Back to the Future

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In 1979, I was a skinny 16-year-old working for my brother-in-law's small, suburban Chicago remodeling company. During most of that summer and many weekends, I was Ray's main gofer, push-broom mechanic and carpenter-in-training.

April 01, 2008

Michael R. Morris
Editor in Chief

In 1979, I was a skinny 16-year-old working for my brother-in-law's small, suburban Chicago remodeling company. During most of that summer and many weekends, I was Ray's main gofer, push-broom mechanic and carpenter-in-training. I was also his wife's favorite little brother, the youngest of six, so I was about as privy to the inner dealings of Ray's business as any of us who rode to the job site in the bed of either his pickup or his dump truck over the years.

Many details of that summer are not as vivid as they used to be. But I do recall that summer for one reason in particular. It was probably the hardest I'd ever worked in my entire life, and definitely for the least reward.

Ray must have felt the same way.

The 1979 Iranian revolution had led to an energy crisis, which, in turn, caused a recession that hit small businesses across this country extremely hard.

Everything about working for Ray seemed to change overnight. The interesting kitchen remodels, fun basement jobs and cool room additions were no longer a part of the job description. We did a lot of small jobs, maintenance and repair work, and even some landscaping and tree trimming. Nothing was out of bounds anymore.

Peg and Ray sold their house and moved into a fixer-upper, which we remodeled for what seemed like an eternity, off and on, filling in the gaps between "paying" jobs. At the time, I thought their move was some kind of astute real-estate investment. But looking back now and recalling my sister's mood at the time, I realize it was actually one in a long line of difficult decisions that needed to be made by a husband and wife running a small business the best that they could.

It was survival, pure and simple. But there was nothing simple about it. Ray had to bid on jobs he never would have before for a lot less profit, using cheaper labor (like me) and driving much further from home than we had before.

And now the "R" word has surfaced once again. Depending upon your market, you may already be caught in the throes of a recession or feeling the effects of a softening economy that has your leads decreasing, job sizes shrinking and profits dwindling. Like Ray, you may have to make decisions that will change the course of your business life, your personal life and the lives of those who you employ.

Things eventually turned around for Ray's company and he's now retired after many great years in business.

Although a lot has changed in our industry over the past 29 years, what hasn't changed is the ability for you to make a few key moves — perhaps targeting smaller jobs, changing personnel or increasing the market area you serve — to survive the current state of the economy. What's your next move?

Contact me at michael.morris@reedbusiness.com or 630/288-8057

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