You can tell that Raymond C. Bialkowski is a hands-on president of Kittinger Furniture Co. His shoes are sprinkled with sawdust.
Born in Black Rock, Bialkowski attended McKinley High School, where he studied carpentry. It was there that he developed the ambition and dream to work for Kittinger. In 1979 he apprenticed in Kittinger’s cabinetmaking department. By 1996 Bialkowski would purchase the Kittinger name and production rights.
Today Bialkowski is 53 and oversees a 147-year-old company with a customer list that includes the White House. In 2012 Kittinger was recognized as a top American manufacturer by MADE: In America, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit group.
Kittinger employs 25 people between its furniture gallery on Transit Road and the manufacturing plant that will soon move from the TriMain Center on Main Street to a former roller rink in Amherst.
Bialkowski and his wife, Karen, are married for 28 years and live in Williamsville with their two children.
People Talk: What was your first job at Kittinger?
Raymond Bialkowski: Physically sanding chairs as an apprentice in the cabinetmaking department. It’s tedious and monotonous. I was in that position for three years.
PT: And now you are president. Tell me about ambition.
RB: Ultimately at the end of the day when you get kicked in the rear and the next morning you have to come in and do it all over again, you better have some ambition behind you. We just went through a major recession, and in this industry we got our butts kicked. To come in here and struggle and to get auction brochures from other companies going out of business left and right, and then try and put a positive face on? Think about going through a depression and trying to make decisions about a move. It’s not even about money. I’m not sitting here being rich. I work my rear-end off.
PT: Weren’t you set to move this summer?
RB: We’re behind. The original date was August, but now we hope to be out by the end of the year. Construction is going slow, and I’m not used to that. I guess it’s very common in the construction industry for things to get delayed. We took an existing building, a roller rink at 22,000 feet, and we’re adding on 15,000 feet. It’s unbelievable to be honest, extremely overwhelming.
PT: What is the singular most difficult task about being president of this company?
RB: Working with the craftsmen and making sure they realize they are valued. You always have to worry about people leaving after you train them for years. Everything is hand–cut, hand-sanded, hand-fit. Then you stamp your letter on it. My letter was Z. We’re proud of what we do here. It’s very difficult to try and maintain an American-made presence.
PT: Do you still have a showroom in Tokyo?
RB: Yes we do. When I got the inquiry about opening a showroom in Japan, I thought it was spam. A group of Japanese businessmen eventually decided to come here. They were on their hands and knees looking under every single drawer. It was unbelievable, the questions about quality and details. At the end of two days, they wanted to carry our product. It’s our first international presence, as far as somebody carrying our line.
PT: Your furniture is found in the White House Oval Office and the Cabinet Room. How important is that connection in attracting customers?
RB: Very. The whole relationship started with President Nixon, and the official renovation of the West Wing. He ordered a table 22.5 feet long. We restored it in 1997, brought the whole table back when President Clinton took his daughter to college. We watched him take off in Marine One. We brought the table back to Buffalo in our truck and we had two weeks to completely restore it.
PT: Have you any more international customers lined up?
RB: Actually, we’ve been trying to do some business in China. Most people think China is going to send products to us, but what’s exciting is they want to carry our product. There’s a lot of very wealthy people in China. An international presence I actually believe will be an important part of our future because less and less Americans are valuing the quality of our product. That’s very sad to say.
PT: What does a typical Kittinger cost?
RB: You can get a small table from us for $800. You could buy an executive desk for $8,000. You could buy one for $15,000.
PT: What kind of wood do you use?
RB: Only South American mahogany, the absolute finest wood for furniture manufacturing – unless a customer requests another. We could cut the cost of material in half by using African. Years ago walnut was the primary wood – I’m talking 1920s.
PT: When you go home, do you leave the business behind you?
RB: Not really. When I leave here I end up at my retail store on Transit. My wife, Karen, manages that end of the business, thank God.
PT: When was your last vacation?
RB: Last year we went to Cancun. That’s one thing we really enjoy – traveling – and my wife promotes it extensively. We probably don’t do it enough.
PT: Does your success surprise you?
RB: I don’t think it surprises me. A lot of people would be riding a very high horse if they owned this company. I’m very low-key. I don’t have an ego.
PT: Is your house stocked with Kittinger furniture?
RB: Currently, there is quite a bit of Kittinger, but at the beginning there wasn’t. When I was an employee, I dreamt about owning Kittinger furniture. I’ll never forget the first warehouse sale when I bought my dining room chairs on a payment plan. I was paying something like $20 a week. I still have them today.