By Rob Mathews
When I graduated high school, I decided to join the Marines, where I served as a firefighter and paramedic for a trauma rescue helicopter squad in Virginia. After I was discharged, I continued working as a firefighter/paramedic, which gave me a lot of time off because of the shifts. I started helping build custom decks for a friend’s business. Then, in 1995, I moved back to Texas because I was offered a job as a paramedic in Fort Worth. My working schedule gave me time to help my dad, who was flipping houses along with his flooring business. It made me realize that I wasn’t going to make a living helping out, so I started my own business in 1995 while still continuing my work as a firefighter/paramedic. I got my license and had business cards made, and my marketing consisted of my dad handing the cards to customers, and I put them on bulletin boards at Home Depots and paint stores.
I was still working as a paramedic, and one day I was the first one to respond to a call where several little kids had gotten shot in the head. That really affected me. You don’t get pediatric training for that kind of trauma.
I decided I wanted to work pediatrics and went to work at a large hospital. There, word gradually spread about my side remodeling business. I started getting busy, but I was not confident enough to quit my hospital job. In 1998, I switched over to the neonatal flight team and returned to school full- time to get a nursing degree. My life was going to school, working job sites and working at the hospital Friday through Monday. It was brutal.
In 2000, after graduating nursing school, I was working in the emergency room as a pediatric nurse when I met my wife, Robin Burrill. She told me that I had to give something up: the hospital, construction or her. So, I decided I’d take a three-month leave of absence from the hospital to see if this construction thing would work. We got busier, and I focused on remodeling and asked for another leave of absence, but the hospital informed me that was my resignation, so I was officially now relying only on my remodeling business.
The first few years we were doing small jobs—about 265 annually —each in the range of about $5,000 to $10,000 and were making about $200,000 annually. We then got serious about marketing, advertising and getting a website. We hired a project manager and joined Remodeler’s Advantage, which helped us better understand how to bill and price our work. We gradually went to a smaller number of jobs, and now we are doing 10 to 15 jobs a year in the $1.2 to $1.5 million range.
We also added an office manager, project manager and a designer and transitioned to a design/build company. As we started doing larger projects, we invested in Chief Architect software and went to classes to improve our knowledge. We improved our technology for all our basic processes from estimating and scheduling to contact management and product selections. We started using smartphones, tablets and picture albums so we can show customers what’s in the gallery or Dropbox to help them envision what they want to do. But, technology can also make them think they can’t afford you. We also had our own in-house cabinet shop, which did really well as a separate business. However, we eventually closed it because we found a cabinet line that made more business sense as we can now provide cabinets that are better made and at a better price than what we could provide in-house.
We joined NARI early on, which helped our business become more professional. I have served as president of the NARI Fort Worth chapter for 10 years and am also a Certified Remodeler and Certified Graduate Remodeler through the NAHB. My wife Robin is an interior designer and joined me in the business. She is actively involved in the American Society of Interior Designers and is the incoming president. She is also CAPS certified. Community and professional involvement by both of us has been extremely important.
Today, most of our work is referrals or repeat clients. When you jump from $30,000 to $100,000, the work is the same, but you are using better materials and dealing with the expectation it will be done well. Our No. 1 challenge is finding good people that can do excellent work—sub-contractors, carpenters, general crews—and hanging on to them because they are busy or leave to start their own businesses.
All the jobs I had before owning my own business were life-and-death situations. This background has had a big impact on my business on how I make decisions. I learned you do things the right way, and you do it right the first time.
Interestingly, 2008 was one of our best years. When we are slow, we keep marketing. If we have to cut back in costs, we do it, but not in marketing. We learned when things come back, clients need to be able to find you out there. GuildQuality has also made a big difference and paid off dividends because we find out what our strengths and weakness are and we can address them. For example, we got lower scores on keeping the jobsites clean; therefore, we went out and purchased carts and loaded them with vacuums, dustpans and cleaning supplies. We wrote up a plan for our employees on how we are going to keep job sites clean and safe.
My advice to new owners is simple:
- Try to find a mentor—not a competitor—that you call and ask questions. That’s big.
- Know your numbers—i.e. your finances.
- Estimate properly. There are a lot of nuts and bolts you need as your core.
- Stand behind what you say. You’re only as good as what your word is and what you can back up.
Social media can be powerful, too—especially when you use if proactively. A client reviewed us and posted that the one thing they would have changed in our design was adding a soap dispenser into the granite by the kitchen sink. As soon as we saw it, we contacted our granite guy—and without the clients contacting us about their concern—went to their house, drilled the hole and installed the dispenser. It was a little thing to fix, but the clients were so impressed, they are now clients of ours for life—Rob Mathews
Curb Appeal Renovations, located in Keller, Texas, is an award-winning design/build remodeling firm, offering kitchens, baths, whole home remodels, additions, universal design and green building services. Learn more at www.curbappealrenovations.com.