When Gary Rochman was a younger man and working as a designer in an architect's office, he would sneak away evenings and weekends to see the designs he had drawn being built. “It's a wonderful thing,” he says, “to see your designs come to life.” Not satisfied with just visiting the jobsite, Rochman, who studied architecture and engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder, decided to start his own firm, something that would be “the best of both worlds, where,” he says, “I could design and build in the tradition of the master carpenter.” Thus was born Rochman Design Build (RDB), the first design/build company in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Audacious, perhaps; ambitious for sure. But Rochman was so passionate about his work and about satisfying clients that he saw no other way to run a remodeling business. He even had lengthy discussions with remodeling sage Walt Stoeppelwerth, who, Rochman recalls, told him to standardize, and that the design/build model wouldn't last. That was 17 years ago.
Rochman is glad he followed his instincts, and has since carved out a niche. RDB sells projects on creative design and keeps clients with its tightly run systems. The company focuses on jobs that call for intricate design work and coordination among subcontractors. Rochman won't take a $50,000 kitchen job or do a bathroom at all if it's not packaged with a larger job. Minimum project size for first-time clients is $80,000, but RDB's sweet spot is jobs that demand attention in the $100,000-to-$125,000 range. The company actually has too many systems to do small projects well, but, says Rochman, “on big projects we shine. We have the systems and paperwork [to do it].” To profit on these jobs, “we must get in as much detail [as we can] during the design phase,” he says. “A lot of things that can unravel profit are things that aren't detailed.”
One way Rochman gets the planning stage to work for him is through an 18-page questionnaire. “Clients love it,” he says. “There are maybe five questions up front about budget. ‘What is a budget? What does it include? Will it include furnishings?'” Rochman realized early on that someone's $100,000 budget might actually be a $60,000 budget once they parse through wants and needs. “You have to take care of the highest priorities first,” he says.
Three pages of the questionnaire focus on the kitchen: How do you cook? Do you recycle? How? small company, How often do you entertain? Should the living room be wide open to the kitchen? Do you have magazine clippings of designs you like? “People want to be an active part of the design,” Rochman says, “but they don't know where to start. You have to get in their heads.”
“He interacted with us. He listened,” says repeat client Douglas Quint, a professor of radiology at the University of Michigan Medical Center. “It was always clear that he was listening when we were explaining what we wanted. We weren't very clear at first, but Gary was able to draw out of us what we wanted and bring it back to us. He would show us 3-D images or send us to look at other projects to see if that was what we had in mind.” Quint's sentiments are echoed by another long-time client, Dr. Kathryn Clark, a scientist, who likes the way Rochman “interviews clients to see if they fit.” This was something new to her, and it helped instill confidence and trust.
Rochman has deliberately kept the business small; he's only now breaking the $1 million mark. “For the first eight years, I had no desire to grow. But it's amazing what getting married and having kids can do to you,” he says with a laugh. Rochman, married six years ago, now has two children, ages 2 and 6. He realized he needed to grow the business to earn what he needed and felt he deserved.
Through the help of his peer group and industry networking, he says he's learning about the business requirements and the structural changes needed to get where he wants to be. He is changing his organizational chart and redefining roles. He was acting as production manager, but now relies on a production manager and three lead carpenters to handle every aspect of each job they run. “On the volume level, I see getting to $1.5 million to $2 million, staying there, and looking where to go from there.”
But Rochman wants to continue to design — that passion won't wane — and to remain close with his clients. Says assistant designer Kevin Peters, “Gary's always interested in trying to provide clients with unique features that will stir the interests of their daily living.” Peters, who collaborates with Rochman but also subcontracts design work to other remodelers and builders, enjoys working with Rochman because, he says, “His sense of commitment resonates in his design and construction process. That helps me with the creative process of my work.”
Rochman's support for his staff is evident in the company culture he promotes. The team worked together to create a mission statement last year, and all seven employees buy into core values regarding ethics, quality, and craftsmanship. One of RDB's lead carpenters is a woman, and Rochman has insisted — by way of example — that staff, subs, and vendors show her the respect she deserves as a professional. “Gary's confidence and respect for me have been growing since my start [here] … and that confidence has also spilled over into my personal life,” says Anne Balsillie, who has been with RDB for seven years. “He's very good at encouraging my creative side and craftsmanship, as well as my leadership role within the company.”
To help staff continue to be professional and confident, and because high-level communication is intrinsic to who he is, Rochman fosters and pays for employee education — anything from Remodeling Show- and professional association-type seminars to the pursuit of college degrees.
Planning and foresight, along with employees' high level of commitment, have put the company in a good position to maneuver through its growth phase. Rochman has kept a steady hand — continuing marketing efforts and focusing on his niche — during an economic downturn that has spread outward from Detroit. “I feel comfortable staying the course,” he says. “It will separate the men from the boys, and we're going to be stronger at the end of this. Basically, I see it as an opportunity.”
Stacey Freed is a senior editor for REMODELING.