Duncan’s Legacy Endures as Industry Changes

POLAND, Ohio – Elmer Duncan opened the doors of Duncan’s Bath and Kitchen Center in 1956 with a vision – to offer exceptional plumbing services that homeowners could trust.

Little did he know that his modest endeavor would become a family legacy as it navigated industry changes over seven decades.

“He set some high standards on the way things need to be done,” says Tom Duncan, president of Duncan’s Bath and Kitchen Center. “He taught me the ethics and the satisfaction of doing the job the right way.”

Tom, who entered the business in 1974, recalls the transitions he and his father faced. “He was tough. He was a hard-core disciplinarian. We had different ways of doing things,” he says.

Tom worked at the business in high school before attending Robert Morris College for two years. He remembers when Elmer once called him and said, “I need a plumber.”

Tom began to work for his father and learned the ins and outs. Elmer Duncan emphasized two lessons: Always ensure 100% customer satisfaction and “Always leave the house cleaner than you found it.”

Today, the elder Duncan, who turned 100 in August, still takes an interest in the business, texting and calling his grandson Jason regularly to see what’s going on. “Then he tells me he has to go and I need to get back to work,” Jason says, laughing.

Just as Tom took over from Elmer, Jason is stepping in to take over for his father. Tom says the transition will be complete by this time next year.

“I’m trying to step back. But it’s difficult to do because if I’m in town I’m going to be here,” he says.

As its name states, Duncan’s Bath and Kitchen Center specializes in remodeling and installing bathroom and kitchens. But the company also offers an array of plumbing solutions and water heater services.

At present, bathrooms make up approximately 60% of its business, followed by kitchens at nearly 40% and a smaller niche of plumbing.

Like many in the home remodeling industry, Duncan’s saw a sharp rise in demand during the pandemic. While business has begun to return to normality, Jason says other factors have boosted their business. “Mortgage rates are so high and people are scared to sell their house,” he says.

“Our big advantage right now is people are staying in their homes,” Tom adds.

The company’s success, however, is not without its challenges. Tom shared that timely product acquisition is one of the highest hurdles.

Pandemic-induced supply chain interruptions have caused lead times for products to increase, once reaching up to a year. “It’s coming back. We noticed our leads aren’t as much. They’re maybe half of what they used to be,” Tom says.

Another issue is the rising cost of supplies. Tom estimates it would cost between $20,000 and $25,000 to install a complete bathroom

“The product has really changed. Back when I started there was no quartz. It was mostly laminate countertops,” he says.

Today, upward of 98% of the countertops they sell are made of quartz. Other sought-after products include full-height backsplashes for kitchens and islands with waterfall countertops.

White remains the most popular kitchen color. When it comes to fixtures, black and brushed gold are gaining popularity, Jason says.

Technology is increasingly integrated into products. Duncan’s offers a range of items that connect to the internet or a customer’s phone, such as Bluetooth showerheads.

“You can control your shower from your phone,” Jason says.

Other products include showers with lights and music and Bluetooth medicine cabinets that play music when opened.

Duncan’s primarily serves customers in the five-county area. Recently, younger homeowners have been frequenting the showroom, Jason says.

Today, the company boasts a robust team of 20, including carpenters, plumbers, salespeople and in-house designers. Many have been with the company for decades, Tom says.

“The toughest thing to do here is to come on as a new employee and earn respect from the existing employees,” he says.

Jason agrees. Earning his place in the business was among his biggest priorities when he began to work in the warehouse after a three-year stint with GNC.

“I ran 32 stores and I got to the corporate nightmare and said, ‘I’m done with it.’ I would rather make money for somebody I like,” he says.

Tom notes that Duncan’s possesses the capacity to take on about $1 million more in sales. He emphasizes, though, the importance of sustained, steady growth over rapid expansion.

For Duncan’s Bath and Kitchen Center, the formula for success has been straightforward: Adapt to shifts in the industry while staying true to the core values Elmer Duncan instilled over six decades ago.

“I’ve seen so many family businesses fall apart because they don’t get along,” Jason says. “He [his father] and I get along well. We go to dinner every Thursday. I feel bad for my mom because all we do is talk about business.”

Just as Elmer and Tom had different management styles, Jason’s style differs from Tom’s. However, they all share a determination to do the job correctly and serve the customer to the best of their abilities. This principle was the cornerstone of Duncan’s under Elmer.

“I kept it going through my ownership and I’ve passed it down to Jason and the employees know what’s expected of them,” Tom says.

“He’s not easy on me but that’s good,” Jason says. “He’s my role model and I learned a lot from him.”

Pictured at top: Tom Duncan joined his father, Elmer, in 1974. Now Jason, the third generation, is transitioning into leading the business.