Growing up, Dale Kaercher remembers going out to jobsites with his father and helping him install flooring. Once he got older, Kaercher went on his own way and built cabinets for a while before becoming a contractor. In 1985 he founded K&W Interiors, a full-service, design-build company based in Anchorage, Alaska, that specializes in residential kitchen and bath remodeling projects.
“Remodeling is a complicated process; and for most people, it can be really intimidating,” says Kaercher, who wanted to create an operation in which homeowners only need to meet with their project designer and field superintendent. “They don’t have to be calling painters or plumbers or electricians or anybody else. They go through us. It simplifies a lot for them—the clients love it.”
In the beginning, K&W Interiors took care of interior finishes—cabinets, flooring and tile—for new construction. A recession throughout Alaska, however, caused building activity to drop off, so the company pivoted to commercial work. After competition there increased too much, K&W Interiors returned to new construction before establishing its business in residential remodeling.
“Alaska is different than the lower 48 [states],” Kaercher explains. “It seems when it’s booming down there, it’s in a recession here and vice versa: When it’s in a recession there, it’s booming up here. Alaska is really open; down below, it seems if somebody has a business, there are 30 more just like it. And in Alaska, that’s not really the case—you’ve got an opportunity up here to grow.”
K&W Interiors quickly became a family business. “Mike, one of my brothers, has been with me pretty much from day one,” he adds. “And Anthony [another brother], as soon as he got out of college, he joined us. He’s been with us for about 25 years. I’ve got a bookkeeper who has been with us for 30 years now. One of my installers just retired, and he’d been with me for all 35 years.”
Despite the potential for familial tension, the three brothers have never engaged in an argument about the business, Kaercher notes. When the company needed to shut its doors in March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they were unsure about what would happen, so he posted an invitation on Facebook for people to design their own kitchen while stuck being in the house.
“I gave them graph paper and directions on how to measure the kitchen and come up with a list of things that they needed to tell me, like what they are looking for and what their requirements are,” Kaercher says. “We got a good response. Most people were sitting at home doing nothing anyway, so this was an opportunity to work on their kitchen remotely. We got a lot of business from that.”
Designers meet virtually with customers through Zoom, he adds, but once clients begin picking their finishes, they must visit the company’s showroom. “If you’re looking at your cabinetry or paint colors or flooring, you need to actually see the product,” Kaercher says. “You can’t do it well online. You can do a lot of the preliminary work on Zoom, but you still need to come in.”
Even though the showroom continues to be appointment-only, business is down just 13 percent compared with the previous year, he notes. The bigger obstacle, nevertheless, has been finding qualified candidates to fill numerous positions such as installer, salesperson and administrative assistant. “I’m [also] looking for a warehouse person—I’ve got all kinds of jobs open,” Kaercher adds.
“It’s been a challenge since we started the business, and it’s getting worse because we’ve had a situation in which people going to high school are always told they’ve got to go to college,” he continues. “It’s definitely affecting us. There just aren’t many young people out there in the trades.”
K&W Interiors wants to hire an administrative assistant, as well as an IT professional, because the company has been assessing different software and eventually would like them to get a new system up and running. Kaercher naturally would prefer more clarity on the market outlook for the immediate future, although he believes the rest of the year will be favorable for remodeling.
“There are so many variables right now. There’s a new president, COVID is still going on, and now we’ve got new strains [of the virus] coming out; it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen here,” he explains. “There are a lot of people who are still employed and have been saving money by staying home because of COVID. They now realize that their homes need updating and are ready to get started, so I’m thinking it’s going to be a pretty good year.” QR