If you think rock 'n' roll and professional remodeling fit together about as well as mitered crown and a twisted 2x4, you haven't met Michael Sauri.
"The people doing this work are truly artisans. Turns out, the skills you need to manage highly creative people with a slightly self-destructive lifestyle and no real plan for the future apply equally to carpenters and musicians," says Sauri, president and co-owner of TriVistaUSA, who spent 20 years writing music, producing records, and playing guitar in both studio and performance settings all over the world before coming to remodeling. "I'm with my people at all times. And we have some real rock stars."
Since 2005, Sauri's remodeling rock stars have helped propel the boutique design-and-build company from a one-man band to more than $4 million in annual revenue. Along the way, fans have showered the firm with more than 30 remodeling awards including 2018's Best Remodeler from the readers of Arlington Magazine, in Sauri's home base in Virginia. Now, to that impressive array, TriVista is adding one of the industry's most coveted accolades—the 2018 Fred Case Remodeling Entrepreneur of the Year Award.
Named after Fred Case, who founded Case Design/Remodeling on a shoestring in 1961, the award is limited to smaller firms, doing $5 million or less in annual gross remodeling volume, that demonstrate innovative business practices. It's the only award of its kind that gives cash prizes—$2,500—to finalists as well as to the winner, who gets an additional $10,000.
Artistry and Giving Back
Like Case, Sauri has built his business bucking the status quo. That $12,500 Case Award cash? He's giving it all away. A portion goes to his employees with an important caveat: They have to donate it to a cause they believe in and then report back. The balance will go to groups that help people transfer out of homelessness or that help those without health insurance.
"We're giving it all away—back to the community that supports us and allows us to do all the cool things we get to do," explains Sauri. "How can we accept this award and not pay it forward?"
That generosity and the artistic foundations it springs from show up in the way Sauri develops relationships with employees and subs. "Part of the journey is being able to see people for what they're really good at," he says. "People who want to be creative and who are artisans aren't worried about the status quo, and yet they're the people who do this work so well."
Artistry and Advocacy
It's also a huge part of why he's able to succeed in the D.C. metro area—one of the nation's most competitive markets, which includes giants such as Case and BOWA. Unlike those larger companies, Sauri says he's carved out a niche that allows him to work with creative-minded clients.
"If you call any other company, you're probably looking for something very different than what you've seen on our website," he says. "Our clients want a very artistic solution."
That means Sauri works much more in bespoke, custom-made, creative solutions. For example, he recalls one client who wanted her bathroom remodel to resemble "the bowels of a Victorian ship." Sauri immediately got her "gothic vibe" and designed a steampunk-style faucet. "When someone says 'steampunk bathroom,' a lot of people running remodeling businesses would say, 'Steam what?' That's no bust on them, it's just why a client like that would use us," he explains.
Sauri's success is not due to just knowing hip culture. There's something decidedly old-school in his approach: The art of simply listening and asking questions plays big. Sauri says it's common for clients to mention that he asks a lot more questions than other remodelers they interviewed. There's no end to the questions that can inform a remodel: What do you eat for dinner? What are your children's names? Where do you like to vacation? "When you understand them better, you end up doing better work for them," he says.
Sauri uses the information he gleans to advocate for his clients, sometimes giving them solutions they have never considered, and even suggesting they spend less than they intended.
"They're so scared when they call us. They want this thing and all they've heard is how terrible contractors are," he says. "But when you become their advocate, they get to relax and when they relax, you get to build their project."
Sauri's favorite example of that process in action is the couple who asked him to expand their existing kitchen. But Sauri saw something no one else had. Unlike most houses in the neighborhood, one side of the home was butted up against an unbuildable area that served as stormwater runoff. As a result, a beautiful wildflower garden had sprung up, but it couldn't be seen from the house. Sauri suggested the couple change their plans and orient the kitchen to overlook this accidental nature preserve.
"At the end of the project, the couple said, 'We though you were crazy when you told us to re-orient the kitchen and do a screened-in porch. We never saw this, but you heard what we needed and you gave us this thing we didn't even know we wanted,'" he says. "They were just enthralled by it."
Artistry and Unity
Sauri channels his curiosity and creativity into design charrettes, which he describes as structured brainstorming. All seven employees along with his "closely held" subcontractors participate in the charrette. Here's how it works: The team does a 20-minute project review for scope of work and challenges. The group takes one hour to sketch solutions for these. They review the sketches and note common solutions. "The focus of every charrette is to tap everyone's design ideas," he says. "By involving everyone from the beginning, we are all accountable for a solution that works."
The charrette approach also means Sauri can present clients with the creative solutions they expect from his boutique business. Before using the charrette, Sauri felt he was too often presenting one or two uninspiring ideas. "Now, with three or four completely unique design solutions, the client picks which parts of each design they utilize as a single solution."
Clients are so impressed with the process, Sauri says, they become evangelists for his company. But the charrette process had another valuable outcome Sauri didn't expect. Because it involves his design team and production team, he gets more accurate job estimates and a better understanding of the design intent. "It united the design and production departments," he says. "Now that blew us away!"
Artistry and Reaching Inward
But Sauri says neither innovation would have been possible if he hadn't first built a solid business foundation. Sauri credits the "big monster bottom" of 2008 for pushing him to develop that foundation. "I feel fortunate that I was only three years into my business at that point," he says. "It taught me to run a very lean, very careful company. Today, we're really smart with every dollar that comes in, so we're a really good value for our clients."
Being smart with every dollar means managing his business books so that every project has a budget—and stays on budget. "Budget-to-actual matters every single day," Sauri says. "It seems so easy, but it's like saying 'All you have to do to lose weight is eat good and work out.' Super easy, but in practice it's hard."
Sauri feels too many remodelers make the mistake of accepting that they're just bad at business and leave it at that. "You can always say, 'I need help,'" he says. "But many men just aren't brave enough to do that, and that's too bad."
Sauri got his help from an uncle who happened to be a former CFO for Viacom. He also got honest with himself about his own weak spots—and then did what he needed to do to strengthen them. "Admitting I'm bad at business doesn't mean I don't have to be good at business," he says. "And running a good business doesn't have to mean not being a good artist. People think they're mutually exclusive, but I don't think they have to be."
Many of his business insights came from an another foundation of Sauri's success, Remodelers Advantage. He says the exchange of ideas in the Remodelers Advantage Roundtables has been integral to his own company's growth as well as his ability to "get good at business."
"It's as much their award as it is mine," he says. "I've gotten my butt kicked and kicked and kicked in that room."
But he says just as important to reaching out for help is looking inward and knowing your goals and aspirations. Sauri recommends taking a day a quarter with no distractions to work on the business and ask where you want to be in one year, three years, and five years. "That's like one percent of the entire work year," he says. "But if you put that in your calendar and actually focus on what you want to happen, you'll be shocked at what actually does happen."
Before Sauri did his first visioning session, his company never seemed to be able to crack $2 million in annual revenue. But within 18 months of setting goals, he passed the $2 million mark and then some. "It wasn't just, 'I want more volume,'" he says. "That planning started to pay off as I was able to be more true to myself."
Artistry and the Future
As Sauri looks to the future, he knows his artistry will always be central to his success, but, like an indie musician looking for a wider audience, he's starting to wonder how far he can take his niched approach. One possibility is to begin training other salespeople in his bespoke question-and-answer approach to remodeling.
But like any artist, he's afraid of losing touch with the part of his work he loves the most. "I'm at a crossroads," he says. "I love meeting with clients and hearing their problems and being that good listen. But if I want to be something more than a practitioner, I'm going to have to grow a sales team."
As he ponders what type of business he wants TriVista to become, Sauri keeps coming back to the artists' golden rule: To thine own self be true.
"The challenge is always me, and getting out of my own way," he says. "I'm the one who's scared about giving away the sales process. You've got to be constantly looking at yourself and saying, 'What can I be doing better?'"