Eric Hoff was confused and, frankly, a little nervous. Moments before, the young owner of E.R. Hoff Remodeling, Boise, Idaho, had been cruising along when the driver of a silver Ford extended-cab truck honked the horn and pulled him over. Hoff recognized the truck as that of Jim Strite, owner of Strite Design + Remodel and one of the most successful remodelers in the country. Hoff steered his vehicle to the side of the road, whereupon Strite “rolled his window down and said, ‘I want to take you to lunch sometime.' I had no idea why,” Hoff recalls, “but he was so friendly I couldn't help but take him up on the offer.”
The reason why soon emerged. The two had recently submitted quotes for the same project, and the prospect had shared Hoff's quote with Strite. “I knew what [Hoff] was up to,” remembers Strite, and “I thought he deserved to be compensated for not only the product he was proposing but also for his knowledge.” So at the lunch, he asked questions that struck Hoff as personal — specific questions about his gross profit and hourly rates, among others. “I was thinking, ‘That's none of your business,'” says Hoff. “It was nerve-wracking.” He shared nevertheless because Strite, it turned out, was willing to open the books on his own business as well. Hoff quickly realized he had a lot to learn and a willing teacher to help him learn it.
That was several years ago, and it led to an extended, mutually rewarding dialogue that continues to this day. Hoff now considers Strite his mentor, the person who taught him how to talk about money, encouraged him to try new things, and, more than four years ago, welcomed him to his staff as a remodeling consultant.
Looking back, Hoff understands why Strite pulled him over that day, and why he has mentored many remodelers over the years. “His goal was to see my company become successful,” and, one remodeler at a time, to strengthen the remodeling industry overall.
Growing Our Own Builders have construction management programs, restaurateurs and innkeepers have hospitality programs. But remodelers? Given the near total absence of specialized business training, most remodelers learn their way by either fumbling along on their own or working alongside a more experienced colleague. “Within this industry, we somewhat have to grow our own,” says Eric Souder, a longtime designer who recently joined Butler Brothers, a remodeling firm in Clifton, Va. “There's not a lot of book training, and it's hard to teach what the business means” when a day's work can run from well-groomed face time with clients to “putting on your boots and crawling around in the field.”
Don Van Cura agrees. “We were sort of left out in the dark when it came to formal education,” says the owner of Don Van Cura Construction in Chicago. In the old days, he observes, the apprentice system produced many fine carpenters and, in fact, “years ago remodelers were carpenters. Now we have to be psychiatrists, attorneys, and scientists,” charged with responsibilities as disparate as psychoanalyzing clients, writing bullet-proof contracts, and analyzing the chemical content and safety of building products. “The sheer quantity and variety of things that we have to be aware of can be overwhelming,” he says.
Mike DuKate of DuKate Fine Remodeling, Franklin, Ind., remembers that feeling. He says he didn't have a clue what he was doing when he started his business in the late 1980s. “I wasted so much time. I read articles, rented videos, did things wrong.” He surmises that if he had then known the successful remodeler who later became his mentor or had joined the peer-review group he now belongs to, “I could have been light-years ahead.”
The absence of formal education is compounded by naiveté. “I'm fairly bullheaded,” says Chad Vincent, another Boise remodeler whom Strite took under his wing. “And I think most people who start their own businesses are in the same category — they think they can do it on their own.” When he launched Renaissance Remodeling in 1997, Vincent assumed his experience as superintendent of his parents' company was sufficient preparation for running a business. “I just went for it,” he says.
Reality intervened when Vincent bid on a sunroom project in the nearby community of Eagle. He says he was afraid to talk about money, so he gave a free quote of $32,000, then quickly thanked the homeowner for the opportunity and left. Ultimately, Strite Design + Remodel got the job for closer to $75,000, “and I could not believe that someone would sign a contract for twice as much money. I realized at that minute that there's always a limit on someone's budget, but their decision has more to do with whether you have the confidence to do the job.”
Strite says this kind of inexperience is the bane of the industry. Too often, upstart remodelers “go out and start their own business earnestly thinking they can do that job for X dollars,” he says. They know from their last job what the going rates are, and “they think they can pick up that $15 an hour difference without any idea of the managerial or operational challenges. They don't have any systems or procedures, they're never on time, they don't follow through.” To stanch their financial losses, they take increasingly desperate measures, like cutting corners and making impossible promises that infuriate homeowners and feed negative public perceptions.
Vincent has his own theory of why Strite invests so much time mentoring other remodelers. “Jim doesn't want other companies ruining our reputations by doing something that jeopardizes all of us.”