Not your typical family-run remodeling business, Pine Street Carpenters is growing in this tough economy, due largely to its strong relationships by way of a diversified portfolio of commercial, institutional, and residential work. Owned by Brendon Dolan (Big50 2009), whose staff includes all six of his brothers, the Philadelphia-area design/build company finished 2008 with $6.7 million in revenues and 33 employees. It’s on track for a strong – albeit more commercially focused – 2009. Here's our email interview from August 13 with Michael Dolan, marketing and communications manager.

Remodeling: What’s the full range of commercial jobs Pine Street Carpenters does in any given year? Dolan: Our range of commercial work is best characterized by its diversity. We handle tenant fit-outs for corporations and franchises that are expanding throughout the East Coast, from North Carolina to Maine. The majority of this work includes office and retail fit-outs. We also do light industrial remodeling, and also have a strong market with local institutions (schools and religious and community organizations).

Remodeling: What percentage of your revenues so far this year is for commercial or institutional work, as compared to residential work? Compared to 2008?

Dolan: In 2009, we are 70% commercial, 30% residential. In 2008, 60% commercial, 40% residential.

Remodeling: To what do you attribute your growth in commercial/institutional work?

Dolan: We see the increase in our commercial and institutional work as a direct result of years of relationship-building with our clients. We strive to go above and beyond their needs, and when they are in a jam and need an immediate turn-around on a survey or a store remodel, we respond. Providing this kind of service over many years helps build great relationships, and when that client needs to turn to someone, they know that we are there for them.

Although some commercial clients have been affected by the economy, we have others who have chosen to aggressively expand in this market with multi-store, multi-state roll-outs. Our existing relationships with them make us well positioned for this work. Commercial marketing, like all marketing, all comes down to building relationships and providing excellence in service.

Remodeling: Do you see commercial work as an increasingly important part of your business?

Dolan: The commercial market has been a key part of our business for the past 10 years, and we see that continuing in the future. By equally pursuing residential, commercial, and institutional work, we are increasing our chances of success. The diversity of these markets puts us on solid ground. We are not totally dependent on one industry, so should one market be slow, we still have opportunities elsewhere.

Just as important, however, is the continued expansion of knowledge we gain in each market. Knowledge and expertise in one field crosses over into knowledge and expertise in another, and thus this diversity of markets helps all our work.

Remodeling: You’re based in West Chester, Pennsylvania. How far-flung are your commercial jobs, and how do you manage them from a distance?

Dolan: Our commercial work takes us from North Carolina to Maine (a job in Bangor is our farthest job to date). We are able to manage this territory by utilizing our own carpenters who will travel to these jobs (and stay in hotels), a team of production coordinators who handle a lot of the work from the office, and a pool of hundreds of subcontractors. Again, relationship-building is critical for this to work, and we place a high priority on our relationships with our subs. Many of our key subs are also willing to travel for these commercial jobs. 

In addition, as travel has gotten more expensive, we’ve hired carpenters and project managers in our farthest regions. Having a carpenter in the south and north to manage these far jobs has proven successful.

Remodeling: How’s your residential remodeling business going?

Dolan: It was quiet early on in 2009, though we were fortunate to have had many months of work already in the pipeline. Toward the end of spring, calls for bidding and design have picked up, but people are still slow to commit. Small jobs, however, are being booked.

Remodeling: Have you had any layoffs?

Dolan: No. On the contrary, we just hired another residential sales/production manager who starts next month. In order to meet the diverse needs of our customers, we are expanding our residential division to include a “small jobs” project manager. This individual will handle projects that fall in between handy-man services and major renovations. We see this as a need of our past clients, and we believe it will enable us to reach additional customers. We are running an ad to hire another carpenter right now.

Remodeling: Do you have dedicated sales/design/production staff for your commercial and institutional work, or do staff cross-train in all divisions? 

Dolan: Our commercial and residential teams have their own sales and production staff, though there is occasional crossover if the need arises. Field crews work on all projects. We have one design team that handles all of our design work.

The same essential skills are applicable to both commercial and residential work, though there certainly are skills that need to be more fully developed in each.

Remodeling: Are there similar profit margins in commercial, or are they tighter than residential?

Dolan: Margins are generally tighter in commercial work, but volume per man hours is higher.

Remodeling: Tell me about your commercial “surveys.”

Dolan: Surveys are a key component of the pre-construction services we offer. With our site survey process, we are able to provide clients with detailed information on their sites, including AutoCAD drawings, a detailed analysis of building conditions, photos, and more. Clients utilize our survey services to aid in site selection, lease negotiations, and pre-construction budgeting, helping them to make the most informed and cost-effective decision for their businesses.

Remodeling: How else do you market commercial work? For instance, do you encourage commercial walk-ins to your showroom? Dolan: The majority of our commercial work to date has been the result of relationship-building and word-of-mouth. Currently, we are pursuing additional avenues to market our commercial services. One avenue is simply to educate our past and current residential and institutional clients about the full scope of our work. This is being done via a print newsletter (the first we’ve ever done), which will go out in a few weeks to past customers. This cross-marketing should expand our customers’ awareness of our commercial services.

Residential customers are not only homeowners – they run businesses, serve on institutional boards of trustees, have friends who own companies, etc. It is essential they know the full range of our services. Otherwise, we’re missing opportunities.

We are also actively working on search-engine optimization (SEO) of our website so that it is found not only by residential customers, but by potential commercial clients as well.

On another marketing front, we are reaching out directly to commercial decision-makers and introducing ourselves and our services. Currently this includes reaching out to identified corporate and franchise contacts (directors of construction, construction managers, etc), introducing ourselves, and seeing if there is an opportunity to bid on future work. LinkedIn has been helpful in researching and communicating with these key contacts.

Future commercial marketing efforts will be aimed at reaching out to local commercial property managers, commercial realtors, architects, etc.

Remodeling: Doing any federal stimulus jobs?

Dolan: We have seen an up-tick in window replacement projects.

Remodeling: Do you think more residential remodelers should get into commercial? How do they begin?

Dolan: The world of commercial remodeling may not appeal to everyone, but the diversity it provides has helped us grow our business and left us well-positioned to handle slowdowns in the economy.

How to begin? Start slow. Build relationships. Contact landlords and realtors, etc. Start slow, one project at a time, and things will grow from there.

Learn more about Pine Street Carpenters here: —Leah Thayer is senior editor of Remodeling magazine