By Michael Klein
I grew up in the business and worked at Airoom summers when I was in high school and college. I knew how hard the business could be, and I never took it lightly. In 1983, I became my Dad’s partner to establish the second generation of the family-owned business.
My father, Burton Klein, started our business in 1958. An only child, he grew up on Chicago’s South side. After serving in the Navy, he was a door-to-door TV salesman and was hired by Carson Pirie Scott to sell TVs and appliances. They asked him to start a home improvement department in its downtown Chicago store, placing advertising and training employees. On his honeymoon in Florida, he saw an advertisement for an all-season “airoom”. He modified the design to fit Chicago’s climate and decided to open up his own company, Airoom Inc. He eventually branched out to sell other types of custom home additions. As the demand grew, my dad built a showroom in 1963. He pioneered the idea of featuring a full-size bedroom, bathroom and living room addition models for customers to view at a large display center. We underwent rapid growth, managing 300 simultaneous projects, each encompassing multiple subcontractors and crews at some 100 project sites, costing on average $160,000 and taking six to nine months to complete.
We became extremely process-driven, documenting everything and creating a procedure around each task of the design/ build process. Our goal was to cut project time by one-third and implement a delivery schedule of materials by using a project management solution that could support 80 users at three offices and multiple project sites. We wanted to coordinate the complicated interrelationship of people, process, materials and time that is a challenge common to the home-remodeling industry. We did this by building and implementing one of the best proprietary Enterprise Project Management Solution systems. This allows us to manage documents, issues and more than 130 resources for our client projects through all phases of design and construction, as well as internal projects, training and other overhead activities. Microsoft did a white paper on our company’s AIROOM START™ process, which we created to ensure resources and timing for the customer. We’ve also integrated technology to control the sale specifications and costing.
Marketing a design/build option to homeowners can be a challenge for many firms. Airoom uses showrooms to displays a variety of options, from kitchens and bathrooms to family rooms, windows to wall coverings—the rooms most likely to be renovated. Airoom was founded on a marketing platform, so it’s something we take very seriously. Branding and social media are important, and we’re starting to see some traction on social media platforms. It’s a very slow, expensive process that’s still very hard to quantify in terms of a return of investment (ROI).
I’m involved with NARI because it means you’re affiliated with an organization that is ethical and observes the highest standards of honesty, integrity and responsibility. Remodelers have led the industry to become more professional. It’s finally becoming a respected industry, with smarter people executing better designs and projects.
During the recent difficult economy, we grew our business by expanding our product offerings. We had not grown until 2013. We retracted in 2006, 2007, 2008 and flattened out for four years. Now, we are in growth mode again and rebuilding with new clients.
My best career advice for someone just starting out in the remodeling industry is don’t become a jack of all trades and a master of none. Start small and keep your work scope very limited to what you can perfect and deliver over and over again. Stay focused. Be prepared to work long hours, as this is not a business that ever coasts by itself.
And, be prepared for miscalculations. One of my favorites was offering greenhouses and solariums, which we did from 1980 to 1986. It was a total disaster.
What motivates me every day is growth—being the best in the industry, being the successful and having new scalable ideas. One of my career accomplishments is building Airoom to a $70 million business and then selling it to private equity in 2004. We were the first deal of its kind in the country. We bought the business back in 2009 and are turning it around to be profitable and growing again.
Michael Klein is CEO of Airoom, a design/build firm that specializes in home additions and remodeling in the Chicago area. The company’s website is http://www.airoom.com/