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Business Observer Thursday, Oct. 15, 2009 10 years ago

Big out of Small

Surviving the recession not only required Kerrie Ann Lehnert to rethink her entire business plan. It has taken a rebooted mindset, too. 'You have to be able redefine your ego,' she says.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Surviving the recession not only required Kerrie Ann Lehnert to rethink her entire business plan. It has taken a rebooted mindset, too. 'You have to be able redefine your ego,' she says.

The real estate market bust has turned into boom times for Kerrie Ann Lehnert, who makes her living redesigning kitchens.

It sounds somewhat ridiculous that a kitchen architect has been able to grow her company in an era of downsized, bankrupt and failed cabinet businesses. But while Lehnert concedes her margins are down, her volume is up — way up. Adds Lehnert: “It has been so busy here it has been unbelievable.”

Her business, Venice-based Kitchens by Kerrie, has 17 current projects, more than triple the amount she carried from month to month during the boom, albeit at a lower value per project. The work includes condos in Venice, homes on Siesta Key and even two large projects in suburban New York City.

Lehnert wouldn't disclose specific annual revenues, only to say that the bulk of her work nowadays is for kitchens in the $10,000-$20,000 range and that she will surpass $500,000 in revenues this year. She also says she has enough contracts through the next year to project close to $1 million in 2010 sales. The company has three employees and Lehnert is about to hire a fourth person.

Lehnert says one key to her company's recent success is a concentrated focus to find projects that are big enough to be worth the effort, but too small for larger companies to go after. “I set up a business plan where I didn't compete with anyone,” says Lehnert. “I took the gamesmanship out of it.”

Not only that, says Lehnert, but she also realized the economic downturn requires entrepreneurs to not only reinvent their business, but to change their mindset as well. Says Lehnert: “You have to be able redefine your ego.”

Lehnert cites a few other boilerplate reasons for her success. One is an intense amount of networking, which includes attending local Chamber of Commerce events from Venice to Bradenton. The key with those events, says
Lehnert, is to not only ask for leads but to give them as well.

Another important element of the business, says Lehnert, is a hyper-focus on details. That includes hand drawing all her design plans as opposed to using computer-enhanced diagrams.

Lehnert got her start in the field by working in the opposite side of the spectrum — restoration as opposed to renovations. A Michigan native, Lehnert attended graduate school for interior design at East Michigan University and later worked on a large restoration project at the Michigan state capitol building.

She then moved to San Francisco, where she switched to renovation. Lehnert worked for a company that only did high-end renovation and design projects — one in particular included $1 million in just new kitchen cabinets.

Lehnert moved to the Gulf Coast about five years ago, when she went into business for herself. In the beginning, when jobs were tough to come by, she decided to be bold and aim high: She wanted to showcase her work by running seminars at Robb & Stucky, a Fort Myers-based chain of high-end interior design stores.

Getting into such an established company was daunting at first, but Lehnert was persistent and diligent in finding the right people to talk to. She eventually got a chance and began running seminars at stores in the Sarasota and Venice area, an aspect of her business that continues today.

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