Mike Carson transitions from manufacturing closet, storage systems to becoming inaugural dealer for Stow’s Inspired Closets network
Mike Carson is widely acknowledged as a closet and home organization visionary. He imagined a closets industry when none existed – no dedicated supply chain, no trade association and no standards.
When Carson established Closet Works of Elmhurst, Illinois, in 1987, the industry consisted of California Closets, a handful of other fledgling closet franchises and a small but unquantified number of independent manufacturers scattered across the country.
Carson was as instrumental in bringing this fragmented industry together as anybody. In 1999, he helped organize and served as the first president of the National Closet Group, which provided a forum for the owners of about 40 regional manufacturers to network. The NCG’s annual conventions caught the attention of Häfele, Rev-A-Shelf and other suppliers who saw an opportunity to introduce products specifically designed for the closets market.
As a growing number of closet professionals clamored to join the NCG, Carson helped found the Association of Closet and Storage Professionals, a more inclusive, full-fledged trade association. In addition to electing Carson as its first president, ACSP chose him to receive its inaugural Pioneer Award, further acknowledging his myriad contributions to the closet industry.
In yet another and more recent first, Carson became the flagship dealer for The Stow Company’s new Inspired Closets program. Stow, a longtime manufacturer of closet and home storage products sold under the ORG, EasyClosets and Easy Track names, launched Inspired Closets in 2017 as a national dealership network. In addition to manufacturing products at its headquarters in Holland, Michigan, Stow arms its Inspired Closets dealers with sales and marketing tools and national advertising support.
What Got Carson Inspired
Carson founded Closet Works in a two-car garage. Over the next two decades, the company grew to become the largest Chicago-area manufacturer of closet and home storage solutions, employing more than 100 people with sales of more than $11 million. Carson sold his business to a private equity firm in 2007 but stayed on as president for the ensuing five years.
In 2013, Carson became an ORG dealer and opened up Carson’s Closets & Cabinetry.
“That was all working fine for me. Then Stow determined they had a great opportunity for national branding of the dealership portion of their business,” Carson said. “I think because of my experience and proximity to Holland, they chose Chicago to launch the first Inspired Closets showroom.
“What stood out to me is that Inspired Closets is a national brand backed by an unrivaled marketing campaign,” Carson added. “It’s really a dealership model on steroids because they also offer training manuals and videos and a proprietary 3D software design program that doubles as an incredible sales tool. The dealership model is built on a simple four-step process. We consult, we design, we prepare the space, and we install. I was quickly on board as an Inspired Closets dealer because I understood the value and saw it as an opportunity to grow my business faster.”
Transitioning from Maker to Buyer
Before re-entering the closets market, Carson carefully weighed the pros and cons of making versus buying closet and home storage products. He rattled off many of the standard benefits favoring the buy- versus-make argument. He could focus on design, sales and installation and not worry about setting up a factory, investing in equipment and finding and retaining qualified workers to man the shop floor.
Perhaps the overriding factor for opting to outsource his products is that a maturing closets industry has spawned a number of manufacturers specializing in closet components.
“This is really the model that the industry is going to now. When I decided to jump back in, I realized that I didn’t have to manufacture because there are viable options available today that simply didn’t exist when I got started in this business,” Carson said. “Stow operates a world-class panel processing facility. Because of their volume, they can manufacture a wider breadth of products, inventory more colors of TFL and edgebanding, and purchase hardware and accessories in bulk prices.”
The development of industry standards and CAD/CAM software-driven machine automation to make products on demand have also been key to putting manufacturing control in the hands of a company with deeper pockets, Carson said. “Stow is very good at logistics. If we put in an order on Monday, it’s shipped to our warehouse on Thursday. The turnaround time is phenomenal.”
Showroom Drives Sales
Carson operates a 3,000-square-foot showroom in Oak Brook Terrace, about 20 miles due west of downtown Chicago. The showroom features some 15 customer-engaging vignettes from walk-in and reach-in closets to home offices, laundry rooms and garages.
“Closets are ground zero. People have always been trying to create more living storage space in their bedrooms, like putting dressers in their master closet. We take that idea and create custom storage products that cohesively maximize the space,” Carson said. “Once we’ve done someone’s closet or garage, we might do their home office or mudroom.”
Having a showroom is an invaluable sales tool, Carson said. “We offer 20 standard TFL colors, and when you consider the choice of materials, styles, hardware, accessories and lightings, the overall choices have more than quadrupled in the last 10 years. That’s why having a showroom where you can bring clients in and actually show them all of the different options is more important today than it was in the past. This is their chance to see what the options look like and how they can pull together all of these different products and finishes to create what they want.”
More (Closet) Doors of Opportunity
“When I first started in 1987, I was worried that the closet market was saturated,” Carson said. “I thought, ‘California Closets has already been at this for 9 years. Everyone is going to have a closet by 1990 and then what?’”
Carson’s early concerns have proved unfounded. The closet industry is alive and well and growing. New houses are being built with closet and garage organization in mind. Many existing homes have yet to be outfitted with closet systems, while closet products in other homes are being replaced for the second or third time. Add to this the concept of closet organization being extended to virtually every room in the home, and Carson now sees “an amazing market place with a non-ending supply of customers.”
Eighteen months into his experience as an Inspired Closets dealer, Carson believes he is well positioned to continue to succeed in the industry he has helped advance for more than 30 years.
“We already share a showroom in Chicago with a sliding door company. In the next year and a half, I’d like to set up a showroom in the north suburbs, as well. We’re just continuing to work on efficiencies and fine tune our standard operating procedures to make this system more easily scalable.”