One would think that when Komandor made the decision to expand into North America in 1997, it would have been a rather seamless process. After all, the company, launched in 1992 in Warsaw, had a solid reputation as experts in unique furniture systems and dominated the sliding door market in Europe. They were a profitable, well-respected business with a proven track record and employed only the best engineers, designers and sales teams.
“What’s interesting is that as we expanded in Europe and simultaneously launched in North American, we thought we could use the same business model,“ says Lucian Ezman, the company’s director. “And we couldn’t have been more wrong. We thought we could just use the same plan in the North American market but we honestly couldn’t have anticipated how different those markets were.”
It took them about two years to do a deep dive into the living habits of Canadians and Americans and rethink their business model. There were a few key differences that quickly became obvious. “When you purchase a home or condo in Europe, you buy it in a raw state, unlike in North America, where people want everything finished—what the industry here calls ‘turn-key,’” Ezman says, laughingly adding that Europeans call it ‘under the key.’ “Seventy to 80 percent of all homes in North America are sold turnkey. In Europe, only 20 percent are sold that way, and those are usually co-ops or government houses. Europeans don’t want a builder deciding what appliances, flooring, cabinetry, fixtures—even toilets will—be in the space. They just don’t understand it.” So the European craftsmanship that Komandor prided itself on literally didn’t translate to this side of the world because it had more to do with a bespoke, artisan style of carpentry. They needed to rethink the way they made and sold their products.
Something else Ezman and his business partner, Brian Teppo, didn’t fully understand before they did their due diligence was how their distribution model would need to be altered based on the sheer size of the US and Canada. “In Europe, you can have one distribution centre per country,” Ezman says. “In the US for example, you have the West Coast, the East Coast, the Midwest, the South. Each one of those different regions, to Europeans, is like a separate country. America is a country of 300 million people with the wealth of a combination of about 20 nations in Europe.”
Another difference (really, who knew?): “Through history, Europeans have created their closets and cabinetry as armoires; they are pieces of furniture in the corner of the room rather than built-in as part of the infrastructure of the home. It’s a piece of furniture that you move with you,” says Ezman. “That was another key ingredient that we adapted to the North American market. We took the wall unit, wardrobe and armoire and embedded it into the home but added the ability to customize a beautiful, customized sliding door with shelving.” (Sliding doors with personalized imagery are a huge part of their bespoke offering. For example, they have clients with a condo in downtown Toronto who have a picture of their Muskoka cottage on their closet doors; another client has an image of the zebra they photographed on a safari trip to Kenya.)
Ezman has learned a lot in his 28 years in the industry (he started out as a mechanical engineer in the automotive industry—something he attests isn’t that different….). “With many of the mirrored doors sold in big-box stores, you don’t get the quality,” he says. “Our company went in the opposite direction. All of our competitors were looking for cheaper and more standardization, but at Komandor, we are the only ones offering more selection and still maintaining our quality.”
“Like in Alice in Wonderland,” he says, comparing the speed at which they need to get their company accessible to clients here. “When Alice was running with the clock, they were running at full speed, and they stopped and realized they were at the same spot.”
Ezman knew that the children’s book matched his company’s desire to bridge the gap between the original Eurpoean strategy to North America. But as the story goes, it was possible because he believed it.