“Secretly, I know that many entrepreneurs are unemployable, but we can make things happen. That’s our weakness and our strength.” —Iris Harrell, Harrell Remodeling Inc., Mountain View, Calif.
Years before she first picked up a hammer, sketched out a bathroom, developed a P&L statement, or realized that she was stunningly good at creating jobs for others, Iris Harrell’s restless curiosity nearly got her fired “so many times,” she says. In hindsight, it was courage. At the time, it was radical.
As a world history teacher in rural Virginia, wanting to better understand the culture in which her students lived, she infiltrated a Ku Klux Klan meeting “in a field somewhere, at night. And I passed!” she says, a realization that was almost as terrifying as the experience itself.
In her next classroom, in nearby yet world-apart inner-city Richmond, she invited speakers from diverse religious backgrounds — Mormon missionaries, an atheist Unitarian minister, a Muslim — “anything to keep the students from jumping out of the windows.” Then onto a Navajo reservation in Arizona, her classroom a bare-bones Hogan and her 7th graders barely able to work at a 4th grade level.
“Teaching was where I got my wide cultural understanding,” Harrell says. It also sparked her talent for finding the best in diverse groups of people, and helped prepare her for just about every adversity an entrepreneur might face, and then some. These range from Silicon Valley’s economic busts and booms (Harrell Remodeling’s revenue growth averaged 19% a year from 1986 until peaking at $11 million in 2007) to the sexism and homophobia that she sees simply as opportunities to educate, elevate, and bring understanding.
“Iris has incredible grit and determination. She just doesn’t give up,” says Michael McCutcheon of McCutcheon Construction, a San Francisco Bay‑area peer. Others describe her as “fearless,” “driven by numbers, not emotions,” “decisive,” and “a master salesperson.”
Yet this woman who didn’t discover her calling in remodeling until she was 32, and who built one of the most innovative companies in the industry, is beloved, not resented or feared. “She has lived a life of such quality and passion,” says Greg Stine, CEO of Polaris Marketing, who started working with HRI during the 2001-02 recession. “There were times I got paid to work with Iris and her team and I thought, ‘This is stealing; I should be paying them for teaching me.’”
McDermaid Painting owner Gus Camolinga is a trade contractor to 25 builders but refers clients to Harrell Remodeling alone. “They’re the only company that I trust will deliver a good-quality product,” he says.
“The price is premium, but Iris says what she’s going to do, and does what she says, and the end product is absolutely beautiful and you have no regrets,” says three-time client Victoria Klein.
And HRI chief estimator Kathy Paul, who thinks of her work as “an archeological dig” (intellectual curiosity seems to be in the water), says that her 11 years at HRI are just the start of her career at the place where she fully intends to work until she retires, in part because she owns a stake in the company.
All HRI employees, in fact, are employee-owners. Many others, including trade partners and clients, demonstrate a similarly intense loyalty not only to Harrell, but also to her company’s bottom line. Consider the following practices a starter list of reasons why.
Observe, Learn, Do
“Iris could do it anywhere. In Omaha or Boston or Midland, Texas, she would build a company that represents her core values, treats people well, and figures out what its customers need.” —Greg Stine, Polaris Marketing
She did it in Dallas, in fact. In 1982, seven years after leaving the classroom to tour with a folk-rock band (she played bass and guitar) and, later, to work in the nonprofit arena, she became a licensed contractor. For four years, she and an all-woman carpentry team ran Iris F. Harrell Remodeling.
Well, as with everything in Harrell’s life, the truth is more complex than that. In 1979, while living in Texas, she met Ann Benson, a librarian who “thought if you could read about it, you could do it,” Harrell says. Then with a master’s degree but already bored with her third career, she learned from Benson that she was within reach of two things she had always yearned for: a stable family life and a gratifying career.
Growing up in Virginia, Harrell and her two brothers ping-ponged from town to country, as her father’s itinerant occupations (carpenter, farmer, storekeeper) clashed with her mother’s independence and entrepreneurism. Her mother eventually ran a successful beauty shop, but “when she started making more money than my father, it became an issue.” Her parents divorced in Harrell’s senior year of high school — the sixth school she had attended.
Though she “had never even held a hammer” when she met Benson, the couple began to spend weekends working on their own home, as well as on the rental properties owned by Benson’s mother, Jane. “I checked out every book from the library I could find about home improvement,” Harrell says. She was a quick study and enjoyed the hands-on work, but her efforts to get a job — even an unpaid apprenticeship — in construction failed.
“I gathered up all my courage to walk down to this union hall,” Harrell says. But she was shooed away because she was a woman. “So I walked back out of that hole and started making calls. I said, ‘I will work anywhere. I’ll drive your trucks. I’ll buy your materials,’ but nobody would give me the time of day.”