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Episode 49

Tom Miskowski – From Meat Packaging to Manufacturing CEO, to Kitchen Solvers Franchise Owner

About BizCast Greater La Crosse

We bring you news from the business community. From startups to experienced problem solvers, you’ll get in-depth insight on the challenges and opportunities of doing business in Greater La Crosse. Our show is a collaboration between WIZMNews.com and BizNews Greater La Crosse ( GreaterLaCrosse.media ).

 Summary

In this episode of BizCast Greater La Crosse, host Vicki Markussen interviews Tom Miskowski who has worn many hats in his path to current franchise owner of Kitchen Solvers. With more than 50 local Kitchen Solvers turning to him and his team to help them grow, hear how Tom’s path took him to the auto industry and meat packaging. He’s been owner of Century Foods then CEO after they sold to Hormel. Learn how he created his golden parachute by owning the Kitchen Solvers franchise.

Full Transcript [ generated by AI]

..[00:00:00] Tom Miskowski: I wanted to own something that was mine.

[00:00:04] Tom Miskowski: To be all in on the bottom line. You never know when. Somebody’s going to call you and say, Hey, you pick up your belongings, and you got to move to, Dallas, and I was looking for a company to stay in lacrosse, forever. And luckily, we found Kitchen Solvers.

[00:00:20]

[00:00:21] Vicki Markussen: Welcome to BizCast Greater La Crosse, a weekly podcast from BizNews. We bring you news from the business community. I am your host and founder, Vicki Markussen. Today’s guest is Tom Miskowski. He is the owner of Kitchen Solvers. And it is not kitchen solvers as we think of it On what is it third or fourth street in lacrosse?

[00:00:41] Tom Miskowski: Most people are familiar with the local franchise, which is Brian and Susie Crowley. They’ve been remodeling kitchens in lacrosse for over 30 years, and they do a very good job of it as a franchise, or I’m responsible for selling franchises, new franchises and running them.

[00:01:00] Tom Miskowski: The operations and all the systems for our 50 franchises around the country.

[00:01:05] Vicki Markussen: as a franchisor, as you touched on, you are creating the structure. So it’s easy for a franchisee to start up. What does that look like?

[00:01:16] Tom Miskowski: A lot of people, identify that they want to be in the home services, and maybe they have some skills.

[00:01:22] Tom Miskowski: Maybe they have. Remodeling skills, or maybe they have some sales skills, but they don’t have all the systems to pull it together. They don’t necessarily have a sales model. They don’t know how to generate leads. They don’t have any software for their CRM management. They don’t know how to hire people.

[00:01:43] Tom Miskowski: And we put the entire program together for them. And, the way I like to think of it is, it’s like you’ve got a team of 10 people working for you that you buy into, and we’re developing all the systems the vendor relationships, the products and the processes. So you don’t have to do that.

[00:02:02] Tom Miskowski: And you can focus on selling and remodeling kitchens.

[00:02:07] Vicki Markussen: And I should back step and say, for those who aren’t familiar with kitchen solvers, what is it?

[00:02:13] Tom Miskowski: We’re a remodeling company. We focus on kitchens. Certainly, some of our locations will do baths and occasionally, some light building as well.

[00:02:23] Tom Miskowski: But probably 95% of what we’re doing is kitchen remodeling new cabinetry primarily. We also work to reface cabinets, and not everybody’s familiar with that. Your cabinets in your house are probably in great shape, but you don’t like the way they look, so we can come in and put a veneer on the outside of the cabinets and get you new doors and drawers.

[00:02:44] Tom Miskowski: And he would have the appearance of having a brand-new kitchen without the mess. Or the cost or the hassle. So new kitchen cabinets and refacing.

[00:02:54] Vicki Markussen: And so you can go from a brown cabinet color to white all through working with kitchen solvers.

[00:03:03] Tom Miskowski: Yeah. And to the naked eye. Everything is going to be white.

[00:03:07] Tom Miskowski: You’d have to open up the cabinet and really stick your head in there to see that, oh yeah, that cabinet was brown at one time. And ironic that you said white it seems right now that about 90 percent of every new kitchen is white, very popular trend these days.

[00:03:22] Vicki Markussen: And so most of the cost is oftentimes in the wood and the cabinetry itself.

[00:03:29] Vicki Markussen: And so this is a lower cost way to remodel.

[00:03:31] Tom Miskowski: Yeah. Much cost in terms of both materials and labor. We can turn a kitchen around in one day, refacing it. Whereas if you’re installing new cabinets, you have to tear out all the old cabinets and hang all new cabinets, level them, shim them but a lot of people want a new layout in their kitchen, right?

[00:03:54] Tom Miskowski: So if you’re changing the footprint, then refacing isn’t for you. You’re going to need new cabinetry if you’re changing the footprint.

[00:04:02] Vicki Markussen: And a lot of times people, if they’re going to refresh the kitchen, there’s the countertops, there’s flooring. So to what extent, Kyle, yeah, to what extent do you does a kitchen solvers franchisee get involved?

[00:04:16] Tom Miskowski: Sure. So that’s dependent on the franchisee, their skillset and their ability or desire to hire employees. So some of our locations will hire a great tile person. And if you have a good tile person, well, then now you’re probably doing baths, and you’re doing all the back splashes and maybe some floor work on your own.

[00:04:39] Tom Miskowski: If you don’t, then maybe you’re less inclined to do some bathroom remodels, and you subcontract out the flooring if the job calls for flooring. So it just depends on each individual franchise owner.

[00:04:54] Vicki Markussen: And so that’s the interesting part. So now you’re the franchisor. And as you said, you have maybe 10 people that are collectively providing services to your 50 plus franchisees, the local locations.

[00:05:11] Vicki Markussen: And I would imagine there’s some economies of scale in there. So they’re not worrying about what is, I need a marketing piece for this, this or this, or I need help with accounting. They have some resources to fill in the gaps of that, of their weaknesses.

[00:05:26] Tom Miskowski: Yeah. And I’m glad you, I’m glad you highlighted marketing.

[00:05:29] Tom Miskowski: I think that’s a real strength of ours. Ever-changing landscape. And today you need to be able to, market digitally. And, who in the heck has the skill set to understand Google Analytics and the traffic on your website? I’ve got a person who does just that, and her job is digital marketing.

[00:05:49] Tom Miskowski: She’s an expert, and she partners with our franchises. And helps them set a budget based on what their goals are, and then she’ll back into a plan for them to generate leads. And they’ll approve the plan because it’s their money. And then periodically we’ll review that plan. We’ll look at the metrics and the data, and say, Hey, is this working?

[00:06:10] Tom Miskowski: Do we need to do something else? Do we need to do more? Do we need to do less? That kind of thing. I can’t expect that these small business owners are going to be experts in digital marketing. It’s crazy. And

[00:06:22] Vicki Markussen: so they are, there’s always a franchise fee and that’s what they’re paying for with that franchise fee is this access to these resources.

[00:06:32] Vicki Markussen: And I’m guessing as well, there’s some sort of product development, because again, they’re relying on you to say these are the product lines that are available.

[00:06:43] Tom Miskowski: That’s right. We have preferred vendors that we work with. And, one of the reasons you join a franchise is to have more buying power than you would have on your own.

[00:06:54] Tom Miskowski: And, you’re not Markussen the kitchen remodeler, buying cabinets as Kitchen solvers, one of 50 people doing so. So we have, national contracts with vendors, and they’ll ship to our franchise locations all over the country. And

[00:07:11] Vicki Markussen: now you are, you have a new endeavor that you were telling me about.

[00:07:15] Vicki Markussen: Yeah.

[00:07:16] Tom Miskowski: Yeah, probably the dumbest thing I ever, ever did at this stage in my career. But nonetheless, here we are in May I commissioned a small, very humble factory, and we are manufacturing all of our cabinet boxes and shipping them to our franchises around the country. It’s in a very attractive price point.

[00:07:38] Tom Miskowski: It’s a high-quality product. Three-quarter inch plywood, even in the backs we’re shipping them flat packed, so they’re in pieces. Stacked upon each other, so I can ship one whole kitchen in just one pallet. And then the franchises, they just have to glue and screw the cabinets together. Very tight joinery in them and they go together really nice, and they’re very square and solid.

[00:08:03] Tom Miskowski: So the feedback has been fantastic so far six months in.

[00:08:08] Vicki Markussen: So this allows you to do more than just the cabinet faces or were you outsourcing those, the actual cabinets? Is that what was happening before?

[00:08:17] Tom Miskowski: Yeah. We previously we had vendors that were selling complete full cabinets to our franchise partners.

[00:08:26] Tom Miskowski: Now what. What we’re doing is we’re sending boxes the cabinet box, and then they are buying the doors and drawers from a company like a wall’s craft. And we’re putting an edge band on the cabinet fronts to match the door and drawer. They’re all full overlay cabinets. And it’s going just really well so far, couldn’t be happier.

[00:08:48] Vicki Markussen: What was interesting as we were talking about it though, is you’re very much a process person.

[00:08:54] Tom Miskowski: Yeah, I’ve been in factories since I was 15, every job I’ve ever had involved the factory. And I guess what drew me to kitchen solvers part and parcel was it was, Kind of not a lot of bricks and mortar, which was attractive, having been in manufacturing my whole career, mostly intellectual property.

[00:09:12] Tom Miskowski: And then I guess I come on board full time at kitchen solvers and the first thing I do is add bricks and mortar. So go figure. But, yeah, we’re developing the processes right now. The product is very good already. I’m pleased with the product, but we’re trying to get a little bit more efficient and take some time out of the process.

[00:09:30] Tom Miskowski: So we don’t bottleneck ourselves with labor initially.

[00:09:34] Vicki Markussen: So let’s back out of this, so to speak. So you’re local, Gerald Baldner, who you purchased this from is local. Yep. How did you get interested in this?

[00:09:45] Tom Miskowski: this? As I mentioned to you, I was a part of Century Foods in Sparta for almost 25 years.

[00:09:53] Tom Miskowski: And when I started at Century Foods, I was a part owner of that company. And then we ended up selling that company to a much larger company and I didn’t have any ownership and I missed, owning something that, that was my own. And. Having really putting a stake in lacrosse and saying, I’ve got a reason that I’m never going to leave La Crosse and I looked at several businesses over the years and the kitchen solvers opportunity came up, and it seemed like something that I could add value to based on my background, my, my passion for woodworking.

[00:10:29] Tom Miskowski: So I bought Kitchen Solvers with a partner, Wade Nolte, in, in 2010, and I was uh, silent, I was kind of on the board, I’ll, I’ll call it. I wasn’t involved in the day to day, and then I stepped away. I retired from Century Foods in 2022, and I started running Kitchen Solvers.

[00:10:47] Vicki Markussen: Prior to Kitchen Solvers, you were at Century Foods for many years. Yep. Is that what brought you to the area?

[00:10:55] Tom Miskowski: How does anybody get to an area? They follow their wife, right? So smart people. Yeah, right. So, um, my wife had a job in town, and we came to lacrosse and looked it over and thought, wow, this is a great place to live. I’d really like to be involved here with the river and all the great things to do outdoors.

[00:11:13] Tom Miskowski: We came to lacrosse and I happened to find a job at Century Foods that turned into a, you know, long and fulfilling career. Did you start out as an owner?

[00:11:24] Tom Miskowski: Boy, in the early days, there wasn’t a lot of money at Century Foods. We ran it on a shoestring budget, and I worked for equity in lieu of pay for a while.

[00:11:36] Tom Miskowski: And it was a good move.

[00:11:37] Vicki Markussen: That is a good move, a very bold and risky move, but a smart one in

[00:11:43] Tom Miskowski: the end. It’s easier to do when you’re young, and you don’t have a lot of responsibilities or children, and I found myself in that situation.

[00:11:51] Vicki Markussen: Very interesting. And Century Foods, what do they do?

[00:11:55] Tom Miskowski: They Manufacturer dietary supplements

[00:12:00] Vicki Markussen: and you were there you were part of the decision-making process to sell, and then you were there after they sold to the new very large owners.

[00:12:10] Vicki Markussen: What was that? What was that decision-making process like, and what was it like staying on after?

[00:12:16] Tom Miskowski: Yeah, so there was some of the owners had a tax event, and we were forced to sell. Oh, for a state tax reasons. So there wasn’t really much of a decision. It was kind of forced, but I’ll say, I went to bed one night, and I was a seller, and then I woke up the next day, and I was on the buy side as part of the new corporation.

[00:12:39] Tom Miskowski: You just really have to make sure that you’re disclosing everything, complete candor and honesty. And I must have done that because I was able to stick around with the new owners for over 20 years. Wow,

[00:12:52] Vicki Markussen: that sale happened that

[00:12:53] Tom Miskowski: long ago? It would have been 2003.

[00:12:56] Tom Miskowski: Wow, time

[00:12:57] Vicki Markussen: flies. I remember that. What is it in your background that prepared you for Century Foods?

[00:13:04] Tom Miskowski: Century Foods is a contract manufacturer primarily, and it’s, it can be a tough business.

[00:13:10] Tom Miskowski: There’s a lot of people that are looking to point the finger at you, from vendors to customers to, everybody. There’s always blame to assign and, I don’t know. I just grew up in a tougher neighborhood and I guess I can take a lot of grief.

[00:13:24] Vicki Markussen: You’re from

[00:13:25] Tom Miskowski: Detroit? Yeah, I’m from outside of Detroit, just west of the city.

[00:13:29] Tom Miskowski: Jackson, Michigan. It’s a very industrial, blue-collar auto town. And I grew up working in, in all kinds of auto plants from a very young age and just, got accustomed to manufacturing, and I guess the smell of cutting oil, cause that was always on your clothes and hands in the auto industry.

[00:13:49] Tom Miskowski: Because you did

[00:13:50] Vicki Markussen: work in the auto industry.

[00:13:51] Tom Miskowski: I did right out of college. I started for an OEM parts manufacturer. We made pneumatic valves that help drive all the production lines in the auto plants around Michigan. Wow. Very interesting, um, business. And

[00:14:07] Vicki Markussen: then, was it your wife who got a job, how did you get to Wisconsin?

[00:14:13] Vicki Markussen: Yeah,

[00:14:13] Tom Miskowski: My wife went to Wisconsin Madison to, to work on her PhD. And I kind of followed along. That was about the time that Madison was the number one city in America, and it was impossible to get a job in Madison. So I ended up getting a job in Milwaukee at a meat plant. We processed cows into burger patties and things of that nature.

[00:14:39] Tom Miskowski: And I started my grad work at Marquette. I went and got an MBA at Marquette and then we both finished college and said, Hey, let’s not go back to Detroit. Let’s stay in Wisconsin. This is a great place to live. And here we are.

[00:14:53] Vicki Markussen: And here you are. So she got a job here in La Crosse, and you found Century Foods and have raised kids here.

[00:15:01] Tom Miskowski: Yeah it’s, La Crosse has been really good to me and my family. As you know, it can be really difficult to manage two careers. Especially if those careers are, at all specialized it’s hard to find one spot that works for both spouses. I think it’s easier today because a lot more people are remote certainly than they were when we were starting out.

[00:15:22] Tom Miskowski: But yeah, we just really were blessed that we found lacrosse.

[00:15:27] Vicki Markussen: And so you had touched on that kitchen solvers was your parachute you used when we were talking earlier. Yeah. You knew that, well, I don’t want to tell the story. So why did you consider it your

[00:15:39] Tom Miskowski: parachute? Well, one, I wanted to own something that was mine.

[00:15:43] Tom Miskowski: It’s just more fulfilling to be all in on the bottom line of a company like that. And you never know when. Somebody’s going to call you and say, Hey, you pick up your belongings and you got to move to, Dallas, we need you there on a full-time basis, or, your numbers aren’t good, when you run in a company, especially public company, and, maybe you’re just going to get shown the door and I knew that we wanted to be in lacrosse long term.

[00:16:10] Tom Miskowski: So I, I. I was looking for a company that could provide me the opportunity to stay in lacrosse, forever. And luckily, we found Kitchen Solvers.

[00:16:20] Vicki Markussen: And I get a sense you like being your own boss and

[00:16:25] Tom Miskowski: Yeah, I do. There’s nobody to blame but myself when things don’t go the way I want them to go.

[00:16:31] Tom Miskowski: And, it’s easier to make decisions and, I don’t have a lot of people that I gotta clear things with. If it’s the right thing, we do it. If it feels right, then let’s move. And we can move quickly and be very nimble. And I find that to be appealing, after being in a corporation for a long period of time.

[00:16:50] Vicki Markussen: So what’s your vision for kitchen solvers as a Franchisor.

[00:16:55] Tom Miskowski: I can boil the vision down. Very, very succinctly. I think if the homeowners says, wow, what a beautiful kitchen, I’m thrilled. And if my franchisees, my, our franchise partners are successful and they’re making money, then we’re going to win.

[00:17:14] Tom Miskowski: So my focus is on those two things, allowing homeowners to say, wow, and have profitable franchises. And That’s my vision. And in every action that we undertake at the corporate office of Kitchen Solvers is designed to, to help those two things. So you’re

[00:17:32] Vicki Markussen: probably used to this in the corporate world, but as a franchisor, You’re a level removed from the customer.

[00:17:40] Vicki Markussen: How do you ensure that you’re staying connected to the customer? And

[00:17:44] Tom Miskowski: yeah, well, if there’s a problem they get connected to me pretty quick, so hopefully I don’t have a lot of connections throughout the year, but I have some sometimes expectations don’t align and I’ll be involved in, and we always look for, solutions that work for everybody.

[00:18:01] Tom Miskowski: I keep an eye on all the trends. Certainly, manufacturing the boxes. I see, what, what’s going out and what everybody’s interested in. As I mentioned, white, everybody wants white had blue and green are emerging trends. So if you’re looking for a new kitchen, consider those colors.

[00:18:18] Tom Miskowski: So that helps me stay connected. Nice.

[00:18:22] Vicki Markussen: What makes you, this is my common closer question, what makes you passionate about what you do?

[00:18:28] Tom Miskowski: Like I said, we, we don’t have 50 franchises. I’ve got 50 friends and 50 families that depend on me. In addition to all the employees that work in our corporate office they depend, on the company for their livelihood.

[00:18:43] Tom Miskowski: And, that’s what motivates me every day is I want to see those people succeed and I want to help them and do anything I can to, ensure that they are successful.

[00:18:53] Vicki Markussen: You’ve been listening to Tom Miskowski. He is the owner of the Kitchen Solvers at the franchisor level. I am your host Vicki Markussen.

[00:19:03] Vicki Markussen: This is Biz News Greater La Crosse. We’ll catch you next week.

[00:19:07]

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