Mark Robert Halper

This recession has truly been cataclysmic for most remodelers. I asked a few to share some enduring lessons they’ve learned while surviving it.

Market More

For Michael McCutcheon, hard times have underscored the power of relationships that support a business in good times and bad. “All the electronic and print contact in the world is no substitute for simple face-to-face human contact,” says the owner of McCutcheon Construction, in Berkeley, Calif. “Customers love it, employees love it, designers love it, and it is the only ‘magic bullet’ that is truly magic.”

Rob Baugher of Baugher Design & Remodel, in Homewood, Ala., has doubled his marketing. He is also taking vendors to lunch to explore how his team and theirs can work together to increase workflow. Many had never been asked to lunch by a contractor, and though not every idea worked, “Our network began to contact us first when they heard about a project,” he says. “We are stronger when we work as a team than when we work alone.”

Keep marketing — even if expenses grow while volume drops. That’s Andrew Shore’s mantra for the future. “Marketing involves continual learning,” says the owner of Sea Pointe Construction, in Irvine, Calif.

Have a Financial Backup Plan

Use longer-term financial reports and watch for trends to spot oncoming problems earlier. Baugher has gone from reviewing monthly WIP (work-in-progress) reports to tracking vital financial details by way of a 12-month “rolling average” report.

“Always have a plan B” for any emergency, says Jay Cipriani of Cipriani Builders, in Woodbury, N.J. Or a plan C. Shore maps out two positive scenarios and one fallback “worst case” scenario. He also advises staying lean and keeping a cash reserve. When he foresaw the downturn, he created a cash stockpile that has helped his company weather the storm.

Diversify Services

VB Homes, in Newport News, Va., entered this recession with a diversified mix of new-home building and remodeling. But partner Chancy Walker is emphatic that the company needs more types of work to create a solid base for every economy. “For years we have been turning down small jobs and referring them to others,” he says. “Now we are making a strong effort to market ourselves as the company that can meet all our clients’ and our marketplace’s needs.”

On the other hand, the recession has compelled Shore to broaden Sea Pointe’s appeal beyond its upper-middle-class market to a higher-income demographic. “We are sustained by those folks who still have money and are willing to spend it,” he says.

Vincent D’Avena has focused on developing A.V. Remodeling and Construction, of McLean, Va., into more of a design firm. He’s also doing less competitive bidding and is developing expertise in aging-in-place and green building.

Tighten Staffing

VB Homes’ Walker expresses a common sentiment. “We had indulged ourselves and allowed overhead personnel to grow. Now we know we can do more with less as well as ask for more from our team members.”

Cipriani is applying the question he used to ask clients — “Is it a need or a want?” — to staffing. “It was convenient to have extra people do extra tasks, but not a good financial decision,” he says.

Interestingly, all of the remodelers I spoke with seem invigorated by playing a very tough game. They know the game is far from over. But they are adjusting to the new rules, are striving to be nimble, and are determined to survive.

—Linda Case is founder of Remodelers Advantage, a national company that gives remodelers the tools to achieve consistent profitability and success through one-on-one consulting, the Roundtables peer program, and an online learning community, Advantage Associates. 301.490.5620; [email protected];