By David Leff
I graduated from Sonoma State Universityin 1976 with a degree in psychology and a minor in English, intending to go on to law school. While I was in college, I worked as a carpenter to earn the money necessary to continue my education. After being accepted at a law school in Boston, I was about to move to the East Coast when I realized I was enjoying my life as a carpenter too much to leave. I decided to get my contractor’s license instead and stay in California. I never looked back—and I never regretted that decision.
I started small—building decks, remodeling bathrooms and kitchens and constructing small additions—but from the beginning, I appreciated the need to separate myself and my company from the pack by staying on the cutting edge of our industry. This meant continuously searching for the latest trends in residential building. I was a very early advocate of green building—before it was called green—actively involved in alternative energy systems and identifying economies in building systems.
In the late 1970s, I started buying individual lots and building passive solar homes on spec and selling them. At the same time, I was continuing to build my contracting business. In the late 1980s, I made the decision to stop land development and spec building and focus solely on remodeling and custom home building. I realized that the level of risk associated with spec building was too great, but the experience I had gained in business management, marketing and sales would be immensely valuable in running a custom building and remodeling company.
At about that time, I met with a potential new client who was interviewing contractors to remodel his home. We ended up getting the job. The client’s name was Michael Gerber.
Gerber gave me a copy of a book that he had just written called “The E-Myth: Why Most Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It,”which introduced me to the concepts that would became my guiding principles as I built my business. I would have to:
- develop systems and procedures
- delegate responsibilities and control
- and ultimately make myself as dispensable as possible.
The entrepreneurial spirit that was responsible for my company’s existence to that point would not take me to the next level, and for the next 20 years I worked hard to build the team and develop the infrastructure so that sometime in the next few years, I can significantly reduce my hours and the company will continue to function without me. We now have most of what we do every day documented in a procedures’ manual, a master job checklist and a series of sub-checklists that our employees use in all of the company’s departments.
I remember the biggest change for me in my business life was the first time that someone asked me what I did for a living, and instead of replying that I was a contractor, I answered that I owned a construction company.
This is the advice I would give to someone with a new remodeling business: As soon as possible, take the time to work “on your company” in addition to working “in your company.” Document, in writing, every step of the work processes flowing through your company. Recognize that as a remodeler, you are a skilled provider of a service that can and should be as professionally run as any other service industry. You are entitled to be paid for all the services you provide—no more free advice, free estimates or free design.
About 15 years ago, we began to develop the design/build process that we use now. For years it was a struggle educating our clients about the advantages of the design/build foundation: a single point of contact and designing to the budget. Fairly recently the word seems to be getting out, and we are seeing more homeowners searching for design/build companies to work with when remodeling their homes.
I have found our local NARI chapter, as well as NARI National, to be a group of like-minded construction and design experts who share the desire to professionalize our industry. The high standards of craftsmanship and customer service that NARI members hold, sets them apart from the rest and makes the organization worth supporting.
Our company has always done a lot of marketing of all types, and I firmly believe that our decision to maintain the same healthy marketing budget the past five years is what allowed us to survive through the recession. We spend a significant amount of time and money on our own website and other sites and lately have seen a number of high-quality leads coming in from our social media and Internet marketing. And almost all leads, regardless of their source, will check us out by visiting our website. An Internet presence, a website with photos and testimonials, exposure on Houzz.com or other similar websites are basic necessities now for a remodeling company to survive.