ADU Eschews Replacement Biz, Aims for Bigger Game

By Alan Wolf, YSN

One of BrandSource’s newest members is not your typical appliance retailer.

Far from it, Appliance Distributors Unlimited, or ADU, became one of the mid-Atlantic region’s largest white-goods dealers by concentrating its firepower on the homebuilder, kitchen designer, contractor and commercial property channels.

ADU specializes in complete kitchen suites and carries such upmarket brands as Miele, Sub-Zero/Wolf and Thermador in its eight fully appointed showrooms.

The family-run business, now in its 38th year, serves the greater Baltimore-Washington, D.C. metro area from eight fully appointed showrooms that range from northern Virginia to southern Pennsylvania, with more locations in the works.

The ADU leadership team includes, from left: Sales VP Chris Kozimor; President/CEO Linda Oliff-Rohleder; Marketing VP Christy Oliff; sales exec and founder Tom Oliff’s grandson Christopher Hines; Finance VP Nick Olenski; Operations VP Tim Mister; and Christopher’s brother, builder distributor sales exec Wally Hines.

The business model — as well as the business itself — is the brainchild of late founder Thomas Oliff. Tom grew up in an impoverished section of southeast Washington and pulled himself up by the bootstraps by pursuing a career in appliance repair. In time, he saved enough money to buy the small service business that employed him, and assisted builders and property managers when vendors began going direct with consumer repairs.

 “He saw the writing on the wall,” recalled Nick Olenski, the company’s Vice President of Finance.

Tom also realized that bigger profits lay in selling customers new appliances when their old ones were beyond repair. And, as there was no contract distributor in the area, he asked GE to give him a shot.

“He begged them for a year to set him up, to let him show them what he can do,” Nick said.

Ultimately his GE rep relented and sold him a few Hotpoint SKUs, which Tom proceeded to “blow out of the water” from his little shop in Takoma Park, Md., Nick recounted. “They took him seriously after that, and there was no looking back.”

Soon, Tom left the service business and partnered with industry friends to open four separate appliance businesses throughout the metroplex. By 2005, as the co-owners began to retire, he teamed up with his Baltimore associate and soon-to-be Vice President Pat Mister to consolidate all four stores under the ADU brand. The duo added a fifth location in 2015 and, following Tom’s passing two years later, his daughters Linda Oliff-Rohleder and Christy Oliff took ownership of the business, adding their own trio of The Appliance Source stores to the chain.

Nick said the team has spent the last two years centralizing the disparate businesses’ billing, warehousing and operations systems, and has rebranded the newly integrated company — now led by President/CEO Linda and Marketing VP Christy — as “ADU, Your Appliance Source.”

Today, the Linthicum, Md.-based dealer does about half its business filling kitchens for builders, contractors, property managers, schools, hospitals, offices and the hospitality trade, and the other 50 percent working with designers, remodelers and homeowners to plan and install complete high-end kitchen suites. “Very little” of ADU’s revenue comes from walk-in replacement sales, Nick said, although even those skew toward the premium side of the spectrum.

To that end, ADU carries a mix of BSH, Miele, Sub-Zero/Wolf and Whirlpool products, an assortment from legacy vendor GE, plus a host of super-premium niche brands like Bertazonni, BlueStar and Verona. What you won’t find are plumbing supplies or cabinetry, which are outside the company’s core focus, although the staff is well-trained in those areas as well.

Nick said the ADU’s secret sauce is its know-how in executing large-scale projects with upwards of 300 or more living units, plus its familiarity with the unique challenges and demands of its market. “We have a robust contract team that knows the language of D.C.,” he noted, while its seasoned sales staff partners with designers, guides them through the remodeling process, and reviews floor plans to help their clients avoid mistakes.

“Our expertise and attention to detail is what sets us apart from the competition,” he said. “It’s not just a delivery with four pieces, it’s its own animal. We do entire apartment retrofits and understand landlords’ concerns. You can’t hold up a closing!”

Custom builder John Shipley, owner of Castle Rock Builders in greater Baltimore, couldn’t agree more. “We switched our appliance provider to ADU approximately two years ago and could not be happier with the move,” he told YSN. “Even during this time of constrained inventory, they keep us informed as to when we can expect to take delivery on our orders.”

Perhaps most important, “The units have always arrived in great shape and we have not had a single issue. Prior to ADU we were using a large provider out of New Jersey and if there were any damaged appliances it was our responsibility to handle the problem. Not the best use of time when you are trying to deliver a home!”

In contrast, ADU delivers, uncrates and inspects the orders, he said, and, if any item should arrive dinged or dented, it will be removed and replaced by the dealer. “We are very pleased with the relationship,” Shipley added.

Nick credits BrandSource General Manager Jarred Roy and Commercial Loan Portfolio Manager Christine Moore with bringing the Appliance Source to BrandSource. Previously affiliated with a rival buying organization, the dealer was first drawn by the pair’s knowledge of the builder and contract channels, which was absent from their prior group, and next by AVB Marketing’s advanced Alta 360 e-commerce platform.

“We loved the web platform and the impressive set of tools at our disposal,” Nick said, along with such AVB assets as consumer financing, extended warranties and its deep bench of marketing experts and resources.

Now, as Nick and the ADU team begin leveraging the benefits of BrandSource membership, they must still contend with today’s unprecedented demand while crafting expansion plans for the future. “It’s pretty insane,” he said. “New housing and remodeling are still booming, and the stores have been busier than ever. The only thing holding us back is availability. We’re fortunate to be in an industry that’s open and still in demand.”

Looking ahead, ADU foresees additional locations within its current trading area and even larger, multi-family projects in its future. And AVB/BrandSource will be right there to support them. Additional reporting by Andy Kriege

BrandSource, a unit of YSN publisher AVB Inc., is a nationwide buying group for independent appliance, mattress, furniture and CE dealers.