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Q&A with Don’s Appliances


Don’s Appliances is a premiere appliance center in Canonsburg and Pittsburgh, PA.  Rick Nagel, VP of Growth and Development, talked with us recently about their experiences as a family business and the company’s involvement as a member organization of the Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence.


Institute: What are some Institute member program ideas or takeaways you have benefited from and applied in your business? What has been the result or impact?

Rick Nagel: There have been so many great takeaways from our first year in the program. Here are a few that we are using right now while we are in the middle of our expansion.

During the Sheetz family program Joseph Sheetz shared that the best way to help grow a business is to constantly talk to your customers, listen to your employees and look at great retail stores all over the world to spot trends.  He also emphasized that when going to market with a new concept it is far more important to be a fast second with better execution rather than be first.  Evelyn Starr’s program focused on how a brand is a unique promise of value that, to your customer, should convey an image, evoke emotion and solve a problem.  And during Bob Hogan’s session he talked about providing a product or service that continually meets customer needs and generates profits with cash flow.

At Don’s Appliances we are close to completing a 50,000 square foot facility in Robinson that includes a large warehouse, our administrative staff and a new show room. To support this growth we have implemented many of the above concepts into our strategic plan.  With significant market share in the high end appliance business, product lines and price points at big box stores have been identified as an area for growth.  We have been on several field trips to study local competitors, big box stores and independent establishments, as well as retailers of durable goods and car dealers. And one of our vendors arranged a visit for us to meet with a similar sized independent appliance retailer in a similar sized city that has successfully grown in the face of big box competition. We are also looking more closely at how our growth plans fit within our brand and brand promise “Don’s Appliances Exceptional Brands and Service”, and at the same time factoring in how much growth risk we can take on while maintaining an acceptable rate of return on our investment.


Institute:  How does your membership with the Institute benefit you and Don’s Appliances?  Is there a particular instance that stands out in your memory?

RN: Every program has broadened our perspective while providing practical solutions to real issues facing family business owners.  After Scott Snook spoke about leadership it caused us to think about our managers and ask ourselves a few questions: “Are they leaders?  Do they have the skills to take Don’s to the next level? Can they evolve and grow with brand? What does it cost us if they don’t?  What do we need to do to ensure our people are successful?”


Institute:  Working in a family business is unique, what are some of the challenges and rewards?

RN: A family business is a challenge and a reward; in our case there are five brothers running the business started by their dad in 1971. The family environment of trust and building a business that their parents started has been one of the biggest rewards. Don, their dad, has steadily lessened his role in the business allowing the five brothers to handle the heavy lifting. Two brothers operate Parts and Service and three are in Sales and Administration.  While these are defined roles, there is not a clear overall leader at this time. The Sheetz family program put into perspective the importance of clear leadership and corporate governance.


Institute: Your company does a lot of community work, including with Ronald McDonald House. Do you mind telling us more about your community involvement and your experiences with RMH?

RN: Don’s Appliance is a family business. To us family is everything. We work with various organizations throughout the community to help families in need.  Our buying group, Brand Source, is a national sponsor of Ronald McDonald House, a nonprofit that helps families of sick children with housing and expenses while the children are receiving medical treatments in another city.  We recently made a donation to them for every Facebook like we received. We also are taking five RMH families to a private skate with former Pittsburgh Penguin players. Don’s also has supplied RMH facilities with appliances.


Institute: What’s the craziest/coolest/most over the top kitchen ever worked on by Don’s Appliances?

RN: At Don’s we do our very best to keep our customer’s business private. Not only do we do what the big box stores can, but we do what no one else in the area can. We have the products, knowledge and staff to meet the elaborate needs of the most discerning clients. A recent project comes to mind; a complete gut and remodel of a mansion in the Oakland area. We supplied more than $150,000 in appliances for an extreme kitchen, a spectacular outdoor kitchen, incredible bar, commercial laundry, and multiple beverage centers in other parts of the home.