Some of the same skills that made Diane Feuillerat an efficient accountant have also guided her through a successful career in kitchen design. Meet the namesake of this Rockford-area company and discover what makes her work stand out.
No matter when you visit Diane Feuillerat, or how busy she is, you’ll never see a messy stack of papers on her desk or an out-of-date kitchen display in her showroom. There won’t be a jumble of product samples or pamphlets cluttering her store, either.
“Everything should have a place,” she says matter-of-factly.
Feuillerat believes in punctuality, too.
“I learned about work ethic while growing up on a farm near Rockton,” Feuillerat says. “Animals need to be fed on time. There’s a schedule to keep.”
Punctuality is especially appreciated when your kitchen is torn up for six weeks during a kitchen remodel. And attention to detail is paramount, since the slightest miscalculation can add can weeks to your project schedule.
It was Feuillerat’s orderly, efficient nature that compelled her to earn an accounting and bookkeeping degree from Rock Valley College after she graduated from Hononegah High School. But it was a posting on a college job board that led her to the kitchen cabinetry business, when she signed on as bookkeeper at Citation Distributors in Rockford.
“It didn’t take me long to realize that bookkeeping was not going to be my lifelong love,” she says. “I figured out that I had a creative side, too, and that I wanted to work with people, not just sit behind a desk.”
Her boss transferred her to the sales department, where she thrived.
“I mostly learned by watching customers and salespeople interact,” she says. “I learned early on that it’s really important to listen to people. It’s not what I like that matters – it’s what the customer likes and needs. That’s who’ll be living with that new kitchen. I offer expertise, but I don’t tell them what they like.”
She also loved the problem-solving aspect of redesigning a kitchen and says, “I’ve never met a kitchen that I couldn’t improve.”
Feuillerat spent the better part of 20 years at Citation, taking six years off when she and husband Rich welcomed three baby boys in the span of four-and-a-half years. At Citation, she handled kitchen designs for both new and existing homes. The latter became her favorite kind of puzzle to solve.
“I like the challenge of working around all the unique, sometimes very disjointed parameters of an existing kitchen,” she says. “The more limitations there are, the more creative you have to be.”
After Citation closed, Feuillerat went to work for Selin Kitchens, where she spent 13 years designing hundreds of kitchens, including many featured in the annual Rockford Parade of Homes. In 2002, Ann Creek came aboard at Selin and created 3D computer sketches that illustrated Feuillerat’s designs.
Selin was a busy place and Feuillerat developed hundreds of customer relationships.
“I remember one year when we were doing four Parade homes at once,” she says. “Now that was hectic.”
After Ron Selin sold his business, Feuillerat contemplated her future.
“I had a passion for two things: working with horses and working with customers to design their kitchens,” she says. “I decided that my time spent with horses would remain a hobby.”
By now her sons were grown and Rich encouraged her aspirations. She could freely devote herself to the very long hours she knew that her new business would require.
“When you open a business, you need to love what you’re selling,” says Feuillerat. “I really enjoy helping people transform their kitchens. I love seeing how happy they are with the end result.”
Equipped with enthusiasm and experience, she wrote her business plan in under a month. She obtained financial backing from her sister, Nancy Eaton of Rockton, who believed in her potential. She searched for an ideal location and found it at 6346 E. Riverside Blvd. in Loves Park, Ill.
Feuillerat lacked just one thing: a healthy economy. The year was 2009 and the housing market had crashed. The word “depression” was on the lips of economists.
“A lot of people tried to talk me out of opening the business because of the economy,” she recalls. “Some of them said I was crazy. But I had such a clear vision for what I wanted my business to be that I just went ahead.”
Was she scared?
“When I first opened my doors, I was very concerned about my new business and its success. What if nobody came in? I had put my name in the business title, ‘Kitchens by Diane,’ in hopes that my previous customers would be able to find me.”
And find her they did.
“The economy was poor, but I was counting on the fact that many people would fix up their existing homes rather than sell and move. And that’s what happened.”
Very soon, Feuillerat needed reinforcement for her one-woman operation. She invited her former Selin co-worker, Ann Creek, to come aboard part-time, in 2010.
“I jumped at the chance to work for Diane because she not only has a deep knowledge of the kitchen business, but also has integrity,” says Creek. “She had always insisted that customers be treated fairly and with respect. I knew she’d make sure that happened in her own business.”
Creek was a good fit at Kitchens by Diane.
“Ann is great at marketing and brings a skill set that complements mine,” says Feuillerat. “She keeps up on technology and maintains our website. She also understands both the kitchen business and the importance of great customer service.”
And customer service is everything to Feuillerat. She believes it’s as much her product as the cabinets and countertops she sells. To that end, she set high standards for herself before opening.
For starters, she vowed always to return a phone call or email message within 24 hours.
She also wanted a showroom of neatly arranged, fully accessorized kitchen displays, including one complete working kitchen. She didn’t want an overabundance of product samples that would overwhelm people and clutter the space.
Feuillerat also knew she wanted to work with Holiday Kitchens and Grabill brands of cabinetry because they’re reliable. She already knew local subcontractors that met her standards, but she also works with any subcontractor a homeowner chooses.
From the start, Feuillerat made a point of referring customers to locally owned businesses, rather than chain stores, for kitchen products she doesn’t carry, such as appliances and flooring.
Once open, Feuillerat found herself greeting many familiar customers she’d worked with decades before.As her reputation for excellence spread, she found herself doing kitchens for customers all over the region and beyond.
Despite the recession, Feuillerat showed a profit during her first year in business. Today she averages 30 to 40 kitchen remodels per year, along with improvement projects in bathrooms, laundry rooms and rooms in need of built-in entertainment centers. At any given moment, she has several projects going at once, in various stages, although you’d never know it by looking at her pristine desk.
Working with good contractors and good suppliers makes her job easier, says Feuillerat. But Creek has another theory.
“The same attention to detail required of an accountant comes in handy for a kitchen designer,” notes Creek. “To be successful, designers have to get every last measurement and detail exactly correct on the first try. That skill serves Diane well.”
Along with Creek, Feuillerat employs two other part-time professionals. One is Tami Blevins, who has worked in kitchen design showrooms since 2005 and studied art and color. This equips her to assist clients in aesthetic design choices such as paint color and flooring styles.
“Tami is responsible for all computer design work in our software program and for pricing,” says Feuillerat.
Rhonda Schiessl handles the bookkeeping. While Feuillerat could do it, she’d rather spend that time playing with horses and teaching her three grandchildren to ride. To her great surprise, a mare she recently purchased turned out to be pregnant.
“So I’m raising a colt, now, which is great fun but requires a lot of attention,” she says. “I need to work with him every day.”
Looking back on the first eight years of her business, Feuillerat has no regrets.
“Having worked in other showrooms, I was fortunate to know what I did and didn’t want for my customers, before I ever opened my doors,” she says. “If I were to offer advice to any prospective business owner, it would be to love what you do and to be sure you’re ready to devote the time it takes to be successful. I couldn’t have done this when my children were young. Starting a business impacts the whole family and everyone has to be on-board.
“And, when you’re able to hire help, find good people who complement your skill set and are as devoted to great customer service as you are. It can make all the difference.”