Good luck trying to keep up with Brian Elias.

As president and owner of 1-800-Hansons, a multimillion dollar replacement company headquartered in Troy, Mich., Elias moves from one office to the next at his company’s headquarters, all the while navigating through a bevy of employees and any number of problems and opportunities.

Keeping up with Elias is akin to catching a butterfly with an ice cream scoop — not impossible, but you’ll definitely tire yourself out in the process.

Elias is, literally, the face of Hansons — he appears in the company’s advertising and has even starred in a few commercials — but he is the heart and soul of the company as well. While far from being a micromanager, there’s not much that goes on at Hansons that Elias doesn’t have his hand in one way or another. For example, when an employee was making a new flyer that featured Elias’ face on it, Elias jumped up and went into the marketing department to seek minor changes.

On his way there, he walked past a training session for new salespeople and gave a compelling 15-minute spiel on negative energy (“Negative people can’t sell,” he says). It was obvious from the looks on the reps’ faces that this was a completely unfamiliar concept to them.

Then, passing through Hansons’ massive call center, Elias got a couple of his customer service reps — headsets firmly in place — to work on the pitch they give to potential customers. He tested them each by playing “hard to get,” and the reps knew exactly what to say to persuade him. Yes, he put them on the spot, but he also kept them on their toes.

The Gang’s All Here

The weekly staff meeting at 1-800-Hansons is unlike any staff meeting you will ever attend. It takes place in what looks like a classroom with row after row of long tables and a dozen or so 42-inch flat-screen TVs around the room. Prior to the meeting, the buzz is more like a din as a local radio station is piped in and the room fills with happy chatter in anticipation of what today’s meeting will bring.

As Elias strides to the front of the room, the chatter dies down and the few empty chairs fill. He doesn’t stand on the podium; instead, he sits cross-legged on the table at the front of the room, still dressed in the gym clothes he wore to work this morning because, for the first time, he rode his bicycle to the office from his home 15 miles away. “This never happens,” he begins, referring to his über-casual clothes.

He starts the meeting with a “Brian Experience” — his way of getting a point across using empathy and his self-deprecating sense of humor. Today’s Brian Experience begins with a tale of how Elias dropped his cell phone in a hotel room toilet, which leads into a story of how everyone makes mistakes, and then to the importance of offering a heartfelt apology. “The wording and packaging is what it’s all about,” Elias says, adding that when you say ‘I’m sorry from the bottom of my heart,’ that it sounds more sincere. “Packaging is everything,” he adds.

Elias has his employees in the palm of his hand as the meeting takes on the air of a pep rally crossed with a tent revival. Not a bad accomplishment for someone who couldn’t really hack college and sold telephones, pots and pans, and stereo speakers out of the trunk of his car.

Humble Beginnings

The 1-800-Hansons company was born in 1988, a “one-man band” of Elias selling the leads that he canvassed himself. But his very first job in the industry was working for his father’s friend who was “in the window business,” where Elias started out as a canvasser.

“I learned how to approach people and not be afraid of rejections,” Elias says, “and once you learn that, knocking on doors became really easy. Although you expected a ‘no,’ you did what you could to turn that into a ‘yes.’”

His time as a sidewalk jockey has given Elias a unique empathy for his own legion of canvassers. “They work their butts off,” he says, adding that for him, the fun part of what could often be a monotonous job was being outside meeting different types of people. The downside? Pit bulls — “They are mean, no ifs, ands, or buts!”

When Elias had knocked on his final door of the day, his work was still not done. Heeding his father’s advice to be a sponge and soak up as much knowledge as possible, Elias rode shotgun with the company’s salesmen so he could learn about that process as well.

He did these ride-alongs for a year, until he took a sales job with another window replacement company — an experience that turned out to be one of his biggest learning opportunities. “This is where I learned exactly what not to do,” he says, adding that the other salesmen had utter contempt for the customers. “What really upset me was not only the fact that they didn’t care about the customer, but they presented themselves as being really customer-focused. When I realized that wasn’t true, it was such a disappointment.”

That group of “tin men,” as Elias calls them, referring to the 1987 movie of the same name starring Richard Dreyfuss and Danny DeVito as nefarious aluminum siding salesmen, inspired him to finally strike out on his own. As disdainful as those tin men were (“I couldn’t stand the people I was working for — they weren’t nice people,” Elias says), they inspired him to start his own company, and 1-800-Hansons was born.

However, due to his youth — and lack of credit — Elias found himself giving his customers’ deposits to suppliers right away so he could get the materials for his jobs. “If there were no deposits, I would give [the supplier] a copy of the contract and they would wait and I would pay within 24 or 48 hours, so it would clear the bank,” he says.

Taking It to the Streets

Elias received the 2012 Fred Case Entrepreneur of the Year Award primarily for the advances he has pushed in the realm of technology, which include computerized canvassing, mobile appointment setting, and a 1-800-Hansons monitoring station.

“Brian has been a leader in adapting technology to market his business,” says Tom Kelly, president of Neil Kelly Co., in Portland, Ore., last year’s Fred Case Entrepreneur of the Year recipient and a judge for this year’s award. “His canvassers have information on every house they are stepping up to, and they use technology to immediately set an appointment. Brian has an electronic dashboard that keeps him on top of all that is going on in the company. He calls it his ‘command center.’”

Hansons’ computerized canvassing system requires each of the canvassers in the field to carry a smartphone to access a database loaded with home­owner information for every house within a given ZIP code (canvassers originally used Galaxy tablets but they became too cumbersome). Aside from the homeowner’s name, phone number, and other data, the system allows the canvasser to enter observational information about the home as he approaches it, e.g., the need for a new roof, siding, gutters, windows, etc. This allows for a more informed conversation between the canvasser and the homeowner.

The ZIP codes chosen are typically in areas where Hansons has previously done work. “They’ve already seen our signs up in the yards and our trucks in the neighborhood,” Elias says. “Then we go door-to-door. The magical thing [about the computerized canvassing system] is we know how many knocks each canvasser had that day, every address visited, and even every address skipped.”

In the event that a homeowner is not home when the canvasser visits, it is noted in the system and a sales rep from the office calls to see if the prospect is interested. Remember, any obvious needs about the home’s appearance have been entered into the system by the canvasser (“Roof needs repair, old windows, etc.”), so the sales rep is already informed about the home’s perceived needs.

There’s even a fail-safe guard against a canvasser kicking back and just checking off addresses while relaxing in his car sipping a mocha latte — a built-in time stamp. “We know that it takes time to get from house to house to house,” Elias says. “We didn’t have that time stamp in the beginning, but if someone says they knocked on 180 doors in one day but made no sales, you have to wonder. So we put a time stamp on it. You learn to manage the system.”

Elias says that he got the idea for computerized canvassing in the most unlikely of places: a McDonald’s bathroom, specifically, the notice on the back of the door that indicates when the bathroom was cleaned and by whom. “That’s the same process with our canvassing system,” Elias says. “We know who’s where and when, and we make sure they’re knocking on doors and doing what they’re supposed to be doing. The system is not just about capturing the data; it’s about making sure [the canvassers are] doing their job. Most business owners don’t know how many doors their canvassers knock on in a day. I didn’t know either. Now I do: They should be knocking on 100 to 120 doors a day, every single day.”

If It Works for Popcorn ...

The canvassers also have the ability to immediately set appointments. They simply look up available times via the Hansons interface and find one that works for the homeowner. This mobile appointment setting capacity is also used by the marketing staff when they are at one of the 80 home shows that Hansons displays at each year.

When the marketing staff is using the mobile system at a home show, it allows them to immediately schedule a demonstration with a sales rep in the homeowner’s neighborhood at the homeowner’s convenience. This system is also in use at local shopping malls where Hansons has set up kiosks that are staffed seven days a week.

Gone are the days when canvassers or marketing people would come into the office at the end of the day with sheets of appointments with the information to be entered into a database by someone else. “The system is doing the work,” Elias says. “It streamlines the entire appointment-setting process.”

Elias found his inspiration for the mobile appointment-setting process when he ordered popcorn at a sports stadium. He ordered the popcorn, the vendor entered the order into a handheld device, swiped Elias’ credit card, “and the popcorn came down 75 seconds later. Boom!” Elias says. “They knew where I was sitting, they knew I had paid, and they knew what I had ordered. All this without the vendor carrying around tons of popcorn. How much more popcorn do you think they’re selling? Lots!”

Catch Them If You Can

Elias was again inspired on trips to Las Vegas and a racetrack when he saw the automated information boards presenting real-time sports stats and data. Off went that light bulb over his head, and now Hansons has what is called the Command Center, which allows the staff to track — with pinpoint real-time accuracy — the daily flow of every single sales appointment.

“We all had so many sales reports to get through, and everyone had to print up each batch just to see where all the salespeople were. Nobody had that data at their fingertips,” Elias explains. “But when I saw these TV screens in Vegas and at the track with all the numbers changing in real time, I thought ‘I can do this.’” So instead of sports stats or odds on various horses, Hansons tracks sales and salespeople.

The Command Center has “its finger on the pulse of the sales team” and is jokingly referred to as Captain Kirk’s bridge on the Starship Enterprise (or Captain Picard’s bridge, depending on your Trekkie preferences). “Now all the information anyone needs at any given moment is right in front of them,” Elias says, adding that “everybody can access and update their information from their cell phones.”

The technology consists of a fully automated and interactive lead-distribution, result-reporting, and follow-up system. Numerous wall-mounted monitors allow the Command Center staff — usually three at a time — to track the arrival and departure times of the sales staff throughout the company’s eight markets. Across the 10 42-inch flat-screen TVs, every salesperson from each of the branches is tracked across Michigan and Ohio from the company’s Troy, Mich., headquarters. The screens look like lively spreadsheets, color-coded based on the state of the active sales at that time, from initial contact to a done deal.

The new monitoring system has completely changed the way Hansons operates, according to Elias. “[The Command Center] gives us complete control of our world instead of the world being controlled by the people,” he says. “The dog wags the tail, the tail doesn’t wag the dog. In many operations I’ve seen over the years it’s the other way around.”

The only downside — if you can call it that — has been the loss of a few salesforce members. “When you catch them doing something wrong, they don’t care for that,” Elias says. “They don’t like the fact that we know when they’re doing something they shouldn’t be. The people who don’t follow the rules will leave.”

Accentuate the Positive

Those lackluster salespeople who decided to leave did Elias a favor; he has a low tolerance for employees with bad attitudes. “Positivity doesn’t spread nearly as fast as negativity,” he laments. “Because of that, we push [negativity] out of here fast. We will fire somebody with a bad attitude. People may not think they have a bad attitude, but it doesn’t matter what they think; it matters what we think and it always shows itself. It’s never just one [incident], it’s a repeated occurrence. These are the ‘half-empty’ people.”

Elias says he will take on someone lacking the technical skills but with a good attitude over a highly skilled employee with a negative outlook. “I can train the skills, I can’t train the attitude,” he says. “Who you are is who you are. You’ve been that way your whole life. I’m not changing you. Negative crews don’t make it here.”

This philosophy is not just for office staff or installation crews; a negative attitude is especially deadly on the salesforce. “Negative people can’t sell,” Elias states flatly. “If they can sell, they bring down the rest of your team. We look, when we’re hiring, for the most positive and enthusiastic people. If they’re life haters — and we’ve all met these people — we don’t want them here. I don’t want them on my team because the only thing they do is bring down everyone else.”

Subject to Change

Despite requiring a good attitude from all his workers, there are times when even the happiest employees might not be too pleased, especially when radical change is afoot (see the above comments about lazy canvassers and sneaky salespeople).

“There are very few people who love change, even if it’s for the better,” Elias says. “However, in order to grow, you have to change. If I want to lose weight right now, I have to change what I eat. I have to make adjustments. At the end of the day, we’re still installing roofing and windows in homes, but I have to make changes in the procedures of how we do that to best do it and manage it. That’s what my job is.”

Like his views on change, Elias views adversity with a positive attitude as well. “Every time I have a new problem, I have a new challenge,” he says, adding “and I have lots of problems, just like any other company.”

Elias adopts the “worst first” philosophy, tackling the most severe problems early on. An example of this was telling 100 crews they would now do pre- and post-job walk-throughs as well as take dozens of project photos ... for no extra pay. Did anyone leave? “Yes,” he says. “Some people did not like my changes.”

Ignoring the Recession

Speaking of “worst first”: even as the recession hammered Hansons’ markets — Ohio and Michigan — the company took a dip during the toughest times but remained profitable.

“When the recession hit, I chose not to participate,” Elias says. “The world wasn’t stopping. Even if it was a worst-case scenario and a third of the people weren’t working [in our markets], two-thirds still worked. So we’re just going to focus on the two-thirds and not focus on the one-third not working. Yes, we know that they’re there. Yes, we know that at some point they were potential customers. They’re just not potential customers now.”

Elias was happy letting others panic. “Recession? Let everyone else tell you how bad it is,” he continues. “But here we’re going to focus on the people who are working and not worry about it. And we didn’t. This is one of the worst markets in the country.” In both 2010 and 2011 Hansons’ revenue was over $46 million, and revenue for 2012 is projected to exceed those numbers.

Elias has also been tempted to cut his overhead in terms of the products he buys, but he won’t do it, no matter how much it could enhance his bottom line. “It’s important to me to buy American,” he says. “I’ve been contacted by Chinese companies who want to manufacture for us, and at this point, that’s not a direction I want to go. I like American-made products. I like being a part of making America work. It feels good.” 

Keep the Change

At 1-800-Hansons, there’s no such thing as a special order; if the company doesn’t carry it, it doesn’t get installed. Period

Remember those Burger King commercials from the 1970s and 1980s that sang “Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us,” and telling consumers they could have it their way?

Well, that philosophy is not on the menu at Hansons. “We don’t do special orders that deviate in any way from what is offered because it is not in my system,” Elias states unapologetically. “If another vendor will do it, buy from him.”

Elias continues: “We do siding, windows, gutters, doors ... anything I can systemize. I don’t do anything that’s not a system. So in the remodeling world, how would I translate that? These are the cabinets I use. That’s it. Here are the floors I use. That’s it. Here’s where I shop. Here’s what I buy. We will put it up for you. The reason I can do such a good job for you is I have relationships with these [vendors] and that’s the way we do it.”

Yes, Elias says he could get a specialized product from another manufacturer, but he won’t, adding that he can walk away from a $10,000 job. “If it’s not on my product list, we don’t do it. You have to follow procedure. I focused on building a business on things I can control.”

Elias admits that he may lose customers through this practice but adds that at least he’ll have his sanity. “And sanity goes a long way,” he says.

The ‘Get It Done’ Philosophy

At 1-800-Hansons, each employee is given a list of basic tenets that he or she must adhere to as a member of the Hansons family. While much of the list could be considered commonsense (customer satisfaction reigns supreme), other tenets on the list reflect Elias’ own philosophy and beliefs (an anti-bullying policy and a near zero tolerance for unhealthy habits). Here are just a few “Characteristics of a True Get It Done’r” that each employee must sign when starting at Hansons.

No 9-to-5 mindset. We are all on call 24/7 for each other and customers.
If there’s a problem, you own it to resolve it. See a mess, clean it up.
Managers are guides, not gods.
Differences of opinion are not only wanted, they are encouraged.
Be an ambassador in and out of the office.
Mistakes are tolerated, negative attitude is not.
Smiles are contagious; spread the disease.
It either is or it isn’t. You either got it done or you didn’t.
Exit strategy: If you’re not happy working here, please feel free to leave.
Have fun. If you don’t know what that means, we’ll teach you.

“That is our philosophy,” Elias says. “Everybody is hired knowing all of these things. There is no surprise.”

Mark A. Newman, senior editor, REMODELING.

More about past Fred Case Entrepreneur of the Year Award winners featured in REMODELING:

Making His Mark: Tom Kelly Receives the 2011 Fred Case Entrepreneur of the Year Award

Driven to Succeed: Matt Plaskoff Receives the 2010 Fred Case Entrepreneur of the Year Award

Fully Vested: Iris Harrell Receives the 2009 Fred Case Entrepreneur of the Year Award