Every design-build firm involves a marriage of opposites. Design, after all, is ephemeral, while building is material. Design is forward looking; building happens in the present. Design is thought; building is action. But few design-build remodeling firms embody this yin-and-yang proposition with greater awareness or to better effect than Ellsworth-Hallett Home Professionals.
The Savannah, Ga., company has leveraged the talents of its diverse staff—art school grads, military veterans, and experienced builders—to grow from a start-up to a $2 million company in a mere six years. The glue that holds it together is a sense of community, a love of building well, and the conviction that what you do every day should be fun.
Networking a Partnership
As partners Frank Ellsworth and Matthew Hallett tell it, the company’s genesis was a pretty low-key affair. “I went to Matthew’s house, had a cup of tea, and we did an informal business plan,” Ellsworth says. “The whole thing took about three hours.” In fact, the stakes were higher than he makes it sound. The year was 2010, still the depths of the Great Recession. Ellsworth, a veteran remodeler who was then the operations manager at a large kitchen and bath company, had been “offered” a demotion to carpenter, at a significant cut in pay. His wife, who had quit her job to pursue freelance projects, was expecting their first child.
But there was a logic to the new enterprise that, in hindsight, makes it seem inevitable. Hallett, a Maine native who studied architecture at the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD), got his start in remodeling by buying and renovating derelict Savannah properties with his SCAD classmate and now-husband, artist Daniel E. Smith. “Buy two, keep one,” says Hallett. “When I realized that we had three houses under rehab—and were losing money on three mortgages—I quit my day job and started rehabbing full time.” Hallett and Smith got out of the house-flipping business in 2006 “because the prices were crazy,” he says. “That’s when people started calling me to rehab their houses.”
Hallett’s perfectionist personality made him a natural finish carpenter as well as a skilled designer, but he was less interested in structural work. “If it involved taking out a wall,” he says, “I would call Frank.” Ellsworth had come onto the scene via another friend from SCAD days, artist and artists’ representative Susan Laney, who at the time was renovating a 1916 Savannah house of her own. “She told us she had found this great guy to redo her subfloor,” Hallett remembers, “and we said, ‘Keep him!’” Laney took that advice—to the point of actually marrying him. “That turned out to be Frank,” Hallett says.
With his mellow attitude and trademark trilby hat, Frank Ellsworth, 45, fits right in with this artsy crowd, but he came from an entirely different background. An eight-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, he got into remodeling when a Marine Corps friend-turned-remodeler recruited him. Ellsworth was hesitant. “I took wood shop in junior high, but that’s it,” he says. His friend countered, “‘You’re smart, and that’s all that matters. If you can make people rush against machine-gun fire, you can make them build stuff.’”
Starting as a laborer, Ellsworth worked his way up to assistant carpenter within three months and to carpenter after six. The work suited him, and his military training proved surprisingly applicable. “In Assault Breacher training, I was taught to identify building materials, so I would know what explosive to use,” he says. He also learned to read blueprints. Once on the jobsite, “that immediately bumped me up the chain. I was the layout guy. The next thing you know, I was running a framing gun, and then I was running the job.”
The military also awakened Ellsworth’s formidable gifts for organization and planning, which served him well when he left to start his own remodeling business, when rehabbing investment properties on the side, and as operations manager for a company whose kitchen projects could involve $150,000 in cabinets alone.
He says, “We worked out formulas for staying out of the clients’ way, SOPs (military parlance for standard operating procedures) for protecting the house and controlling dust,” and, above all, for keeping the trains running on time. “There’s a system to it,” says Ellsworth, whose eyes light up at the mere mention of Gant Charts. “When you’ve remodeled a few of these old houses, you get to know: This is going to take this long; this is going to take this long.”
Planning for Growth
So when he stopped by to visit his friend for tea, Ellsworth had a tentative plan: Quit his job, reconnect with his network in the field, and start another remodeling company. But Ellsworth says Hallett saw the potential for something more. “Matthew said, ‘I don’t want to compete with you; I want to partner with you. You and I do the same thing. You know more about building code and structural stuff, and I know more about design. All of your old clients are now my clients.’” And with that, the two began planning a joint venture.
The new partners’ network of trusted colleagues in the trades would support the modest growth they planned. “We were hoping that by the end of the first year we would hire two full-time employees,” Hallett says. The first would be their friend Raquel White, a skilled carpenter whose engineering degree and experience in the restaurant industry made her a natural project manager. “We said, in three months we’ll hire Raquel,” Ellsworth says. “Three months more, and we’ll hire Bill [Sabo],”—a production-oriented carpenter who could handle anything from framing to fine finish work—“and that will get us through the first year. When we realized we had to have Raquel ended up being day three or day four.”
“The business grew about three times faster than I could predict,” Ellsworth says; it doubled in its first two years and grew at roughly 50% a year for the next four. “For roughly six months, Matthew and I were in the field. Then we would take turns, and one of us would be in the field: Matthew if it was trim, me if it was framing. Now there are some of our staff who’ve never seen either one of us work.”
Today, in only its sixth year of business, that staff includes 13 employees in the field, designer Abigail Powell (another SCAD alum), bookkeeper Awbrey Smith, and, of course, White, who two years ago hung up her tool belt to become the company’s operations manager.
Ellsworth, Hallett, and White all came to remodeling as a second career, and from three very different backgrounds. But all three were classic urban pioneers. Willing to take a chance on distressed historic properties, they became the transition in transitional neighborhoods. And Savannah proved an ideal environment for the company they would create. An active shipping port and cultural crossroads that once was also a haunt of pirates, the city combines sophistication with a distinct remnant of roguishness, its stately old buildings prey not only to the humid climate, but also to lax regulation of the construction trades. Only since 2008 has the city required that general contractors be licensed.
Community Involvement as an Asset
“This is Midtown, which isn’t a fixed-up neighborhood, but it’s getting that way,” says Hallett, making the short drive from the company’s office to a recent project in the city’s Historic District. “The bulk of our work is in Ardsley Park and downtown,” in 18th- and 19th-century buildings and early 20th-century Craftsman houses.
“We have a soft spot in our hearts for them, but we’re also really good at them, and most people aren’t,” Hallett says. “We’re a preservation company. We always get approved on the first or second try.” And with all the substandard work done over the years, he adds, “there’s always work for us, fixing them,” from paint jobs and interior design to gut remodels.
On that front, Hallett has seen it all: shower mixing valves hot-glued in place, shower stalls tiled directly to plain gypsum board and plywood, and every flashing error in the book. Passing a freshly painted infill colonial, he says, “We had the pleasure of doing $40,000 of rebuilding on this house, because there was a missing piece of flashing on the roof. And all we came here to do was paint it.”
The company’s success with similar projects, and the client loyalty earned as a result, led it to establish a maintenance division, which now accounts for nearly a third of its annual volume. Fixing rotted sills doesn’t get Hallett’s creative juices flowing. “But when you look at the returns,” he says, “I’m all for it. It’s all profit, and there’s no risk.”
Client Brian Martine called Ellsworth-Hallett on a friend’s recommendation after interviewing another, less impressive, contractor. “The other guy’s price kept fluctuating,” he says, “and he clearly wasn’t going to be hands-on the way these guys are. Ellsworth-Hallett gave us a contract from which they never diverged, and everything went exactly according to the schedule they gave us, or before the fact. It also makes a big difference that Matt and Frank have their own crews; it makes them take more care. They completely closed off the areas where work was being done, so the dust was completely contained.” A retired philosophy professor, Martine adds that he was entertained by the graduate seminar-level conversations that drifted in from the staging outside his window.
Team Cohesion Boosts Efficiency
“Part of our marketing is that we’re connected downtown, through the arts communities, by our social networks and the areas where we work,” Ellsworth says. The company’s staff reflects the founders’ intertwined paths to the business, via art school, remodeling, and the military. But after the first few hires, the staff itself largely took over recruiting, says employee number one, Raquel White.
“Chris was a friend of a family member of mine,” she says. “Ryan is a [former Army] Ranger, and Bobby is a friend of Ryan’s, so that’s how he got into the mix.” The company’s close-knit team is a key selling point, she adds. “When we go on sales calls, Frank’s looking at some things; Matthew’s looking at other things. It gives people a sense of security,” White says. “In Savannah, especially downtown, there’s some shady stuff. I tell clients, ‘Some of our crew have the key to my house. They’re part of my family too.’”
Some of Ellsworth’s mentors in the industry have advised him to subcontract field functions rather than hire permanent staff, or at the very least, to pay employees less generously. But a stable, cohesive team is central to Ellsworth-Hallett’s business model. Of key importance, Ellsworth says: “We can control the [project] timeline. We don’t have to have a four-day buffer for when the carpenters are going to arrive, because we are the carpenters.
“One of the things that drives me is figuring out how we can be more efficient,” he says. “I want to make fewer mistakes, get out the door faster, have tool trailers ready to deploy.” He and Hallett are always batting around ideas and scouting for opportunities: a full-time person devoted exclusively to coordinating downtown projects; another to handle projects at The Landings, where the company typically has at least a couple of active projects; two or three people, with their own vehicles, devoted specifically to maintenance.
But like the company’s rapid, controlled growth to date, every plan depends on a structure that distributes intelligence and company culture throughout the ranks. As Ellsworth notes, “We’re continuing to learn and grow, and ask ourselves every six months or so: Are we on the right path?”