I don't know. I would say that if a company has ethics to begin with, a downturn in the economy should not change that. The values are still the same. It might be a little tougher to do business, but you still maintain the same code of ethics.

Has your profitability taken a hit on any occasion where you chose to do the right thing rather than the easier thing?

[Bill] Well, we've lost money on many an occasion helping out a customer. You've got to hope that the customer is going to come back.

Do you think you have taken a hit on actual business for doing things the right way?

[Kathy] No. I think people prefer to work with ethical merchants.

[Bill] For what we do, people want it done right. They're here because they have been somewhere else and it does not work right. You can buy a lot of, not identical, but similar, products in a big box store.

Here's another example that I can use. Because of the economy, people are doing more things to improve their existing homes now. So we get a lot of repairs in here. And, for certain, things you could probably say, “This cannot be repaired and you need to replace it.” But we go out of our way to see if we can get it repaired somehow. We know that it’s tight for everybody. And we know that if we help them now, when everything gets back on its feet, they'll come back. At least we're counting on that!

[Bill] For Kathy and her team in this economy, it takes just as much time to sell blinds for one room as it does for an entire house. They are really working their tails off on the small orders. I would think it is similar for a heating and cooling business—they are probably better off putting in a new system than fixing an existing one, but that's what they are doing now.

[Kathy] As far as ethics is concerned, I would not know how to operate any differently. Perhaps that is, in part, why the BBB chose A Well-Dressed Window as the Integrity Award winner for 2009.

Do you spend a lot of time with someone that walks into the store?

[Kathy] Yes, usually it’s necessary to spend time with people to find out what they really need. For many of our customers, it may have been a while since they were in the market for window treatments. So, we first need to understand what they want a window treatment to do for them. We prioritize their wishes. And if you do soft treatments as well, you’re getting into fabric and color selection where there are thousands of choices. You need to get them all to coordinate with everything else that you've got going on in the house. So yeah, it can get complicated and time consuming. You get a chance to really know your customer.

If someone were to start a new business today in Omaha, would you have any advice for them?

[Kathy] I think that if they are honest and fair and provide good service, they will be fine.

I would say that if a company has ethics to begin with, a downturn in the economy should not change that. The values are still the same.