Everything and the Kitchen Sink
Chapdelaine & Sons Continues to Build on Its Tradition
The look pretty much said it all.
When asked for his take on the annual Western Mass. Home Show, which recently concluded its annual run at the Big E, Roger Chapdelaine Jr., or RJ, as he’s called by friends and colleagues, smiled, gazed skyward, and shook his head slightly. This was more than enough body language to convey, as he would say later, that the show is work, and lots of it.
“It’s a long show,” he said, emphasizing long, and referring to the four days on the exhibit room floor, the extensive booth-preparation work — including the dismantling and re-assembly of some displays within the company’s showroom — and other prep work required to generate real results. “It requires a lot of time and effort.”
But in the end, it’s well worth it, he said, noting that it gives his third-generation family business, Joseph Chapdelaine & Sons Inc., with a second division called Kitchens by Chapdelaine, some important exposure — and much more. The show provides opportunities for this firm, which specializes in both new home construction and additions, as well as kitchens and baths, to renew some old acquaintances, make some new ones, add a few jobs for later in the year, and get a general sense for what’s happening with the economy and the consumers watching it.
Indeed, while there are many ways to gauge where specific business markets are heading, from quarterly statistics to trends emerging through the nature and frequency of recent phone calls to the company, the home show has proven to be a fairly accurate barometer of what area residents are thinking — and planning.
“The show gives us a pretty good sense of what’s happening in the market,” said David Chapdelaine, Roger’s brother and co-principal of this East Longmeadow-based venture that recently celebrated its 80th year in business. “Some people will bring plans for a new home, others will be looking to remodel; there’s a pretty good mix, and how that mix is weighted is a pretty good indicator of what the year is going to bring.”
But such knowledge is just the first part of the business equation, he continued. Being positioned to provide what consumers want and need — be it new kitchen cabinets, a lot on which to build, or a custom-built dream house — is the second, far more important part.
Handling both aspects of the assignment has been what this company has done since it was created by the partners’ grandfather in 1925, and took the name Joseph Chapdelaine Builders.
The elder Chapdelaine left his native Canada for Western Mass. and embarked on a career as a carpenter and then a home-builder. He was followed in that work by four sons, Gerard, Roland, Roger Sr., and Robert, requiring a modest name change (the & Sons). Succeeding generations have continued the tradition and expanded upon it. Roger Sr. is still active today, said David, noting that, at 72, he’s “down” to 40 hours a week.
“He’s our best employee,” he continued, adding that since he and Roger bought the company from their father, the last surviving second-generation member, in 2001, they have been committed to developing new business opportunities while remaining loyal to their grandfather’s vision and service-oriented method of doing business. It is this model that separates the company from operations that amount to an individual with a pick-up truck and a cell phone.
“It sounds a little corny,” said RJ, “but it all boils down to taking care of people, and that’s what we’ve done through all those years.”
Roger Chapdelaine said the kitchen has always been the center of the house, a gathering place where food preparation represents only a small part of a big role.
But it’s only been fairly recently that homeowners have started to give the kitchen the attention and appointments worthy of such of such an important role — in essence, adding form to the function.
And that form is being expressed in new and different ways.
“The kitchen is the gathering place for the family; it’s the center of the home,” he explained. “Kitchens are larger and much more efficient than ever, and people are outfitting them with high-end appliances, butlers’ pantries, televisions, breakfast bars, you name it. In general, people are making the components of their kitchen look like real furniture.”
Meanwhile, countertop materials are changing, and homeowners have more choices than could have imagined decades ago. “Granite is still the hottest, along with limestone and marble, but there are a number of new quartz products that are becoming increasingly popular,” he said.
Helping homeowners embrace the emerging trends in kitchen designs and materials is just one of many factors that have contributed to the continued growth and longevity of the Chapdelaine company.
This is how it’s been since Joseph Chapdelaine built his first home on Wilbraham Road in Springfield at the height of the Roaring ’20s. The company’s patriarch focused on custom homes, mostly built on what are called “scattered lots,” before later branching into subdivisions, said David, adding that his grandfather worked in several communities, including Springfield, Longmeadow, East Long-meadow, West Springfield, and others.
While building these homes and subdivisions, said Roger, Joe Chapdelaine noticed that their eventual owners were purchasing boxed kitchen cabinets instead of building the cabinets in place. He saw an opportunity to add another dimension to his business and, in collaboration with son Robert, created the Kitchens by Chapdelaine component.
“It gave him the opportunity to control the types of kitchens that were going into his homes,” Roger explained. “That’s how the kitchen and remodeling business got its start, and done it has done very well ever since.”
That operation is a somewhat separate entity, David explained, adding that there are distinct staffs but one set of books. But there has always been a crossover effect, with the kitchens and baths, or individual components for each, becoming part of the mostly high-end homes that the Chapdelaine company has built on individual lots or subdivisions in communities across the Pioneer Valley.
The volume of business recorded by each division fluctuates with the economy, said Roger, noting, however, that the kitchen component remains fairly steady from year to year, with perceptible upticks when the real estate market is slow or slower — as it is now.
During such times, some homeowners make a conscious decision to invest in their current home rather than look toward their next home.
“Those are the times when people will look to redo their kitchen, redo their bath, add onto to their home, or put in a new family area, and that’s what we’re seeing now,” he said, before doing some quick calculating with his brother to estimate that roughly 60% of the company’s revenues are derived from new home construction and 40% from remodeling, while a few years ago, those numbers were more like 70-30, and a few decades ago, 80-20.
Range of Options
The brothers Chapdelaine have been watching the company adjust to economic cycles and gradually increase its remodeling component for more than 30 years, and they both have lasting memories of toiling for their grandfather, father, and uncles at early ages.
David recalls cleaning rooms and mowing lawns at some of the spec houses the company built in various communities, and working assorted jobs around the office. Later, he went on to work for more than a dozen years at the Taylor Rental store located next door to the showroom on Shaker Road that was owned by one of his uncles.
RJ remembers helping to frame houses with one of the company’s subcontractors starting when he was 12.
“I was making $2 an hour and getting paid under the table,” he recalled, adding that the $80 he took home made him comfortable for that age. “I was the richest kid in town,” he joked. “There are labor laws now and issues with cash, but back then, I didn’t think anything of it.”
Today, the two brothers split the duties that come with managing both divisions of the company. These range from taking shifts at the Home Show — they were scheduled in for duty at Booth 411 just as other employees were — to taking customers through each of the steps involved in creating a custom home, from finding a site to design to construction.
An engineer by trade, David computerized the company in the 1980s, and currently does most of the estimating work on projects. Roger, meanwhile, focuses on design of everything from new homes to additions to kitchen remodeling.
There is ample business across the board, said the two partners, noting that while home sales have indeed slowed somewhat across the region (although the market is still stronger than that in Eastern Mass.), there is always a market for new construction.
The home-building component takes many different forms, including individual lots and subdivisions, said David, adding that some clients have their own blueprints while others will hire the company to craft designs. Overall volume fluctuates, but the company generally builds between 10 to 15 homes a year in communities ranging from Longmeadow (there are still a few lots there) to Belchertown, which is becoming an attractive option for both Western Mass. natives and Boston-area residents looking to get more house for their dollar than they would in most communities east of Worcester.
Meanwhile, the kitchen and bath business has seen that predictable surge that accompanies slower times for the real estate market. But there are other factors contributing to its steady growth.
Part of it is the ongoing evolution of the kitchen, said Roger, noting that these rooms are now bigger and better-appointed than ever. Designers at the company use computers to help clients piece together their dream kitchen, from the material for the counter top, to increasingly elaborate islands that add a third dimension, to scrollwork on cabinets.
But the kitchen and bath component of the business has also been helped somewhat by the home improvement channels now flooding cable television. Such programming serves to fuel the imagination by showing people new trends and products, said Roger, and it creates a better-informed pool of customers — people who are more knowledgeable about their options.
And while these programs, coupled with commercials from Home Depot and other big-box home-improvement chains, have encouraged some to become do-it-yourselfers, the Chapdelaine brothers inject some words of caution for those with such ambitions.
“We have a saying around here — you do what you do best, whatever it may be, and pay us to do what we do best.”
A Hard Finish
In general, what this company does best is provide customer service — be it with an explanation of the newest granite countertops, or taking the home from blueprint to reality.
The Pioneer Valley landscape has changed considerably since Joseph Chapdelaine starting building houses in Springfield — and there are far fewer places left on which to construct homes — but the company he started really hasn’t.
Through three generations it is still primarily in the business of building relationships, not structures and cabinets, and providing everything and the kitchen sink.
George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]