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Each year, The Wholesaler Magazine bestows a best in show award —or shall I say, best in showroom excellence. We place a call for submissions for our annual Showroom of the Year award and look to be inspired by how a company's customer service and engagement stand out from others, and how they overcome challenges.
We see and hear how they implement excellence in customer service and creative showroom design, and deliver that extra something that gives it the "it" factor. It's more than just a beautiful showroom stocking and selling products — so much more.
We are continually inspired by the stories we hear, and one that came to our attention jumped out to us — for so many reasons. We heard of two brothers who started a showroom without any experience in the channel. How they got started, why they started and what happened along the way had us on the edge of our seats.
When we heard their story, we knew others should as well. Today, we celebrate them here for their challenges and their success — excellence in customer service, experience and innovation in the channel. For these reasons and so many more, we honor Baths of America as The Wholesaler Magazine's Showroom of the Year.
In the Beginning
Baths of America (www.bathsofamerica.com)is a family-owned and -operated wholesale distributor of decorative and luxury plumbing, hardware, cabinetry, and appliances, based out of Houston. Owned and operated by brothers Ali Sultanali, owner, alongside his brother Zeeshan Sultanali, vice president, the company has two showrooms — one in Sugar Land, Texas, and its showcase showroom in Houston's Galleria area. One offsite distribution center serves its customer base of builders, remodelers, and designers. In total, the company has 20 employees.
Baths of America was founded in 2004 by the brothers who came into the business in a unique way. Their father, Farooq Sultanali, a well-established businessman who had been in the sterling silver jewelry business for many years, taught the boys the meaning of hard work and customer service. They grew up working in the family store — from when they could see over the counter, they were there helping.
Farooq Sultanali had an eye for opportunity and experience that covered many industries. While in China, he made a purchase of "sanitaryware" — items originally intended for use in a homebuilding venture in the United States, as well as extra he believed could be sold for profit.
When Farooq Sultanali told his sons that he wanted them to sell the sanitaryware, the announcement caught them off guard. At the time, Zeeshan Sultanali, the oldest, was working in his father's sterling silver business; Ali Sultanali was attending the University of Houston.
The brothers had a strong work ethic ingrained in them from their family business; they live and breathe their father’s saying, “Work hard and keep your head up.” They knew that if they applied the same approach to selling in the plumbing channel, they would be successful. After all, customer service was at their core.
The shipment consisted of more than 30 containers of sanitaryware — faucets, sinks and bathtubs, along with tile and some furniture. As the purchase was to arrive within several months, the brothers needed to move fast to secure a showroom, as well as additional storage space. Where should one open a location? They drove all around Houston — and remembered shopping at the local Ferguson showroom. As they went by it, they noticed a storefront for lease across the street.
"We signed a five-year lease on the space — not knowing anything about plumbing and hardware, but knew we could make it a go," Zeeshan Sultanali explains. "When the materials arrived, we realized the pieces were not UPC-approved; we couldn't sell them. The only thing we could sell was the tile and furniture."
But the brothers didn't let it stop them. "We placed all the non-saleable products into storage; we would deal with it later," Ali Sultanali says. However, they needed to work fast. After all, they were locked into the lease.
The duo contacted other distributors in the area, who agreed to give the brothers a chance, selling products to them at a discount to fill the store. They also were able to secure accounts with several small manufacturers. It was a start.
As young entrepreneurs, they kept striving to be a force in the market. Two years into the industry, they were able to partner with major brands such as Hansgrohe, Graff, California Faucets, and others. Their exceptional customer service and eye for detail proved to be strong partners.
They realized they had fully established themselves when placing an order at with a local distributor – their discount had been reduced. They were now viewed as friendly competition. Manufacturers’ reps — who saw how the company, and the brothers, we're working hard for the brands they represented — helped them open doors to carry their manufacturer lines.
In May 2016, Baths of America was doing well — until one fateful night when Zeeshan and Ali Sultanali received a phone call saying that the showroom was on fire.
They scrambled to the scene and watched as the fire tore through the store they fought so hard to establish and build. "We were devastated; we couldn't believe it,” Ali Sultanali explains. “Everything we owned — all the product, our warehouse, our computers — were in the building."
Many hours later, when the fire was extinguished and the smoke cleared, the brothers were allowed to enter the building, "The fireman told us we could have two minutes to go in and grab what we can," Ali Sultanali recalls. The only thing they wanted was their computer hard drive, which they found. They had five backups of the hard drive; all but one failed. "We were so very lucky," he says.
Although determined to get back up and running as soon as possible, it came with its challenges. The fire, confirmed as electrical, started in the back part of the warehouse and filled the entire building with smoke and fire damage. Adding insult to injury, insurance claims were immediately denied. They had a business to run, orders to fill and customers to take care of. "After the fire, we looked at everything differently,” Ali Sultanali notes. “With the store, we had all our eggs in one basket — our inventory, our showroom — everything. We realized we are not going to do that anymore."
Within a week, they found a new warehouse location in the North Post Oak area. They filled it with furniture and made a makeshift office for themselves and their sales team, and began filling orders again from the warehouse location. Searching tirelessly for a new showroom location, the brothers found a small 2,200-square-foot space in Sugar Land, TX, off Williams Trace and 59. With the help of renowned SH Design-Build, they were able to open that location in January 2017.
During the time of rebuild, the business continued to run with the staff staying in place. With help from their family, the brothers self-funded during that time — as they believed in their company, their staff, their partnerships and their work ethic. They were fortunate to draw from their savings. With the assistance of their family, the brothers didn't draw a paycheck for several years, instead keeping their staff employed and making sure their commissions matched their pre-fire income. They were taking care of their team, as the team took care of their customers.
It was important to them to rebuild and stay true to their commitment to the company and family. "Our dad taught us early on, don't give up on business when something hits the fan,” said Ali Sultanali. “You need to look at a positive way to make it grow."
The brothers believed in their team of dedicated workers who all shared the same customer-first philosophy and dedication to excellence. They were all in it for the long haul. And their manufacturing partners stepped in to help.
"We couldn't be more grateful for all the partnerships we had made throughout the years, who helped us get back on our feet," Zeeshan Sultanali notes. Echoing in their minds was a saying that their father instilled in them: "Something good always comes out of something bad. You might not see it today, but one day you will."
If You Build It, They Will Come
"Our customers are loyal and kept their sales with our staff and company throughout the years," says Zeeshan Sultanali explains. With business on track, In November 2019, the duo saw an opportunity to lease a 9,000-square-foot piece of prime retail space in the Galleria Area. It would provide them the opportunity to design the showroom they had always envisioned.
The brothers thought about how they wanted the showroom to look and feel. "We knew we wanted to include cabinetry, and if we are going to do that, we should add in appliances," Zeeshan Sultanali says. "We wanted to build an experience: cook on a range over here, see how the water flows from different faucets over there, take a steam in our steam room over there," Ali Sultanali notes.
One thing that gave them pause is that they didn't currently carry appliances, and it's a niche market for carrying brands. "We were completely new to the appliance industry, and it took Ali and me hundreds of phone calls and meetings to get approved from the top major brands," says Zeeshan Sultanali.
Their persistence paid off. Companies were impressed by the duo and their hard work and commitment to excellence. Appliances were now to be included in the showroom offerings. They were approved by several of the top appliance manufacturers such as Wolf and Thermador. “I don't take no for an answer, especially when it's the right fit," Ali Sultanali says.
But what would be the design of the space? They had an idea and started to sketch it out. Typical for the brothers, they would do what it took to bring their vision into reality. "To bring my concept to the virtual world, I taught myself how to use AutoCAD from tutorials on YouTube," Ali Sultanali explains.
With his ability to now do CAD drawings, the brothers were able to bring their concept to life in the virtual world and present it to SH Design-Build, who presented a 3D image that hit exactly on what the brothers wanted to accomplish.
"Our whole idea was for people to walk in and smile — like a kid in a candy store,” he notes. “The ease of walking around the space, and along the way, cool things are working that one could interact with; you can touch faucets and turn them on — see how water flows from one type to another.
“Up ahead is a refrigerator — open it up and help yourself to the refreshments inside. There is a cappuccino machine, a latte machine — they all work — what would you like? We place snacks everywhere to please the senses. It's all about engaging all the senses and making you smile."
The Sultanali brothers designed the 9,600-square-foot Galleria showroom to be consumer-friendly and interactive, including five live kitchens, an indoor pizza oven, more than 200 working plumbing fixtures, and a working steam and sauna room. It held a grand opening on February 6, 2020, with more than 500 guests attending to celebrate the success.
When you enter the space, one is immersed in the open concept and natural light flooding the room. The color palette is neutral to keep a clean aesthetic and showcase the products on display. The displays were custom designed by the brothers.
"To add space, and keep clean lines, we built up — designing the wall displays to allow for multiple levels of product that can be removed easily and placed on other displays to complete a look," Zeeshan Sultanali explains. The same applies to the cabinetry that encases the sinks and other displays. Drawers can be pulled out to showcase other styles and examples — maximizing space, allowing more product to be on display and making it easy to swap out fixtures and not rebuild complete displays.
The showroom features seven working bathroom suites and a wall display of showerheads, with an electronic interface allowing customers to experience how water falls from different types of features. In total, the showroom has more than 400 working displays.
The two also considered that products should be sold for their use and amenities, not just by name alone. Fixtures are grouped by design and type, and the showroom sales team is highly equipped with product knowledge and understands the need to connect with customers.
"Our customer service is all about making the customer feel comfortable, engaging with them to understand their wants and needs truly — and show them products and features they didn't know exist," Zeeshan Sultanali says. That comes from the Baths of America team members, who understand it's about the long run — and allowing customers to feel comfortable talking to the sales team about anything and get answers.
"It might take six months or more for some customers to complete a sale, but they return because we give them options, product knowledge and application, and the comfort of knowing this is a relationship,” he says. “We are here for them, and we never want them to second-guess their purchase.
During our discussion, the duo elaborated on their art of customer service – which is set at the highest level. It is not uncommon for either to walk through a jobsite, double-checking deliveries and orders, and making suggestions to eliminate changes down the road. One tip was on the placement of electrical outlets in the bathroom. “A customer and builder may not know if a bidet or smart toilet will be installed - but prep for it now with an outlet, just in case,” says Ali. Such forward thinking helps clients in the long run, and working hand-in-hand delivering white-glove customer service is what sets the company apart from others.
Baths of America joined Luxury Product Group in 2014 as a means to network, keep on top of trends and learn from industry expert Jeff MacDowell, LPG's executive director. "LPG allows us to network with other luxury showrooms in other areas of the country — to see how they institute customer service, and what their challenges and solutions are," Zeeshan Sultanali explains.
While being part of a buying group that provides for rebates, it wasn't what brought them to LPG’s door. "It's the people we've met, the relationships we've made, the contacts we've made with people all over the United States who are in the same business as ours, and what we can do to help each other, he adds. “It's the advice and knowledge, and to be a part of a group that provides so much educational experience — from speakers, experts and other business owners. It's been amazing."
"What impresses me most about Baths of America is their commitment to the brick-and-mortar experience,” MacDowell notes, “Seldom will you ever enter a showroom with so many working displays, which encourage the shopper to experience what they dream of owning. Zeeshan, Ali and the team make sure the hospitality and selling skills promoted by the Luxury Products Group are part of every interaction.
“They display many beautiful lines, and work tirelessly combining great social media marketing, live events and conventional marketing to draw in the designer and upscale consumer. They are exactly what LPG embodies — hard working, humble, smart and a passion for the decorative shopping journey. I am lucky to have them as friends and love having them as part of my team of members."
The Extra Step
When I arrived at the Galleria Showroom for the interview, I was treated to the wonderful smells of food being prepared — the wafting scent of rosemary in the air and butter being melted to create something magical. The brothers welcomed me, and we walked over to their working kitchen display, where two chefs were working their Thermador kitchen display, preparing an exquisite breakfast.
"We like to make our customers and guests feel welcome and showcase how these products work in the home," Zeeshan Sultanali explains. I sat down in the kitchen while the chefs from Epicurean Essentials — a personalized chef-owned and operated service — created an amazing breakfast using the tools and appliances in the kitchen. They told me about features I didn't know existed, and how those appliances can help the everyday cook.
As we sat at the kitchen island, Ali, Zeeshan and I talked about hospitality. Making one feel comfortable in a new space and situation is truly an art form — and I immediately felt comfortable. We were in discussion about how products – from kitchen sinks and faucets to the layout of a room, impacts the flow and feel of a space. "We realized the best way to understand benefits is to showcase how something works and why," Ali Sultanali says.
Having close connections to the manufacturers and reps who work with Baths of America, the brothers heard that the wife of their Thermador rep was a professionally trained chef. She was starting her catering and culinary experience business. They realized that bringing in a chef to do the cooking, tasting and hosting at showroom events would not only bring in potential customers, it also would allow the chef to operate a business in a beautiful working kitchen space, with little overhead, and showcase her talents with the products they carried.
Besides, it was a bonus for customers to envision themselves working in their own kitchens and be treated to exquisitely crafted and executed events by utilizing the space. Another experience to add to the portfolio. It worked — Epicurean Essentials became a staple to the Galleria showroom and provides its personalized service to Baths of America customers, as well as their own.
I asked the Sultanali brothers about the future, which already includes expanding the new Galleria showroom, and if the next generation has shown any interest. Both have younger children who witness their fathers' hard work.
Their children see their fathers in constant motion — working hard and seeing the future as an open canvas. While they have plans to grow outside of the Houston area, they envision doing so in the future with their children in the business as well.
"I don't think we would be where we are today without having experienced the fire,” Ali Sultanali notes. “It propelled us forward. Now, we always have a backup, we know where we are going and have a game plan. We have something in motion at all times."
They hope the children will join them, and Zeeshan Sultanali summed it up by saying, "As of now they show no interest." However, with a twinkle in his eye, he states, "But they love the heated toilet seats!" And, with customer engagement, experience and gratitude, I'm sure the children will be sold on the possibilities.
"It takes a team effort to be where we are today,” he says. “We've come a long way from when we first opened our doors in January 2005, but I feel as if we can grow this company so much more.”
Their hard work, vision and dedication to customer service and excellence are an inspiration. Congratulations to Baths of America as we celebrate you as The Wholesaler Magazine’s 2021 Showroom of the Year.
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