James Krengel is on the road 200 days a year. His passion for teaching takes him from his home office in Minneapolis across the country to spread the word about professionalism and creativity to designers, consumers, and manufacturers. In one week he could be in Chicago, Omaha, and Atlanta. The next week could take him on a whirlwind tour of New England. The 100,000 miles he travels each year has earned him platinum membership on Northwest Airlines — and the admiration of thousands of industry professionals.
His teaching career is actually the second job he's held in his 45 years in the kitchen and bath industry. For the first 30 years, he worked at and then ran the successful Kitchens by Krengel in St. Paul, which his daughter Lori Jo Krengel now owns.
He served the National Kitchen and Bath Association first as Minneapolis chapter president and then as national president. It was his association participation that eventually evolved into teaching.
“I'll bet in the last 10 years, Jim has spoken in front of the majority of CKDs and CBDs,” says remodeler Gordon Gregg of City Builders in Lynnwood, Wash.
Daughter Lori Jo did not realize the extent of her father's reach until she attended her first KBIS show in 1995. “We couldn't go 2 feet without someone coming up to him. They would even stop me. I was in the ladies' restroom when someone said, ‘Your father helped me pass the CKD exam. I can't tell you how grateful I am,'” she says. “He has impacted every [NKBA] chapter in the U.S. by inspiring individual people.”
Stepping Up Jim's father, Bill Krengel, sold appliances, and then metal kitchen cabinets, in a Minneapolis department store. He opened his own kitchen and bath studio in 1959, at a time when there were no other design studios in the Twin Cities.
“He was a pioneer,” Jim Krengel says. Kitchens by Krengel is still at the same centrally located Grand Avenue space in St. Paul.
Krengel joined his father after he returned from Vietnam — a deliberate choice he made soon after enlisting and serving in the war. “The most important thing was my family. I wrote a letter home to my father [telling him] that I would join the business,” Krengel says.
He worked in demolition for 18 months before moving to office work and sales. A good communicator, Krengel found sales both natural and exciting. “A good salesman is always on the hunt, looking to close the sale. You can be the best designer in five states, but if you can't sell, you can't make a living,” he says. He attributes much of what he knows about customer service to his father. “He was a master at making his customers love him,” Krengel says. His father believed in something the French Creole refer to as lagniappe — a little something extra. For example, Bill would give a client pull-out shelves they had not ordered or take care of problems that were past warranty.
Another key to the success of K by K was their cabinet shop. “We could make anything anyone wanted,” Krengel says. The shop helped the company serve a market that was underserved by other showrooms: what they call partial kitchens — jobs for clients who wanted to add cabinets to an existing kitchen. “We could match existing cabinets. No one else wanted to bother,” Krengel says. “It was a profitable market.”
A Growing Passion But even working among his family, early on in his career, Krengel felt isolated. He did not know other dealers in his area and could not talk to anyone about the issues he faced. “When I heard about the American Institute of Kitchen Dealers, I thought we should have a chapter in Minnesota,” he says. He founded a chapter for the Institute, which later became the National Kitchen & Bath Association.
Local dealers did not understand his reasoning. “They would say, ‘You don't need it, your company is the most well-known of the area studios,'” Krengel says.
But he knew it would be good for dealers — not just in Minnesota but nationwide. At the time, professionalism was not defined. “Our challenge was to find ways to deal with what are now everyday issues — how to charge for design, what markup to charge, good profit margins,” he says.
He used whatever he could to communicate these ideas. When he served as president of NKBA in 1989, he developed a program called “The Professional Approach: Packaging Your Business and Yourself.” He visited all 40 chapters to present this idea. He photographed Barbie and Ken dolls to portray professional dress. “It was very pedestrian,” he laughs.
Ellen Cheever, who had been on the front lines in this battle, felt a connection with Krengel. “We shared an appreciation for working hard to get consumers to understand that we were valued professionals,” says the owner of Ellen Cheever & Associates, in Wilmington, Del. Krengel, Cheever, Gay Fly, and Mort Block formed the “CKD Players” — a troupe that performed at conferences. They acted out common K&B dealer scenarios, including skits titled “Charging for Design: Some Do, Some Don't, Some Should, Some Won't,” and “Contracts: He Said, She Said, They Said, We Said.”
At the same time, though, designer Mollyanne Sherman of MAC Design in Newark, Calif., says Krengel mistakenly earned a reputation for being cold, or difficult. “He is particular and wants to make sure things are done right. That is part of his passion,” she says. He's toughest on himself. Sherman says at the end of a seminar, he is critical of any minor mistakes he might have made. Chuck Chase, manager of customer training at Merillat, says Krengel always asks for feedback. “He won't be happy if he misses the mark,” Chase says.
Donald Martin of Kasmar Publications in Palm Desert, Calif., first met Krengel at a trade show in 1987 and soon after asked Krengel to join the board for his K&B journal's design contest. In the 17 years Krengel has served on this board, he has earned Martin's abiding respect and friendship. “We just started an endowment program to donate funds to the NKBA for education. Jim will be our representative in college presentations,” Martin says.
Krengel was inducted into the NKBA Hall of Fame in 2002. His nomination came from a former student. That same year, he earned a CMKBD (Certified Master Kitchen and Bathroom Designer) — one of only 36 designers in the country with that designation. To earn that accreditation, a designer must have CKD and CBD certifications, 10 years of industry experience, and three professional affidavits.