Necessity is sometimes the mother of invention, but so is innovation and looking at solutions in different ways. Pete Mai of Old School Cabinets in Minnesota has been a woodworker and cabinetmaker for more than 25 years. He and his wife, Shelley, are also the inventors of the KornerKing, a new version of the Lazy Susan that incorporates drawers for extra storage. Timber Products Company caught up with Mai to talk about how he approaches innovation, why he welcomes competition and what he sees in the woodworking marketplace.
Timber Products: What is KornerKing and how did it come to market?
Mai: KornerKing is a new concept for a Lazy Susan. We combined drawers with the traditional Lazy Susan so it gives full access to the corner cabinet. The way I knew that KornerKing was a viable business solution was that two days after I came up with my prototype, I was on a few sales calls and both people ordered the concept in their kitchens. It’s grown considerably from then on. In 2009 the product was about 3 percent of our business and in 2014 it was about 54 percent of our total volume.
We have faced challenges. Reaching a national audience is a challenge. We needed marketing and shipping support.
TP: Are you concerned that the national companies may steal your idea?
Mai: We are not concerned with competitors for this product. In fact, we believe competition is good for our business because it broadens the demand. The potential is so large that any customer awareness of a new Lazy Susan product is positive. If others in the market make similar products, that makes it better for all of us.
So far we’ve only seen one national company copy our product, and that was just recently.
TP: How do you innovate as a company? What is the process and how do you come up with new products?
Mai: The way we innovate is by listening to our customers. We attend a number of trade shows and home shows so we take the time to ask customers what they want, find out their true needs and then try to develop solutions.
We are seeing a trend that consumers are wanting products to make their lives easier. They are tired of the status quo. That’s why our KornerKing product has done well.
TP: Did the KornerKing change the way you work with your suppliers?
Mai: No, we still work with our suppliers who have been with us for many years. We use off-the-shelf hardware and buy components regularly so suppliers know what inventory to have in stock to provide to us. We get together with our wood products distributor in Minneapolis about once a week to pick up product and talk about future needs, which have grown tremendously over the years. We purchase a large quantity of birch material.
TP: What advice would you give to woodworkers about getting into the business?
Mai: For younger workers getting into the business, my advice is to listen to your customers. Find out what the needs are and then fill those needs.
TP: Bonus question: What’s your take on the current woodworking marketplace?
Mai: We deal with a lot of cabinet shops nationwide and we’re hearing across the board that the market is back. Maybe not to the level it was before the recession, but it has definitely improved and is on an uptick. Volumes are higher and there are fewer shops than there used to be, which means more opportunities for the next generation of woodworkers who are going to enter the market to take up the slack.
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