Meet Kathy Townsend. Independent and driven, she owns a court reporting company. Middle-aged and upper middle-class, she has money, but she wants to know how she's spending it. An active participant in this information age, she uses all the resources available to her. She is, in short, the modern remodeling client.
Now meet Tom Poulin, president of Poulin Design Remodeling in Albuquerque, N.M. A high-school handyman who worked for his father and then started out on his own after graduating from college, he stopped swinging hammers long ago and has shaped his company into a $4 million operation. With a Re-Bath franchise and a subcontractor referral service called Home Services Made Easy, Poulin's success is due in large part to his ability to serve his clients in any way they need. He is, in short, the successful modern remodeler.
They are a perfect match. Over the past four years, Poulin has completed six projects for Townsend, ranging from a tub refinishing to a master bath remodel to work in her downtown office. The most recent job, a kitchen remodel with a home office and half-bath addition, is an example of the importance of working with your client, not for them.
Roll the credits
The new kitchen features granite countertops and stainless steel backsplashes, deviations from traditional Southwestern design that Poulin identifies as trends he's noticed. "People are tired of Southwestern in Albuquerque," he says. "In other parts of the country, people want it, but they're tired of it here."
Townsend was heavily involved in the design of her project from the start. "I probably spent thousands of dollars on magazines," she laughs, recalling the torn-out pictures of styles she liked. After weeding through the pile, she brought several to Poulin's designer, Kerry Rose.
"Kathy has great design sense," Rose says. "She told me exactly what she wanted, and I composed it for her." Rose did, however, talk Townsend out of a concrete floor for the kitchen, suggesting travertine in its place.
While other elements were changed, as well -- radius cabinets with curved fronts, for example, were eliminated because of cost concerns -- the design stays true to Townsend's original vision. "We'd like to take all of the credit for the design on this one, but we really can't," says Mike Corr, the salesperson on the job.
The kitchen design element that posed the biggest challenge was the curved island nestled in the L-shaped counter. The idea sprung from one of Townsend's magazines, but try as they might, Corr and Rose couldn't draw it on the computer. After nearly a dozen attempts, they decided to field-verify it. Lead carpenter Art Tompkins built a model out of cardboard, gluing the pieces together and bending trim to help hold it up.
Sharing a bumpout with the half-bath addition, the home office is simple but serves its purpose. A frosted glass wall separates it from the dining room, and combined with the room's windows, allows ample light to pour in.
If the kitchen is the main attraction of this project then the bathroom is the dazzling opening act. The original design was unique enough, with a set of lockers along one wall, to protect visitors' clothes from Townsend's dog while they use the outdoor pool. But in the middle of the design, Townsend saw a picture of something she had to have: a glass block floor that glowed with white light.
She showed the magazine to Corr, one of Poulin's five "remodeling consultants" (the company's term for its salespeople who stay heavily involved throughout each project). Corr hadn't seen anything like it before, but he eventually located the glass block grid system, manufactured by a Texas-based company called IBP. The blocks sit on a steel grid that rests on top of a concrete ledge. Tompkins and crew worked with a local lighting company to install fiber-optic cables underneath the glass blocks (see "Light Show," below).
The cables are connected to a light wheel that is housed in the wall between the bathroom and a closet. Originally, the lights were only going to be white, but one day Corr received a call from the manufacturer, asking which colors, up to eight, he wanted for the wheel. Corr was unaware of this option, so he called Townsend, and the two decided on a rainbow that reminds Rose, at least, of Saturday Night Fever. "I keep kidding Kathy about having John Travolta over," he says.
Despite the absence of celebrity guests, Townsend's first party after completion was a smashing success, with the new bathroom floor the star of the show. "I couldn't keep people out of there!" she says.
To put it mildly, Townsend stays involved with her remodeling projects. "She loves to participate," Rose says. While this is often not a bad thing, it can get dicey at times. Looking to save money wherever she could after the cost of the project skyrocketed from the preliminary budget of $90,000, Townsend turned to the Internet for her product selections. While this is not a practice Poulin encourages, he recognizes the need to be flexible.
"Three or four years ago, you could take a stronger stance," he says. These days, he adds, you can't, not with the scope and accessibility of online shopping. So rather than risk losing the job altogether, Poulin let Townsend run wild with her keyboard, taking care to specify that Townsend would be financially responsible for any delays in receiving the materials and that he would warranty the installation but not the actual products.
"We tell people, 'If you want to save money, you have to give something up,'" he says. Townsend saved thousands of dollars by ordering her appliances, fixtures, and other accessories directly from the manufacturers, while Poulin and Corr closed the sale on a big-ticket job.
Throughout the project, Poulin continued to make concessions. In another cost-cutting move, Townsend decided she wanted to do the painting herself. "I can paint," she told Poulin. "I've painted the whole house before."
What Townsend didn't realize was that in her previous endeavors, where she simply repainted over an existing coat, the walls had been prepped during the original painting. So while the actual painting itself was satisfactory and there were no interruptions to the schedule (lead carpenter Art Tompkins, notes that she finished in less time than he had scheduled), the finished product left something to be desired. "It looked awful," Poulin says with a smile. "The holes weren't puttied, the molding wasn't caulked to the wall." Poulin had Tompkins prep it and touch it up afterwards free of charge, because "I didn't want it to look that way for the Parade of Homes."
It's a wrap
In the end, Poulin's flexibility and business sense earned him a $150,387 job with an 8% net profit. It also extended a good relationship with a valued customer and earned him at least one other job: Poulin has already signed a design contract with a client who walked through Townsend's house during the local Parade of Homes in October.
As for Townsend, she couldn't be happier with her new kitchen, office, and bathroom. It's exactly what she imagined. In fact, only one thing remains. "She wanted a magazine picture," Tompkins said.
Our pleasure. Leading Man
Tom Poulin is a good businessman, but he can't do it all himself. He understands the importance of hiring people who are good for the company, from his office staff to his production crews. In fact, his lead carpenters form such good relationships with the homeowners, repeat customers will often ask for them by name, delaying their project start up to six months while waiting for them to become available.
Such was the case with this job, as lead Art Tompkins had worked with Kathy Townsend on all of her previous projects. Tompkins' familiarity with his client was paramount to the project's success; Townsend says she had complete trust in him. "He'd have solutions that he knew I'd like before I even knew there was a problem," she says, a sentiment echoed by Poulin. For example, Tompkins redesigned the exterior concrete steps leading to the pool without consulting with Townsend first. "I came home and he said, 'I hope you like what I did,'" she says, laughing. "I do," she told him.
For his part, Poulin says he likes to give his leads a little leeway when it comes to changing things on the spot. "We want them to make on-site decisions, within boundaries," he says. "They're the ones performing the work." Tompkins also suggested an improvement to the existing skylight in the kitchen; Townsend quickly agreed to one made with glass blocks. "We like the same things," she says.
Of course a lead carpenter is only as good as the work he produces, and Tompkins shines in that area as well. "Art is an incredible trim carpenter," designer Kerry Rose says. This particular project provided plenty of opportunity for Tompkins to show his skill, from the installation of the stainless steel toekicks on the kitchen island to the modification of a couple of cabinets in the hallway leading to the dining room.
Tompkins even freelanced the installation of an appliance garage, which Townsend bought toward the end of the project. "It was made for a different style," Tompkins says, "so I had to set up a little shop there to alter it." The door is meant to be installed with the cabinet off of the wall, and Tompkins had to alter the installation to accommodate the fact that the cabinet was already in place.
Light Show When homeowner Kathy Townsend saw a picture of a glass block floor in a magazine, it sent Poulin salesman Mike Corr on a bit of a wild-goose chase. After some research, he finally tracked down a proprietary floor system manufactured by a Texas-based company called IBP ( www.ibpglassblock.com).
The floor system features a steel frame that sits on a concrete ledger around the perimeter of the slab poured for the addition. Intermediate steel frames form a grid that supports the glass block pavers, which sit in rubber "boots." The pavers, which are 6 inches square and 1 inch thick, meet the tile walls and comprise the entire floor surface. Because the glass blocks can't be cut, the room itself is perfectly square and dimensional tolerances are extremely close.
The fiber-optic cables are not part of the IBP system. The Poulin crew laid them between the pavers to reduce shadows and let the floor sit for a week before caulking the joints, to make sure everything was working. "We can remove the floor if we have to, but we don't ever want to," Corr says. A Win-Win-Win Situation
Tom Poulin's two-year-old handyman/contractor referral service, called Home Services Made Easy, keeps him in touch with customers and their repairs by his handymen. It also helps him refer work that he won't do to 70 subcontractors.
Occasionally, Poulin uses the service to close large sales by allowing clients to work directly with subs for part of the project. That was the case with this job.
"Kathy Townsend came to us wanting to do the countertops because she knows it's a big ticket item," he says. "We just gave her a way to purchase that product."
Poulin doesn't look at referrals to subs as losing margins but instead as keeping clients happy and winning a commission on, in this case, an $8,412 job. Poulin gets a sliding commission on Home Services sales.
The remodeler says he falls back on this option if clients are willing to go ahead but are in "pullback mode," trying to reduce price to meet budget.
Joe Turowsky, Home Services manager, says the division feeds clients to Poulin Design Remodeling and vice versa, with 60 remodeling sales coming from Home Services over two years. Subcontractors, screened for complaints, report a 57% closing rate on Home Services referrals.
Clients, meanwhile, get a sub with a proven record.
"I don't think many general contractors realize ... what's sitting in front of them," Poulin says. "They have the same opportunity we do to refer subs. They're probably doing it now and not charging a fee."