Too often I have found myself in a conversation at the lumberyard with other builders who mention how hard it is out there and how difficult clients can be. I've been in business for six short but rewarding years. I've had both slow and lucrative times. I can understand the frustration of my fellow contractors, but I also know what it's like not to be a contractor at all.
When I was 23, I graduated with a master's degree in marriage and family therapy and practiced for several years. Working with everyone from suicidal teenagers to abusive spouses, I expended the majority of my patience and creativity on my clients, leaving little for me and my family.
Certainly there are contractors out there having a difficult time, and I'm not trying to compare apples and oranges, but there is a time when you have to take a hard look at what's happening around you, accept it and find the positives, or perhaps move on.
Making the Leap For me, this time came when I was 28. My wife was pregnant with our first son. I had many sleepless nights worrying about income, health insurance, and retirement. Change is always hard, but with my wife's 100% support I was willing to take the risk of failure to see what other opportunities were out there. Like my father before me, carpentry was always a hobby, a way of saving money and expressing my creative side. So I started J. Robbins Construction. I was my only employee and my goal was to make three-quarters of what I was making as a therapist. We got health insurance from our local Chamber of Commerce and saving for retirement was put on hold. I focused on mid-range projects that the larger companies didn't bother with — small additions, wood siding, and porches. I ended that first year with one more employee and surpassed my salary goal.
Reaping the Rewards I learned a few important lessons that year. Most important was learning the value of a strong client-contractor relationship. Turns out my therapy background helped tremendously. I believe that having the ability to read people's wants and ideas and establishing good communication helped secure more jobs than anything else.
Six years later we're doing $350,000 a year in volume (the profit is triple what I was making as a therapist), and we've stayed true to the types of projects we accept. We've avoided the temptation to grow, and I still have just one other employee.
We're lucky enough to work in coastal Rhode Island, and our jobs are never more than 10 minutes away. Almost every day we work outside with a view of the ocean and have lunches on the beach — much different than sitting in an office. When I stop and look around at what I have, I try to remind myself why I have chosen to do what I do. And it's not just about the money. I can choose to work 20 hours or 50 hours a week. I can spend quality time at home with my wife and boys or turn a pile of lumber into a client's dream project.
I am fortunate, but I also know what it took for me to get to this place. It takes courage and support to make a change mid career, and even when times are tough, I try to remind myself of the things I like about my work. So many contractors end up where they are by default, but I chose this profession. If you're not feeling satisfied, if you've lost your sense of humor, or you don't remember which priorities come first, then perhaps a change in direction is necessary. For me, the risks that I took were not nearly as big as the risks of not taking them at all. —Jeff Robbins, owner of J. Robbins Construction, lives in Green Hill Beach, R.I., and works mostly along South County's coastal shores.