PLACENTIA — It's no ordinary man who would see a life's mission in cleaning up other people's garages.
"I know how I feel when my desk is messed up," said Placentia businessman Bradford Smith. "When I clean it, I feel a lot more clear. In organizing garages, we're doing a lot more than providing storage space. We're helping people organize their lives. It helps people feel better."
Smith's company, The Storage Solution in Placentia, builds garage cabinets to order to help people bring order to paint cans, garden trowels, rakes and bags of potting soil.
A Simi Valley native who dropped out of UC Irvine, Smith built cabinets for five years and later worked as a salesman. At age 30, he began looking for a business that would combine his skills. He thought about computers but decided his competitors would probably be too smart.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 20, 1991 Orange County Edition Business Part D Page 2 Column 6 Financial Desk 2 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Storage--An Aug. 9 article about the Storage Solution reported incorrectly that company owner Bradford Smith had "amended" his account of how the Placentia company makes cabinets. Smith told The Times that his cabinets are made of fiberboard, with hardwood face frames. Company brochures also explain this.
"Fortunately, I was right about going into a field the smartest minds would not be gravitating towards," Smith said. "The competition has given me a lot of breathing room. I expected to have a much tougher time than I've had."
Today, after five years in business, Smith said he is selling $2.5 million worth of cabinets, including installation, each year. He said he plans to expand to Northern California, Seattle and Arizona, with a step-by-step program he describes as "brilliant." So brilliant, in fact, that he wouldn't talk about it for publication.
Garage storage and closet organizers--some of Smith's competitors do both--became popular almost overnight in the mid-1980s. No one can really say why. Most people in the industry say the idea started when someone saw his brother do it, or his neighbor and thought it was a good concept.
On one thing most agree: Garages have been a mess for a long time.
The 1980s housing boom in Southern California created a lot more homes--and a lot more closets and garages. About the same time, dozens of stores specializing in closet organizers began popping up across the country. Garage storage companies have also grown, but more slowly. Some of the larger garage storage firms in Southern California are Crest Cabinets, Cabinets Plus, The Storage Solution, We're Organized, Storage Concepts and Space-Saving Module.
William Koepsell, owner of Brea-based We're Organized, opened his business in 1985 and has five distribution centers in three states. He said his sales are $1.5 million a year.
"I welcome good competition, but I don't like (Smith's) tactics," Koepsell said. "He calls himself the 'undisputed leader.' I'm tired of people slinging mud out there."
For a small industry hung up on neatness, there seem to be a lot of messy disputes in the local garage storage field.
There is the hinge debate, for example. One company executive says you need adjustable hinges because cabinets settle and shift over time; another says hinges don't matter.
One company official says metal-lined cabinets are stronger; another says you don't need the metal, just good quality wood. One says Formica-like finishes chip and crack; another disputes this.
Smith likes to keep the competition jumping. One of his advertisements shows a cabinet resembling an overstuffed pillow, and a second cabinet look perfectly straight and neat. "Us," the ad says under the neat cabinet; and beneath the overstuffed model, "Them."
"He (Smith) also says he's using real wood, did he tell you that?" said John Washer, owner of Cabinets Plus in Laguna Hills. "It's fiberboard. We use the same product."
Smith originally told a reporter that he uses "hardwood." Asked about Washer's claim, he amended his statement.
"We use hardwood face frames," the front of the cabinet where the doors attach, Smith said. "We use fiberboard for the rest. We cover that in the brochure. I may not have made it clear."
Sorting out the truth in all this is, well, like finding a rake in a cluttered garage.
Smith's ideas don't always hit the mark. Recently, he tried to create a grass-roots sales force by offering customers $50 for every referral they made to friends and neighbors.
"We stopped that," Smith said. "As many people were offended by it as would do it for 50 bucks."
Smith said he gets most of his customers by referrals, direct mailing to new homeowners and through newspaper ads.
"When I first started, my goal was to make a decent living, then it was to make a million dollars and sell," he said. "But I realized I really enjoyed this, and some day it would be worth a lot more than that."
Within five years, he wants The Storage Solution to be a national operation.