BY PAUL ROUPE
Next door to Direct Appliance on McHenry, a voluminous property that used to house ACI Career College is hollowed out to make way for the appliance store’s new home. It’s empty now, with only a handful of workers slowly filling in the skeletal frame of the 14,000 sq. ft. showroom floor.
Ron Winter, part owner of Direct Appliance, says they hope to be moved in by Feb. 1. They’ve outgrown their current location, and a trip around the store will reveal a few cramped spots.
Tile and carpet samples crowd the entrance and fill up a portion of the back room where the kitchen displays are.
It’s definitely a long way from where they started. Back in the 1980s, Winter worked for a small business owner named Jack Ugar, doing everything from sales to delivery to service calls. In 1995, Ugar and his wife Cyl Ugar started Direct Maytag Home Appliance Center, selling Maytag appliances almost exclusively.
Business boomed, due in part to Ugar’s connections in the industry. But in 2000 his wife died, and the next year Ugar had a brain aneurysm at his desk.
The Ugars had died without any plans for a transition in place. Their children had no interest in keeping the company alive, so Winter, another salesman and a man named Bud Heller bought it from the Ugar family. To avoid a similar fate, they soon decided that Direct Appliance should be incorporated, and after a brief hiatus they reopened in January 2002, expanded their inventory, and established themselves as one of the top appliance dealers around.
They started carrying high-end products that might be familiar to watchers of cooking shows and anything involving chef eliminations or kitchen spotlights: Sub-Zero, Wolf, Thermador, and Viking.
Of the decision to carry those brands, Winter says that “it was a natural progression. Back in those days, the economy was good, people were coming in. They were taking second (mortgages) out and using the money to remodel.”
That was when home improvement shows popularized renovations, so homeowners were eager to replicate the fancy furnishings they saw on television.
Soon, the housing crash and subsequent recession hit, and Direct Appliance stumbled a bit. But they didn’t fall victim to the bust. They managed to keep themselves afloat by adapting their marketing techniques.
“We had marketed ourselves as a high-end dealer, but when that happened, nobody could afford it, so that’s when we opened up an outlet store across town,” Winter said.
They started catering to not just those with money to blow, but those who were looking for good bargains.
The outlet store on K Street in Modesto opened in 2008 and carried discounted items: scratched, dented and dinged-up, but otherwise fully functional.
A little over five years ago, Direct Appliance became the company it is today, with the addition of Direct Flooring and Home. Though it’s a separate corporation, it’s affiliated closely with Direct Appliance and is contracted to do many of their installations.
Now they wouldn’t just sell the appliances, they would come to your house and put them in too. Remodeling became a central focus of the business. Countertops, cabinets, flooring, lighting and plumbing fixtures were all tied together, so customers had to look no further to get their kitchens up and running.
“Not everybody is getting that service from us,” says Winter. “But most of the time they want the benefit of having it all in one store.”
And if a customer has an issue with a product or how it was installed, they have their own service department that handles it.
The McHenry location has a steady stream of business, and when the new place opens it seems inevitable that more traffic will follow.
Even though they are now incorporated, they don’t plan on extending across state lines or even out of the Central Valley. They don’t harbor dreams of nationwide domination of the appliance industry.
“We like the idea of having a central location, draw the people to us,” Winter said.
His wife Colleen Winter, who left a former life as a journalist to join what has now become like a family business, agrees with Ron.
“You can have a really nice store and draw people, or you can have a lot of mediocre stores everywhere,” she said.
While Direct Appliance does have a website to buy from, they like people to come in so their employees can help be more hands-on with their assistance.
“Our people are trained,” Winter says of his staff. “If we hire somebody that has no experience in the field, the first thing we do is send ‘em off to all the appliance schools…They know their stuff.”
Some customers come in and gaze around the store, confused, unsure of how to even get started. But once the staff knows what they want, they steer them in the right direction to narrow their focus.
“That’s what we’re good at,” Winter says. “Helping people make right decisions.”
The work atmosphere is relaxed, and everyone seems to enjoy each other’s company. The Winters’ son Kris is also part of the crew, an Iraqi war veteran who now shares a slice of ownership.
They look to carry their success to the new store, and inside the cavernous room Winter points and lays out the future.
With a sweep of the hand, the floor plan is conjured up, the vision of what goes where already predetermined.
The top floor wraps around the perimeter, set to accommodate the disabled. The sample kitchen for MJC culinary classes (which they offer at no charge), goes in the rear. When the job is finished, the facility will be nearly four times the size of their current home.
Ron and Colleen Winter stand near the entrance, the pride of their achievement etched into their faces. But not long after, the daydreaming ends.
They return next door, to a sudden influx of customers.
It’s time to get back to work.