Gary and Kathy Wheatley came to the second meeting of my Business Networks peer review group back in May 1990. The true dynamic of the group established itself the moment they joined.

Gary was born to be a remodeler. I look primarily for two things when I hire someone: attitude and aptitude. Gary had both to such a degree that if someone like him (there's a laugh) walked through my office door looking for work, I would hand him the keys to my company and hope that he would hire me back. He knew just what to do, and he didn't make a lot of fuss about it.

At a very early Business Networks meeting he said something that I wrote down in all capitals in my notebook: “I run a real simple company.” I know it's pretty sorry that I actually had to write that down to remember it. It's sorrier still that I have to pull out the piece of paper and re-read it every now and then, to this day. That's a key difference between Gary and me. For me, simplicity is a lot of work. For Gary, it was obvious.

I don't want this to sound in the least bit like Gary was some sort of Forrest Gump personality — far from it. He just had a gift for distilling things to their essence, without being self-conscious or wiser-than-thou about it. We used to make fun of remodeling industry “gurus” in our Business Network meetings; Gary's nickname became “Garu” for a few meetings as a result. It was apt — he was kind of a Zen master of the business, except there was no mystery to what he was telling us. His message was clear as a bell if you knew enough to listen to it.

Kathy Wheatley

DOING THE RIGHT THING At one meeting I was assigned to a hotel room next to a room that was undergoing renovation (I guess the hotel wanted me to feel at home). There was a small trail of construction debris in the hallway, and as Gary walked into my room to join a pre-dinner gathering, he dragged a piece of dry-wall paper in on his foot. He stood there talking for awhile, glanced down and saw the scrap, then effortlessly and unthinkingly picked it up and put it in his pocket.

I noticed, and the person next to me remarked on it, too, after Gary left the room.

Why was such a trivial gesture at all remarkable — and of all the Gary stories I could tell, why do I pick this one? Because it showed how good his character and instincts were, and how deep they ran. You may know a few people who, in that situation, would pick up that piece of paper without a second thought, but I bet you know a lot more people who'd remain totally oblivious or uncaring. I bet I also know which one you'd rather have on your team.

You can read as many business and management books as you want; subscribe to as many industry magazines as there are out there; hire as many consultants (or gurus) as will cash your checks; but if you don't learn to swoop down on that little scrap of construction debris and pick it up without having to think twice about it — if that's not in your blood — there's only so far you can go in this business. Gary knew that well — knew that it's about small details, about doing the right thing, about unselfconscious humility. Build your business on the simplest of acts; the rest is commentary.

Gary was not all, or not only, natural instinct. None of the greats in any endeavor ever made it on natural gifts alone; it also takes years of practice and discipline. Gary worked hard for what he knew and for what he was able to get out of that knowledge — and Kathy worked just as hard at his side. They were one of the all-time greatest teams that I have ever known. Few of us will ever be so lucky to know that sort of partnership. Painful as it is to think of Kathy without Gary, it's completely impossible to imagine Gary without Kathy.

Front, leaning: Gary Wheatley; from left to right: Dale Van Lydegraf, Brad Cruickshank, Mike  Killa, Neverne Covington, Don Strobel, Rob Boram, John Sylvester.
Kathy Wheatley Front, leaning: Gary Wheatley; from left to right: Dale Van Lydegraf, Brad Cruickshank, Mike Killa, Neverne Covington, Don Strobel, Rob Boram, John Sylvester.

KEEPING IT SIMPLE Construction-industry books, and magazines, and consultants all sometimes seem to feel a need to make things seem more sophisticated and complicated than they really are. I often read through an issue of a trade publication and get exhausted by all the great ideas I'm not implementing, all the new trends that I'm behind on, all the coming challenges that I'm not in the least bit ready for. I say this as someone who makes a decent side income writing for such trade publications, and who has contributed more than his share to those unnecessary complications.

But in recent years, maybe because I'm getting older, maybe because I'm finally understanding the lessons that “Garu” taught me, I feel as if I've been getting better at identifying the essential things, at focusing on those, and at not worrying so much about the background noise. It really is all pretty simple, as Gary knew for years before I ever would: Price your jobs right, avoid problem clients, hire good people, and stay out of the way as long as things are going well.

The moments when I achieve that level of simplicity and clarity have not come easy, but they're coming more often. If I had not been in a peer review group for many, many years with Gary as a role model, I may never have known I even needed to strive for those moments. I would have missed out on something really important.

Gary Wheatley died of a heart attack in May on a fishing trip, at age 49. “I run a real simple company.” I still can hear him saying that, as if it were yesterday. I'm still trying to get there. And trust me, it's a hell of a lot harder than Gary made it look. —Paul Eldrenkamp is president of Byggmeister Associates, in Newton, Mass.