Who is Walt Stoeppelwerth? Remodeler and consultant Shawn McCadden calls him “the remodeling god” who wrote the “bible” on remodeling company management. Publisher Peter Miller says he is an industry cheerleader who made an industry “that had an inferiority complex feel good about itself.” A “guiding light,” says researcher Kermit Baker. Friend and remodeler Tom Swartz refers to him as a guru and an industry icon. Remodeler Rosie Romero aptly describes him as “a walking encyclopedia of numbers.” No matter the definition, Stoeppelwerth's influence is undeniable.
The consultant, speaker, and author has spent a lifetime immersing himself in the business of remodeling. He is the co-founder of HomeTech Information Systems, a company that develops estimating books and software for remodelers, home builders, and home inspectors. He is a frequent speaker at industry conventions, an author, and a columnist for REMODELING magazine.
“What struck me about Walt is his willingness to give of himself to the industry. If there is anything going on — a contest, a conference — he is happy to volunteer. He was so ever-present at industry events that I had known him five or six years before I realized he was running a business,” says Kermit Baker of the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
Stoeppelwerth attends most conventions and speaks to both those inside and outside the industry. “My goal is to be ahead of the crowd on what is going to happen,” Stoeppelwerth says. He does this by constantly reading and researching, networking with remodelers during his seminars, and consulting with lumberyards and manufacturers. “He's like this bottleneck of industry information. All of it flows through Walt,” says Arizona remodeler and talk show host Rosie Romero.
Stoeppelwerth is very generous with his time. When a remodeler he does not know calls his office or approaches him at a seminar, he patiently spends time discussing their problems. “His availability is a testimony to his humbleness,” Romero says. Baker says most of Stoeppelwerth's research is done through this type of networking. “His method is very effective. He is listening to what people are saying and digesting that and bringing that to bear on how he thinks the industry is operating. Because of that, he is at the front of the Rolodex for many people. If you have a topic to kick around, he is always on the list,” Baker says. He recalls that once, after a discussion with Stoeppelwerth, the consultant sent Baker a three-page follow-up letter.
His data-gathering serves a single purpose. He wants remodelers — especially the smaller ones — to make money. Most conversations he has with remodelers begin with one question. “How are your numbers?” In trying to stay on that message, he has created both fans and detractors. But whether a remodeler agrees or disagrees with his theories, no one can deny Stoeppelwerth's impact on the industry.
The Journey Begins Stoeppelwerth earned a bachelor's degree in finance from Northwestern University in Chicago, then spent three years in the U.S. Navy. After his military service, he returned to Northwestern for his MBA. His first job was with Kaiser Aluminum, a siding producer. The Cleveland-based company sent him all over the country — from Cincinnati to Hartford, Conn., to Washington, D.C. —to convince builders to use its products. During the year Stoeppelwerth spent at Kaiser, he turned to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) to learn about the industry. When he left Kaiser, he didn't leave them empty-handed. With a dedication that is still evident today, Stoeppelwerth wrote the company a 26-page letter about how to improve its structure and business.
He then started a small remodeling company and formed an alliance with a kitchen and bath retail store. In 1967, he met Henry Reynolds, another small remodeling company owner, who wanted to develop an estimating program for remodelers. They paired up to found HomeTech to work on this system and on remodeling projects. At that time, Stoeppelwerth's keen business sense also honed in on a change in the realty business. “More and more people who were buying homes were hiring home inspectors,” he says. HomeTech shifted with the tide and began conducting home inspections. After Stoeppelwerth completed an impressive 259 inspections in one year, he started hiring inspectors, and by 1987, seven inspectors worked for the company.
Around 1975, Stoeppelwerth parlayed what he learned during home inspections into a book, How to Buy and Fix Up an Old House, which led to seminars for realtors and home buyer. Stoeppelwerth recalls renting a room in a hotel for a three-hour meeting where he would charge $60 per person and draw about 75 attendees.
Around 1978, he began conducting seminars for remodelers. Between 1978 and 2000, he gave more than 2,000 talks. “There was a time in the late 1980s and early 1990s when I was on the road two to three days per week,” Stoeppelwerth recalls.
His insatiable curiosity led to talks and work with manufacturers and lumberyards. “I recognized that remodeling was in its infancy and that what we had to do to make it go involved manufacturers and retailers,” he says. Not only did he realize that, he did his best to bridge the gap. He visited one lumberyard three times a year for seven years, he says, to convince them that there was a market selling to remodelers. “He was one of the first people to talk about installed sales,” says Miller, president of Restore Media in Washington, D.C. Miller says that during his years as publisher of REMODELING magazine, Stoeppelwerth convinced him to include voices from other industries in the magazine.
Keeping track of outside industries, says Romero, is one of Stoeppelwerth's biggest contributions. He recalls Stoeppelwerth's references to the high-end customer service at Nordstrom department stores that were driving buyer expectations. “These companies are training our buyers. Convenience is what we have to provide,” Romero recalls Stoeppelwerth saying. Romero heeded that advice and added successful handyman and home concierge divisions to his company.
Shaping the Industry “Back in the 1980s, people understood a lot less about the industry. Walt could speak very cogently about the changes that were occurring. He was the first person that understood what was going on and could speak about it intelligently,” Baker says.
In 1981, Stoeppelwerth published Professional Cost Estimating, the first in a series of three books for the HomeTech Professional Remodeling Management Series. In 1985, he wrote and published Professional Remodeling Management, the second book in the series, and began writing a column for REMODELING. In 1988 he and consultant Linda Case authored Remodeling Production, the last book in the series. These three books were also known as the “System for Success” and were sold to HomeTech customers across the country. “I still have all his books and every handout from every program,” says remodeler Shawn McCadden, now with DreamMaker Bath & Kitchen in Waco, Texas. “I won't lend out my Walt books anymore. I still refer to them today.”
Kurt Reuss of Denver-based Contractor.com recommends HomeTech's estimating software to all the company's contractor members. “I looked at all of the software packages — Walt's was the most comprehensive and easy to use,” Reuss says. “It's also comforting to know that you can pick up the phone and talk to someone at HomeTech.”
Tom Swartz's estimator attended a seminar on the estimating system and convinced the owner of J.J. Swartz to purchase it. That was Swartz's early introduction to Stoeppelwerth. Ten years later, he attended a Stoeppelwerth seminar, “How to Make Money in Remodeling.” “After that seminar, I rewrote our entire business plan. I changed our sales compensation from salary to commission-based, and I started using the lead carpenter system,” Swartz recalls. Over the years, Swartz has brought Stoeppelwerth to Decatur, Ill., at least 10 times to share his knowledge with J.J. Swartz staff and crews.