Remodeling is a highly technical art. It requires a grasp of the principles and practice of electricity, plumbing, engineering, geometry, and architecture. It requires a high level of craftsmanship as well as an ability to manage homeowners' expectations during a very emotional process. All of this while turning a profit.
For these and myriad other reasons, it is the common perception that the only people who can succeed at it are those who have worked their way up through the ranks.
But many remodelers who have taken the leap of faith and hired people from outside the industry say it's not as scary as it sounds and, indeed, that newbies can do an even better job than grizzled industry veterans who are already set in their ways. Bob Fleming, president of Classic Remodeling & Construction in Charleston, S.C., says that he almost prefers to hire people who are new to the industry because they don't bring the “head trash” that more experienced people tend to. “[Veterans] think they know it all, and want to do it the way they do it,” he says. “They might not want to adjust to the way our company runs.” Someone new to the industry, however, is more likely to ask how something is done, and therefore is more trainable. “Their attitude is more likely to be, ‘We did it in our business, why can't we do it here?'” says Ty Melton, president of Melton Construction in Boulder, Colo.
Matt Plaskoff, president of Plaskoff Construction in Tarzana, Calif., says that, generally speaking, remodeling is an “I can't” industry, meaning that many lack creativity in problem-solving. “People from outside the industry don't have preconceived notions that certain things aren't possible,” Plaskoff says. “They tend to be able to just get it done.”
Hire Your Weakness Multitalented as they are, remodelers as a group are weak in certain areas. “Personnel and management training is something that almost nobody in our industry has,” says Halsey Platt, president of Platt Builders in Groton, Mass. Plaskoff — who, like Platt, has had positive experiences hiring people with no remodeling background — agrees: “I find that true management skills are lacking in the industry in general.”
Luckily, these and other areas where remodelers fall short are strengths for many in other walks of life. Plaskoff says that organizational and management skills are what he's found to be the most useful attributes his employees have brought from their previous jobs. “Not only do you get a different perspective,” he continues, “you also get a different skill set than you would normally find in the construction industry.”
Melton would certainly agree. Five years ago, he hired Rick Johnson, a quality control engineer in the tech industry, to be his general manager. Johnson is now in charge of managing all the staff (“including me as a salesperson,” Melton says), as well as implementing systems. “I come up with ideas of how to do things,” Melton says, “and then leave it to him to figure out how to make it work.”
Nina Marinkovich, co-owner of MAK Design+Build in Davis, Calif., recently hired a project and administrative coordinator who responded to a job posting by saying “I have none of the skills you're looking for.” However, the woman, Juliana Tadano, did send a resume, and while it was clear that she wasn't the experienced designer Marinkovich was looking for, she did have many attributes that would be valuable to MAK. “This person has skills,” Marinkovich recalls saying, “and we need somebody who has skills.”
Those skills included the ability to relate to people (from a previous job in retail), as well as strong writing ability and an understanding of how to approach a project from an analytic perspective, which came from Tadano's most recent job as an environmental consultant. Marinkovich, who started her company less than three years ago after a career in affordable housing finance and development, also felt that Tadano's comfort with a computer would benefit MAK. “It's nice to have somebody who can type as fast as I can,” Marinkovich says with a laugh.
The scarcity of computer-savvy individuals within the remodeling industry makes people like Sonia Swain, office manager for Talmadge Construction in Aptos, Calif., valuable commodities. Company owner Jeff Talmadge hired Swain because of her technical literacy (along with her organizational skills). Swain's hands are all over a number of recent innovations and developments within Talmadge's company, including a spreadsheet that tracks the company's leads. Talmadge got the idea from another remodeler several years back, but it wasn't until Swain was on board that he had the personnel to produce it.