Although James (J.T.) Clarke, owner of Charlotte, North Carolina-based Queen City Closets, a designer of high-end closet systems, came from a family of entrepreneurs, starting his own business wasn’t top of mind when he finished college. But as life would have it, an accidental slip and broken kneecap was the impetus for him falling right his family’s entrepreneurial spirit.
“I started off doing tile work (while in college). We did work in really high-end homes,” Clarke says. “I was on my way to class one morning in October, and slipped and fell and broke my kneecap. I had a cast on my leg for six weeks, so that put me out of commission.
“Well, the guy that I was doing tile work for — his brother and father owned a company called The Blind Shop and Closet Design, which did window treatments, blinds and shutters, but they also did custom closets.”
He worked for the company off and on while studying at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. And that’s how he learned about the closet industry, he says.
Yet, even with that experience Clarke had zero intentions of starting his own company after graduating with a business degree in marketing. He wanted to get a job in the corporate world. But after a small stint in the automotive field, Clarke decided it wasn’t for him, so he went back to work for the home improvement company.
It was a later move to Charlotte that pushed him further into the industry. Hired as a designer by a closet franchise firm, Clarke says his role was to bridge the gap between design and manufacturing — the owner thought he was a perfect fit because of his previous experience. Later, Clarke says he was tasked with helping out the install team.
But the entrepreneurial spirit instilled in him by his family also saw him taking on a variety of side jobs, including helping his neighbor with closets for a home he was building. This was during the recession when many companies were laying off workers. Clarke says the team at the franchise firm he worked for was already down to four people, and he had agreed to work a four-day work week.
“On Friday, is when I would go out and I would do all my side work,” he says. “I got in literally, with a group of doctors, and dentists, and bankers. And I got a reputation for being able to do closets real efficiently and effectively. On Fridays, I would often do tile work, but I would also go do closets. I had a separate supplier, and couldn’t offer the same exact high-end stuff, but I could offer what most people were looking for — real functional closets.”
That experience and his penchant for networking prompted him to strike out on his own soon after the franchise firm he was working for was sold to a new owner. Although Clarke was offered the production manager’s job after six months, he says “a light bulb went off. I was like, ‘Well, if he’s gonna fire this guy who’s been loyal for 10 years, who’s worked very hard, then he’ll fire me.’”
That’s when he took a leap of faith and started Queen City Closets in 2013.
Queen City Closets focuses on the design and installation of high-end home organization projects.
“That’s my strong suit – designing, selling and installing,” Clarke acknowledges. “That whole process: I mastered it, working 10 years prior for other people. So, I just used the process that I know works well, and that’s what we use every day, and I’m constantly trying to improve on it.”
The customer experience is very important and it is top of mind with every interaction from the beginning call to installation.
The key is the client presentation, Clarke notes. He urges his team to not just be on time but to show up early and call even if they are a minute late. “We show up early, and then get the designs turned around in a timely manner. When the guys show up to do the installation, the first thing out of the van is drop cloths.
“We’re selling a high-end product. The people that we’re selling it to have high expectations.
“So, we give them a set of designs that come with all the dimensions of the layout of the closet or cabinets. We itemize as closely as possible. That allows the customers to see exactly how the money’s being spent, as well as see options for lowering costs through revisions.”
Clarke uses a very simple, one-page contract that outlines the designs, scheduling, and job site preparation and initial down payment.
Queen City Closets outsources manufacturing through a local supplier, Bob Stern of New Concepts in Storage. Clarke and Stern have developed a process that works extremely well for them and has helped each of them grow their businesses tremendously, he says.
“I don’t even have to talk to Bob. The way we have it set up, it is screen to machine. I have a server set up over in his manufacturing facility, so we design it, we revise it, and we just import it right into the computer over there,” he adds.
This process allows Queen City to be lean as far as cost of operations and it allows him to focus on his strengths.
His new showroom, set up in a high-end area of Charlotte also works as an avenue for him to test out new products and ideas. Clarke puts up new displays and gives his team time to “work the kinks out,” he says, before introducing them to customers.
“I get great gratification when the customer’s happy to write us that check. But it’s not the check that I’m most excited about. It’s them being happy to write it.”
Learn more about Queen City Closets at www.queencityclosets.com.