Moxie, chutzpah, or, well, something else -- whatever it takes to stand up, mike in hand, in front of an edgy and not necessarily sympathetic crowd in a Greenwich Village comedy club -- David Moore's got it. The 48-year-old graduate of Harvard Business School does a 20-minute performance that invites comparison with the work of those he admires, people like Jerry Seinfeld, or older-generation comics like Rodney Dangerfield.
Moore, who writes material based on his life experience and pokes fun at himself, including mocking his educational pedigree, has earned as much as four figures for performances, opened for top comics, and engaged audiences in clubs as far from New York as Florida and Los Angeles.
But although he performs at least once a week, comedy's a sideline. His day job, so to speak, is more mundane. He's president of Garden State Brickface, a New Jersey siding and window company.
Moore, who bought Garden State Brickface after the company went bankrupt in 1992 and has steadily increased its sales since, is a successful CEO who often arrives at work at 6:30 and puts in long hours before heading home to his wife and children. Cindy Lukas, the company's chief operations officer, says that "comedy gives David a whole different realm" from the world of remodeling.
"You get to a certain age," she points out, "like David in his late 40s, and you've done most of the things you expected to, but there's one thing you always wanted to try. He's one of the few I've seen who went for it and did it."
Comedy's not only earned Moore pocket money, it's "honed skills I think are important for a business leader," he says. "It's made me more accessible and approachable and human." It also helps him balance his life as the owner of a business with 2002 sales of $17 million.
Burning at both ends
No one has ever polled the remodeling industry to find out how happy or fulfilled remodeling company owners are, but it's a safe bet many are living a life somewhat different from David Moore's. Most experience the intense stress levels that come with small-business ownership. Many can't or won't take an unscheduled day off, let alone manage a second career. Burnout -- as evidenced by the steady turnover among the ranks of contractors -- is common.
Clay Nelson, a California business coach who specializes in the residential construction industry ( firstname.lastname@example.org), has seen it often enough. His clients usually come to him for one of two reasons: Either they've got a goal they can't reach or they're wiped out. The problem, he says, is that people try to do it all, all the time.
"The way you know you're burning the candle at both ends," Nelson says, "is that you're bigger than the team. You haven't had a day off. Your passion is less and less. Your health is dwindling and you go to work and you can't remember what you did the day before."
That situation is one many small business owners, not only remodelers, find themselves in at some point: living in a moment where everything seems about to spin out of control and there's no time left for family, friends, hobbies, outside interests -- even taking care of yourself. Life is out of balance.
Hard habits to break
Ask a group of people running half-million dollar remodeling companies and putting in seven-day, 60-to-70-hour weeks why they're doing it, and they will likely explain that they have no choice. There's simply too much to do. The chronically stress-driven spend a large portion of their time performing tasks a minimum wage subordinate could safely be entrusted with. There's never enough time, yet they consume time in a thousand unproductive ways.
Why? There are two closely related reasons. The first is that business owners, says Massachusetts business coach and psychotherapist Jackie Woodside, "are really good at controlling everything but themselves."
The second reason is that it's become habit. "I didn't know how to get out of the routine I'd built for myself over the past 20 years," explains Skip Sheffield, owner of Sheffield Construction, in Tallahassee, Fla.
That routine, familiar to many, involved working six days a week and rarely getting home before 9 at night. "I'd see people going to ball games at 5 in the afternoon, while I was on my way back to the office," Sheffield remembers. Those are, he says, "hard habits to break." Yet Sheffield initially balked at hiring a business coach because "the idea sounded a little too California to me."
When Houston remodeler and custom home builder Stephen Hann started his company in 1994, he did it all. "I did production. I went home and did estimates," he remembers. "Then I went out at night selling."
Ironically, problems arise when all that hard work pays off, in the form of increased business and additional revenues.
"Assuming you overcome your first obstacle and become successful, that leads to its own problems," says Connecticut contractor Bruce Wiedenmann, of Sunwood Development Corp. "More customers. They hear you're a good guy and want you to do work for them. And you can't stretch yourself anymore, so you hire more people."
But the people, of course, have to be trained. And not just trained, but nurtured, managed, and rewarded -- a process company owners, many of whom started out in the trades, sometimes find unsettling or even unnecessary. Typically, the owner's response is to stay longer and work harder, rather than focus on team building.
"The one thing that's key," says Seattle business consultant Linda Roundtree, "is to get your employees engaged in your mission. Is it about pleasing the customer? Working smarter?" A lot of small-business owners, she says, "don't ask [employees] for their ideas and don't have them share in the success of the business."
Nothing changes if nothing changes
Many overstressed remodeling company owners who've found a proper balance between life and work say there came a moment when they realized they simply couldn't go on the way they were. Seeking help outside the family and outside the company -- in the form of a colleague, consultant, or mentor -- is one solution.
"If they could change it themselves, they would already have changed it," Nelson says. "They've been playing big and didn't build the team quick enough. They need to stop and get their batteries recharged. They need to get their balance back. Choose a direction and go for it."
One of the first things Nelson does is direct clients to make a detailed plan, on paper, for both business and personal life. Typically, remodelers who engage his services begin with a two-day seminar and follow up with periodic progress reports on the phone. "He gives you personal goals and business goals," says Sheffield, who is a client. "And you write down how you're going to get there and when that's going to happen."
Woodside begins by finding out from business owners the tasks or responsibilities they've avoided. Procrastination, she says, drains vital energies. Eliminating unfinished business is an act of liberation and a necessary prerequisite to moving on to bigger and better things. From there, it's about organizing the client's time.
"It's not about how much time you have," she says, "it's about how you use that time."
Can I afford all that?
Remodeler Halsey Platt, 36, owner of Walter H.B. Platt Builders and Construction in Groton, Mass., ran frantically from task to task in the years immediately after he launched his company at age 25. Long workweeks, employee turnover of 20%, and lots of stress were regular parts of his life. For Platt, "close to burnout," the moment of revelation came after he joined Remodelers Executive Roundtables, a peer group. At his first meeting, the group suggested he raise prices and hire more employees to take the load off his shoulders.
"There was an epiphany," Platt recalls. He committed to two things: charging more and reducing turnover. He immediately raised his markup 10% and labor rates by 20%. With volume and profitability climbing steadily, Platt was able to hire new employees, including two architects, and shed production and design responsibilities. Three years ago, the company did $1.3 million; last year, it did $4 million. Today he sells and manages the business.
Many contractors who find themselves steering rapidly growing businesses have a difficult time delegating tasks and larger areas of responsibilities to subordinates.
Most of the time, Nelson says, it's those old hard-to-break habits that are the major problem. "If you have a remodeling company," he points out, "and you're 32 to 35, you've already made the mistakes. All you've got left is to teach and replace yourself. Ninety-five percent of the people who come to me with a problem, or are just exhausted, are afraid to give away what they know."
For Platt, the problem wasn't giving it away but "making sure I had the right people" to give it away to. He wanted, he says, to attract people looking for long-term stability. So he raised wages slightly and increased his benefits package "drastically." Half of Platt's 31 employees are former remodeling company owners. Many simply didn't want to deal with the hassles of running a company.
Last year Platt took about six weeks off. He works an average of 50 hours a week and spends a lot of time with his sons, ages 4 and 5. The company has about 3% employee turnover. It took three years for him to get the company where it is today, a process that "focused intensively on life balance." Balance, he says, "is an ongoing process, and it has most to do with learning about yourself."
Priorities and a schedule
For business coach Woodside, balance "is about scheduling your life and living your schedule." Paul Winans agrees with that. He and his wife, Nina, both of whom work at Winans Construction, a $2.4 million full service remodeling company in Oakland, Calif., schedule not only their working hours but their off time.
"One of the real tricks [of staying in balance] is to schedule personal events, then schedule work events around them," Paul Winans says. He exercises four times a week, and he and Nina go dancing one night a week. Both belong to book clubs. "That means I have to create time that month to read the book," he adds.
Business owners, Winans points out, are notorious for postponing their life's real dreams. "The inevitability of mortality is either a real drag or a motivator to do the things you really want to do now," he says. Ask yourself, he suggests, "how you can do some of those things now, instead of when you have enough money, or when you retire," The Winans, for instance, resolved to go to Europe before their 25th wedding anniversary. Three years ago, they spent a week in London and a week in Paris. A year later, they spent two weeks in Italy. They're now planning their third trip.
For Moore, the leap into comedy started as a series of memorably funny wedding toasts. Three years ago, at a friend's suggestion, he showed up for an open-mike event at the Manhattan comedy club Stand Up New York and held his own well enough for other comics to assume he'd been performing for years.
Ken Greene, owner of St. Clair Corp., an $18 million roofing, siding, window, and sunroom company based in St. Louis, caught Moore's act last fall when the remodeling company owner performed at a two-day business seminar in Indianapolis. "I was totally surprised," he says. "The room was rolling. I had tears coming down my face. I've known David Moore for years. He always had a good sense of humor, but I never knew he had that in him."
Tips To Get, Or Stay, In Balance
Delegate... "Everyone in this industry thinks he's the best and doesn't want to delegate," says Connecticut remodeler Bruce Wiedenmann. "Realize you can't do it all -- and can't do it as well as someone who has better training. I don't do my own plumbing. I have a plumber who knows plumbing far better than I could ever dream of. You have to think about what you're good at, and what you enjoy. Isn't that the benefit of owning a business?" ...But don't abdicate. Massachusetts remodeler Halsey Platt cautions that even those who have no trouble turning responsibilities over to subordinates need to follow up. A year and a half ago, Platt turned full management responsibilities for a $500,000 whole-house remodel over to a project manager, who repeatedly assured him everything was going fine. "The project blew up in the last month," he says, "because we were neither on time nor on budget. He was in over his head." Platt blames himself for having failed to go through the billing or check in with the client. "I didn't independently verify."
Vacate. Take days off and vacations -- long ones. This "makes a big difference," says Stonington, Conn., remodeler John DeCiantis. He takes somewhere between 30 and 45 days off a year. Last year DeCiantis took his first two-week vacation in 20 years. Having experienced that, he intends to make a habit of it. What is it about time off that recharges? "I feel centered, focused, and calm, depending on the type of vacation and the length."
Talk. In the first years of getting his company up and running, Shawn McCadden, a remodeler and consultant to other remodelers, decided he wanted to stop going out on sales appointments within a year and committed himself to working a 40 hour week within three years. Telling his wife about those goals, McCadden says, gave his ambition impetus. "She found out what I was doing and why. She got the milestones." McCadden was able to reach both goals, initially by giving up direct project management.
Put family first. Bruce Giffin, of Giffin and Crane General Contractors in Santa Barbara, Calif., used to be on the boards of five nonprofits. He was also active in the local NAHB chapter. But, says Giffin, "I didn't like how it pulled me away from my family." He realized, he says, that he was "missing out on a lot of things that wouldn't be there" when his two children were grown and gone. So he bowed out of some of his extracurricular responsibilities. "My wife and I keep our relationship front and center," he says. Many contractors say putting their marriage first is key to balancing the personal and the professional.
Map it out. When business owners are so busy putting out fires that they fail to find time to write a plan for managing business as well as personal growth, the cycle leading to burnout has begun. Business coaches all suggest owners find the time to prepare a real working plan for their operation -- one that spells out values, addresses real and potential problems, and outlines a strategy for achieving stated goals, with real time frames.
Choose your clients. A nitpicky, disagreeable, or -- God forbid -- litigious client can turn a remodeling contractor's life into an ongoing anxiety attack. Oakland, Calif., remodeler Paul Winans says he learned early on that you can't satisfy everyone, and that it's important to select your client in the same way that clients select their contractor. "I used to think, 'Sure, they might be hard to work for, but we can satisfy them.'" He's learned, he says, that "if they're difficult and hard to work for, they're difficult and hard to work for."
Tips from a Head Coach
What does a business coach do? We asked Robert Isaacson, a business coach and owner of Full Circle Solutions, Bala Cynwyd, Pa., a few questions.
Q. Are the problems of remodelers different from those of other small- business people you've worked with?
A. Yes and no. Many remodelers come to their businesses as tradespeople. It's difficult for them to make the transition from carpenter to business owner.
Another difference is that they tend to be perfectionists. They want to install the perfect window or to lay the perfect floor. The danger is that they spend too much time on that and they're not getting paid for it. If you are getting paid for high quality work, that's your market. But if you're not, you have to be very careful about not investing too much time.
Running, managing, selling -- all those small business functions are a challenge for any of us, remodelers or not. People spend too much time doing the work, as opposed to stepping back and working on their business. And in the beginning -- and for quite some time afterward -- they wear too many hats.
Q. Why do people come to you?
A. They may not be selling enough. One thing I do as a coach for several remodelers is work with them around sales, to help them develop an approach they feel comfortable with. We also work on marketing campaigns.
Some people are looking for focus. They may have grown the business to a certain point and don't know what to do next. Or they may be approaching retirement, or wanting to sell the business, or merge.
Some are absolutely swamped with work. They have no personal life and no sense of work/life balance. Some have difficulty managing their time. So we work around priorities. We identify the four or five high priority activities, what they need to do each day to grow their business
Q. How soon will a business owner see the effects of coaching on his business?
A. I invite people to make a commitment of at least three months. I think that within two or three months, one should experience a solid return on investment.
Q. What do they get back?
A. For some, it could be more money in their pocket. For others, it's about being calmer, saner. For still others, it's the ability to delegate more, so they can do the things that are really important.
Q. What do you charge?
A. Business coaching fees generally vary from $250 to $500 a month. I charge $400 a month, which gets them a half hour coaching session once a week on the phone. I'm also available via e-mail or telephone between calls. If I go into a company and do on-site work, I charge $2,000 a day.
Robert Isaacson is a member of the Bucks-Montgomery chapter of NARI and can be reached at Robertaisaacson@aol.com.