Photo: Mark Robert Halper

The automobile industry had Henry Ford. Electricity had Thomas Edison (with a “shout out” to Nikola Tesla). Technology had Steve Jobs. Politics had George Washington. All fought the status quo to develop and to implement transformations in their respective arenas. Walter Stoeppelwerth died on Feb. 18, 2013. He deserves our thanks and admiration for the transformations he brought to our industry.

Growing up in a remodeling family, I had the pleasure of meeting Walt when I was a teenager. If you knew Walt, you couldn’t help but be fixated on his bushy eyebrows and thoughtful nature. But the story on Walt is much deeper. Those bushy eyebrows masked a steely gaze and a vision for what he felt was right. His thoughtful nature didn’t dampen his commitment to fight the status quo.

Let’s journey back to 1965. Lyndon Johnson was president, the first American combat troops were sent to Vietnam, and Bob Dylan released “Like a Rolling Stone.” There weren’t cell phones or pagers. No Internet. You could change your own oil and the headlights in your car. No REMODELING magazine. No semblance of business groups or consultants focused on bringing professional business practices to the remodeling industry. No design/build. No “professional” handyman. No big-box stores. The remodeling industry was made up of craftspeople who loved the smell of sawdust. In this soup of life, Walt founded HomeTech — a business committed to helping the craftspeople of the remodeling industry transition into becoming businesspeople.

Walt was a columnist from the very first issue of REMODELING in 1985. The five key elements outlined in his first column are as relevant today as they were those 28 years ago:

  • Only 5% of remodelers run their businesses; the other 95% let their businesses run them.
  • A 50% markup (33% margin) is the minimum needed to succeed.
  • Remodeling must be sold on the basis of something other than price.
  • Discipline is critical to success.
  • Remodeling is a team effort.

But it is the life lessons I most cherish. You can be thoughtful and yet fight the status quo. (Are you listening, politicians?) You can be both a craftsperson and a businessperson. Deep change requires that rational souls beat the drum in a consistent, empathetic manner. You can expect coming issues of REMODELING to be filled with deep business challenges facing our industry. Federal regulations such as lead paint and health care are increasing their foothold. Most members of 2012's Big 50 class started their businesses in one of the worst economic climates since the depression, yet have found ways to flourish.

Walt is counting on us to continue the exploration and the debate on these and other challenges. But in ways that are thoughtful, empathetic, consistent, and rational. If we want the remodeling industry to be a respected profession, then we have to welcome – and even pursue – measures that will help us up the ante on professionalism.

Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, and George Washington continue to teach us invaluable lessons. There is still a lot for us to learn from Walt.