Steven Freeman

To understand why Bob Gockeler succeeds as a remodeler, ask him about his dirt bike.

Gockeler once spent six straight hours on the track he created behind his home doing nothing but practicing how to make a left turn. It’s just one of many skills you need to win in motocross, and you’d think that weather, the track you’re on, and the competitions would make every left turn slightly different. But Gockeler wanted to build consistency within that chaos, so he put in the time.

You could say that being able to balance control with spontaneity distinguishes the leaders at lots of great remodeling businesses, and in that pantheon now comes Gockeler, winner of this year’s Fred Case Remodeling Entrepreneur of the Year Award. And by spending time with him in New Jersey, you get a real sense of how unconventionally conventional Gockeler is.

On the one hand, Gockeler is a risk-taker, given to dropping phrases into his conversations like “one of the times I broke my collarbone ... .” He’ll tell you he has attention deficit disorder. In the wealthy, button-down New York City suburb of Chatham where he works—where even the local Dunkin’ Donuts has a tasteful wood sign—Gockeler greets you in cowboy boots and what looks at first like a tie-dyed T-shirt, and his conversation might ramble toward his recently revived hobby of bowfishing on the Delaware River.

But this same Gockeler will tell you how he picked Chatham well ahead of opening Kraftmaster to maximize his chances for success, and how during the years he spent learning the basics of remodeling he took care to never come near Chatham, so that no potential future customer would ever associate him with the low-priced service he was running. He also will tell you his sales process is so consistent his coworkers get sick of hearing it. And the care his company takes to stage a house reflects years of thinking about how to minimize dust while maximizing customer referrals.

Case Award winner Robert Gockeler and his sons are avid dirt-bike racers.
Steven Freeman Case Award winner Robert Gockeler and his sons are avid dirt-bike racers.

Gockeler actually runs two businesses: Kraftmaster Renovations, a K&B outfit; and Kitchen Intuitions, a narrow storefront showroom on Main Street that sells cabinets and countertops primarily to fellow remodelers. They did $2.2 million in business last year, mostly jobs averaging $80,000 to $90,000—a price that Gockeler says puts him toward the upper end of the middle tier for projects in his area. Gross profit is in the high 30s and Gockeler aims for net profit of 10%. The full-time staff consists of Gockeler, son Robbie Gockeler, and two designers; beyond that he keeps a platoon of subcontractors busy almost full time.

Prep School

When the judges gave Gockeler the Case Award, they cited in particular the way his company prepares an area for renovation. “The day you start, you set the stage” for how the customer feels about you, Gockeler says, so he regards staging as crucial to future business. His steps include:

  • Placing doormats at every junction point in the house.
  • Laying 1/8-inch hardboards made from eucalyptus atop paper on all parts of the floor that could be walked on. Eucaboard stays in place, doesn’t rip, and minimize dents when tools are dropped. Gockeler says that benefits crews as well as clients: “Think of the stress level that has mitigated for the guys.”
  • Using 1x3s to create a temporary wall onto which plastic sheeting can be stapled. A stable wall makes it much harder for dust to leak into living areas.
  • Taping all return vents.
  • Placing ZipWalls (basically, plastic sheets that can be opened or closed with a zipper) in areas where one has to move from construction to living spaces. Along with the ZipWall, Kraftmaster often adds a second plastic barrier and a mat to catch stray dust.
  • Creating a temporary kitchen.
  • Using a lockbox so workers needn't bother the occupants.
  • Renting a port-a-john so that workers never invade a homeowner’s private space.

“Inspectors see our jobs all say they’re amazed at what we do,” Gockeler says.

Social Studies

Gockeler used LinkedIn rather than email for all his messages related to this story. It makes sense given how much time he spends on social media. To bring in traffic, KraftMaster’s Facebook page features 150 albums of past projects, each of which has 50 to 100 photos. Recently, Kraftmaster had 55 projects on Houzz, two dozen boards on Pinterest, and a spot on Angie’s List. Even a Google search as simple as “kitchen remodeling NJ” will bring up Kraftmaster on the first page.

Walls of Protection Gockeler doesn't stint on finding ways to keep a project's dust and dirt from entering the rest of the house. He erects walls of plastic, puts eucalyptus boards and mats on the floors, and tapes every possible seam.
Steven Freeman Walls of Protection Gockeler doesn't stint on finding ways to keep a project's dust and dirt from entering the rest of the house. He erects walls of plastic, puts eucalyptus boards and mats on the floors, and tapes every possible seam.

“Other than your personal reputation, your online reputation is the most important one you have,” Gockeler says. “If you’re not on it, you’ll never get that business.”

Gockeler turns to LinkedIn when he gets an inquiry so he can learn about the potential client, find potential connections, and decide how to talk to the future customer. “And it gives them an opportunity to look at me,” he adds—a viewpoint he backs up with a collection of bios, endorsements, and statements that stretch several times beyond what you find on most LinkedIn pages.

That LinkedIn page shows Gockeler, now 52, took a roundabout trip to professional remodeling. By the time he was 23 he owned a landscaping business with 30 employees, a slew of heavy equipment, and a 10,000-square-foot pole barn he had built by hand. Around age 30 he got into an accident that crushed several discs at about the same time a drunk driver rolled over one of his trucks. Gockeler spent two months in the hospital, and by the time he emerged in 1992, the business was gone.

Steven Freeman

So he found a recruiter who sent him to ADT Security for an interview with a persnickety hiring manager. Though he never had a job interview before, Gockeler was hired as a sales rep. In five years, he rose to become ADT’s director of small business security services, a division that he took in 36 months from a $50 million to a $350 million operation. By 2000, he was overseeing 103 managers and a commission-only sales staff of 1,100.

Then came six more years in corporate sales. Business was great, but his marriage collapsed. By 2006 he had been divorced for several years and was pretty much broke. But he wasn't scared of starting anew. “Giving up is never an option for me,” he says.

So he went into remodeling.

Here again, Gockeler had a plan: He created a kitchen refacing company called Empire Contracting so he could learn what’s involved in remodeling. It didn’t pay a lot—when he opened his store in Chatham, he says, “I had maybe enough money to pay the rent for one month, and no contracts”—but it and his past sales experience taught him what he needed to succeed.

Air Blocks Judges gave Gockeler the Fred Case Award in large part because of the care he takes in staging, such as erecting floor-to-ceiling plastic barriers as well as sealing the air vents.
Steven Freeman Air Blocks Judges gave Gockeler the Fred Case Award in large part because of the care he takes in staging, such as erecting floor-to-ceiling plastic barriers as well as sealing the air vents.

Stepping Stones

Gockeler preaches at the church of the pre-sale, a place where marketing on social media combined with support for local causes and regular presence at area events help produce a closing rate from inquiries that he estimates is in the high 70s. “Sales probably accounts for the least amount of time that I spend,” he says. “Marketing is what I do most.” Gockeler figures that by the time a customer does decide to call Kraftmaster, he or she knows a lot about what the company does. That helps cull the list; there’s less time spent on people who want stuff you don’t do or can’t afford.

Once he does get to the sales process, Gockeler hews to a consistent path. When a customer calls to express interest in hiring Kraftmaster, Gockeler spends roughly 20 minutes explaining the company’s operations practices. That includes mentioning that Kraftmaster charges a nonrefundable $1,500 retainer that will be applied to the job if the prospect becomes a customer. (On bigger jobs, Kraftmaster might require a second retainer later.)

Steven Freeman

He then gives the prospect homework by having him or her fill out a planning guide on the Kraftmaster website and an idea book from Houzz. “That suggests involvement,” he says. “By the time we come to their house, they have a lot more invested with us than we do with them.” The planning guide also includes a place in which the prospects list how much they can spend.

Meanwhile, Gockeler goes online to get maps of every home and discover the size of the house and property. He’s wary about places that don’t fit his upper-middle-class target. “Our custom is not the $200,000 kitchen,” he says. From the work submitted by the prospects, Gockeler says that in about 15 minutes he can get a good sense of the customer’s desires and its spending capacity.

Then comes the in-person meeting, usually featuring Gockeler and Kim Platt or Maureen Madigan, the two on-staff designers. Visits typically take an hour to get to a customer commitment. Gockeler says he’s so consistent the designer “knows the exact jokes that’ll come out of my mouth.”

“We try to guide people that if you’re not going to do what’s right for your home, then you’re wasting your money,” he says. No estimates are given. Rather, he and the designers will bring three sets of plans: One showing what can be done based on the customers’ declared budget, one showing what it would cost to do everything on the customers’ wish list, and one that exceeds the budget by about 20%.

Gockeler takes care at the meeting to walk through the cost-estimation sheet, estimate how long it takes to accomplish certain tasks, and explain payment terms. For instance, typically it takes two weeks between when the retainer is signed and detailed floor plans are drawn. If the customer says yes, Gockeler and the designer collect the retainer and spend a half hour measuring spaces and taking photos. All documents then are put into Google Docs for storing and sharing.

Zip Code In cases where people need to go into and out of a jobsite, Gockeler favors the ZipWall system, combined with floor mats and eucalyptus boards.
Steven Freeman Zip Code In cases where people need to go into and out of a jobsite, Gockeler favors the ZipWall system, combined with floor mats and eucalyptus boards.

Gockeler pays as much attention to the end as to the staging at the start. He asks customers to put Post-it notes at places that they think should be on the punch list, and he makes a point of walking through the project with the customer to see what might have been overlooked. “The punch list is something that I hear a lot about—that contractors never come back to finish,” he says. “It definitely sets you apart when you pay attention to details.”

Those details include getting paid. Most projects call for Kraftmaster to collect on about eight separate occasions, though some contracts call for as many as 17. Aside from the retainer, he asks for a 15% down payment. “I’m always ahead of my numbers,” he says. “I’m never going to pay you to do your project.” He takes care to designate a place in the where the customer is supposed to leave the check. He will process credit cards, but for those he warns that he’ll charge a 3% processing fee. Hearing that, most customers switch back to a check.

Expect more growth from Kraftmaster. Gockeler has done three additions so far, one worth $550,000, and he’s thinking of getting further into that business. He wants to do videos, find a better model contract, and figure out more ways to keep dust out of his jobs. And despite his attention deficit disorder, he has learned to be patient, do his homework, and plan.

“I bought a motorcycle when I was young, and it was instant gratification,” he says. “In two weeks, I hated it. Now I’d rather wait.”

About the Fred Case Award

Bob Gockeler is the ninth winner of the Fred Case Remodeling Entrepreneur of the Year Award, established by Fred Case, the founder of Case Design/Remodeling.

Case founded his company in 1961 with a little money and a lot of ideas, seeking to create a business, not a practice, and to constantly elevate the level of professionalism in the industry. This award reflects his commitment to that idea. Nominees for the award are evaluated for their business acumen, company financial strength, community and industry involvement, and entrepreneurial spirit.

The award is open to all remodeling company leaders and recognizes a specific individual, not a company. This is the only industry award of its kind in that a cash prize is awarded to finalists as well as to the winner. The other finalists this year were: Peter DiStefano, president, DiStefano Brothers Construction, Wakefield, R.I.; Hector Kusnier, president, K&B Home Remodelers, Succasunna, N.J.; and Mike West, owner, West Construction, Avon Lake, Ohio. Each of them plus Gockeler received a plaque and $2,500 prize check. As winner, Gockeler received an additional $10,000.

Judging this year’s award were Bruce Case, president at Case Design/Remodeling and Fred’s son; Kermit Baker, senior research fellow at the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University; and last year’s Fred Case Award winner Bill Simone.

Interested in applying for next year’s award? Want to nominate someone? Contact Darryl Crosby at Case for more details at [email protected]