by Jeff Ramsey
The seeds of owning my own business were started when I was in kindergarten, sweeping up at my dad’s local auto shop. My dad was a good businessman and mechanic—he owned three shops. I learned a lot from him about running a business.
After high school, I went to St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., and received my BA in classics. After college I worked full time in the remodeling industry and spent my nights studying the classics. I received a full scholarship to Villanova, but after one year, I decided to commit myself 100% to the remodeling industry and gave up my seat.
I was not happy sitting behind a desk and needed physical satisfaction as much as I did mental. I’m good in math, and I knew I wanted to be a businessman. So I chose to devote myself to remodeling. I poured through every book and article I could about anything to do with construction. I absorbed all of the skills my co-workers, subcontractors and employers had to offer. I enjoy working hard, sweating and pushing myself physically.
In my opinion, remodeling is the highest form of construction because you are forced to push every skill you have in order to logically make whatever task you are doing work beautifully. You’re always troubleshooting. You have to interpret what the homeowner wants, even if they don’t know it yet, and build it for them. You have to produce beautiful and clean results every day.
I worked as a carpenter for a small builder for three years with a similar set-up as my company—owner/carpenter with an apprentice. Tom, the owner, was a highly skilled structural and finish carpenter who enjoyed working hard. At that time, he was already in his mid-40s and could run circles around many of the younger guys on the job site. Almost 90 percent of what I know about doing high-quality, ethical work, I learned there. In fact, one could say that my work is just an interpretation of what he would do.
I left to be a carpenter at a bigger company—about 12 field employees with an in- house cabinet shop—because I needed the financial stability and more exposure to push my skills to the next level. Next, I moved onto a medium-size company with six field employees where I learned how to do everything myself. I was the carpenter, the electrician and the plumber working for a middle-income clientele.
In 2010, the recession was hitting us hard, and my employer took away my health insurance and docked my pay $1/hr. That was a really hard pill to swallow, especially since the company had at least nine months backlog of additions on the books. I had $200 in my checking account, a kid and my wife was pregnant. It was really a do-or-die situation. I remember going to my boss’ office to tell him that I had to leave the company. I don’t think he believed me at first, but I had no choice. I had my tools, my 1995 Ford F-150, my ethics and a month of side jobs. I knew I wanted to go out on my own, but I could never imagine that a crisis would be the catalyst.
I’ve been business now for four years. It’s true that you don’t move in one direction: You go sideways on an emotional roller coaster ride, with disruptive subs and employees to homeowners singing your praises, to wondering how we are going to pay workers comp—let alone groceries—to upgrading your truck and purchasing those pump jacks that will help grow your business. The first couple of years we were basically living in poverty. Yet, for every failure I’ve made, I’ve learned from it.
I grew my business asking my current customers to post reviews online, and it snowballed. Some people will always find something negative to say, but, generally, when you do good work and you are honest, everyone appreciates it. The trick is to not work for the negative people. If a happy client turns negative or you inadvertently work for a negative person, put your head down and work even harder and better than you ever have. They can turn around!
Reviews and word-of-mouth referrals help me to get to the door. I don’t believe that there is competition between contractors. A homeowner is either going to be price-driven or relationship-driven. It may be worth submitting a bid to a price-driven homeowner because your cost may fall within their budget. A relationship-driven homeowner wants to find a contractor they can trust, that can help them with their vision and that has the real skills to build the project. Within the first few minutes of the initial meeting, I know if I am going to get the job based on how we connect. There is nothing better than connecting with a real deserving, appreciative homeowner and exceeding their expectation by doing good, solid work.
My business edge is being computer based. I use a project management system called Builder Trend. It helps with everything from appointment scheduling to product selection. While it’s not 100 percent perfect, it helps at the beginning stages of a job.
I also use a computer-assisted design program, Chief Architect, to generate floor plans and 3-D designs that look very realistic and help me sell the job. I had clients who commissioned a bathroom and left on a three-month vacation. We used the program to design everything down to the elevations of the shower controls while they were away. When I took photos of the finished project, it matched the design perfectly. My clients loved it because there were no surprises.
Being active in social media is really important now for business owners. I find that people are disconnected from each other, so it’s harder to get referrals. People are on the phone, laptop, and Facebook, but not always talking face-to-face.
Another challenge is trusting that they people who work for you will do good work. It sounds horrible, but it’s true. As the owner, you should never deviate from your values at any time. If something is wrong or makes you unsettled—rip it out. It will save your reputation and a lot of headaches when the homeowner forces you to fix it anyway. Homeowners are emotionally invested to their money. I’d cringe a little, too, spending $30,000 or more. So the contractor must do the absolute best that he can do every time with no exceptions.
There is a lot of mistrust between the consumer and the homeowner in our culture already, so I try to gain trust by providing very clear estimates and then delivering a very accurately priced installation. What I promise to deliver upfront, I don’t change. If I do, it’s on me. Sometimes this clarity is still called into question. At that point, it is a question of whether the homeowner wants to hire your company or not. There is always someone cheaper.
I got involved with NARI because I was interested in the education and certification. I always want to learn more. In addition to the camaraderie, I’ve gotten good advice from other NARI members—especially on the financial side.
You get a lot of satisfaction in this field. You make beautiful things that can change people’s lives. One of my favorite projects was making a bathroom shower useable for a woman who was in a wheelchair. Helping people with disabilities is a great way to use your skills to help other people.
Ramsey Builders does custom home renovations—making homes a happy place to live—in the greater Philadelphia area. Learn more about the company at www.jramseybuilders.com