Last month in this space, I reviewed a series of market projections for 2014 from Harvard University as well as the industry’s leading associations.
Having lived in their 25-year-old Georgian house for three years, Rob and Nancy Harris were convinced that their kitchen needed an overhaul.
At first glance, the Harris kitchen project in Charlotte, N.C., seems standard enough-beautiful remodel, uneventful production process, work completed in two months with insignificant delays.
But look again. The Bainbridge Crew, a design/build remodeling company that moved from Buffalo, N.Y., to Charlotte in 1996, produced the kitchen to the homeowners’ delight after they had decided not to hire Bainbridge.
Having lived in their 25-year-old Georgian house for three years, Rob and Nancy Harris were convinced that their kitchen needed an overhaul. With a wide peninsula blocking passage from the kitchen to the breakfast area and the patio beyond, the space didn’t flow well. For a room with nine-foot ceilings, it had unusually short cabinets, yet there were giant soffits. "Things were way out of scale," Nancy Harris says. She wanted to solve the traffic flow problem, add custom cabinets, and build a kitchen desk that could hide behind doors when not in use.
Type of company: Full-service design/build remodeler. Location: Charlotte, N.C. Staff model: 18 office, 45 field Annual jobs: 150-175 Sales history: Work week: 55 hours Software suite: Adobe PhotoShop, Circle 188; Peachtree, Circle 189; Auto CAD, Circle 190 Bio: R.C. "Rick" Bainbridge Jr. ran The Bainbridge Crew in Buffalo, N.Y., for 19 years before moving to Charlotte in 1996. Bainbridge has won numerous awards, including the 1999 Chrysalis Remodeler of the Year; nearly tripled his sales volume; and opened an 8,000-square-foot general remodeling showroom. Key to success: Enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm. "People can tell if you are sincere and honest, and like what you do." Contact information:
Type of company: Full-service design/build remodeler.
Location: Charlotte, N.C.
Staff model: 18 office, 45 field
Annual jobs: 150-175
Work week: 55 hours
Software suite: Adobe PhotoShop, Circle 188; Peachtree, Circle 189; Auto CAD, Circle 190
Bio: R.C. "Rick" Bainbridge Jr. ran The Bainbridge Crew in Buffalo, N.Y., for 19 years before moving to Charlotte in 1996. Bainbridge has won numerous awards, including the 1999 Chrysalis Remodeler of the Year; nearly tripled his sales volume; and opened an 8,000-square-foot general remodeling showroom.
Key to success: Enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm. "People can tell if you are sincere and honest, and like what you do."
Rough, preliminary drawings in hand, Harris asked three contractors to bid on the job in April 1998. Their estimates, she recalls, were very close, so the choice of contractor would not be based on price. One of the three was "a guy with a truck, not a fancy company." Harris knew he did good work, but she and her husband had reservations about hiring him because he tends not to put things in writing, she says. The second contractor was more formal. He was not friendly and he wouldn’t negotiate on price, but he worked with a cabinet company that could produce the cabinets Harris wanted. The third contractor was The Bainbridge Crew. Bainbridge’s sales rep was as malleable as clay, and Harris didn’t like it. She’d ask about this and about that, and the answer always was, "We’ll do whatever you want. We needed more guidance than that," Harris says.
Faced with three less-than-perfect choices, the Harrises tabled the whole project for awhile. By July, they were leaning toward hiring the contractor with connections to the cabinetmaker. "We weren’t going to go with Bainbridge," says Harris.
Meanwhile, the Bainbridge sales rep had left the company. Marketing manager Ben McCollum kept communications open with the Harrises via phone calls. In August he called several times to set up a rehash appointment between the Harrises and company owner R.C. "Rick" Bainbridge.
"We have a system to follow up with our estimates and see if we can secure a deal on the back end," says McCollum. The company arranges for Bainbridge or another company manager to talk with the prospects to rehash the estimate and the proposed project.
Bainbridge gave Harris a call. She remembers the phone conversation well. "Rick said, ‘What can we do to get your business?’" Harris responded that she needed design help and had not received it from The Bainbridge Crew. Rick came right out to see the kitchen on Aug. 28. A week later he returned, this time with staff kitchen and bath designer Fran Olday. "They were so prompt, so willing," says Harris, and much more interested at this point than the other contractor, who projected a "we’re doing you a favor" attitude. McCollum says The Bainbridge Crew was indeed interested in the Harris job-which involved working with nice people in one of Charlotte’s best neighborhoods.
"Rick made a big difference by calling [and following up with meetings]," says Harris. "He sold us with his personality." He was kind, friendly and persistent without being obnoxious. By Sept. 12 Bainbridge had a signed contract for the Harris job.
The contract was based on Olday’s design, which developed Harris’ plan to replace the peninsula with an island. The design included everything on Nancy’s wish list, says Olday, from tall cabinets to a desk hidden behind pocket doors. In addition, Olday improved the kitchen entry by angling the cabinets there; moved the oven/cooktop area out of the entry area and gave it more counter space; tucked the television behind pocket doors over the refrigerator; and designed a custom hood vent with wood exterior and tile lining.
For Bainbridge, the design first, contract second sequence was a major departure. "We don’t do design until we get an agreement," says McCollum. But, Rick had a good feeling about the Harrises and took the risk of designing without a signed contract. (Since the Harris job, The Bainbridge Crew has begun using design/build agreements that authorize design work.)
In contract negotiations, Bainbridge was flexible where the other contractor had seemed unwilling to bend. Rick was going to lay the hardwood floors but not stain them, Harris says. He was going to install the trim but not do the painting. "I said, ‘No, I want you to do everything,’" says Harris. So Bainbridge readily agreed to stain the floor. He arranged to select and manage a painter whom Harris would pay directly. "Whatever I said on the work, Rick said, ‘OK,’" says Harris.
Though the contract specified an Oct. 15 start date and Dec. 1 completion, the clients postponed the job until Oct. 24. Production went off with barely a hitch. To expedite all projects, The Bainbridge Crew asks clients to specify products before construction begins. Harris was ahead of the curve on that, having been advised by her decorator to pick products ahead of time. Olday brought samples of some products to the house and sent Harris to see others in showrooms. When Harris found what she liked, she was quick to make a decision. "Once she saw it, that was it," Olday says. "That’s why the job went so fast."
Harris offers an additional reason the job went fast: The lead carpenter and all the workers on the job worked efficiently, did a great job, and addressed any questions or problems quickly. Bainbridge staff and subcontractors impressed Harris with their motivation to please the customer. Asked about this across-the-board service, Rick Bainbridge says it’s no accident. In hiring employees, "I look for friendly attitude, desire to please, and appreciation of having a job," he says. "The older I get, the more I look for temperament." As for trades, "We try to weed out the trouble-makers. I try to lock up the best people possible, those with high standards, on a full-time basis, and pay them a piece rate." The company pays staff one week, trades the next.
The only real snag in production was staining the new oak floors to match the existing floors. "Our flooring guy [Neal Medlin] worked with Nancy very well to get it done," says Olday. He stained the floors several times, and Harris remembers him saying, "I will not quit until you are happy." Medlin, like the company’s other subs, knows that happy customers for Bainbridge means more referrals and more business for everyone on the Bainbridge team-including trade contractors.
On the kitchen remodel, you might say that both Rick Bainbridge and the Harrises benefited from hard knocks on previous projects. For years Bainbridge struggled to please tough customers in the icy, depressed Buffalo market before moving to Charlotte’s sunny remodeling clime. "Nancy Harris is the sweetest lady [and so easy to work with]," he says. "That’s what I love about being here. I’d do anything for these people in Charlotte." Bainbridge’s appreciation translates into great service for The Bainbridge Crew clients.
For their part, Rob and Nancy Harris couldn’t believe how pleasant the kitchen job was. They responded accordingly by working cooperatively with Bainbridge. "We had done six remodeling projects before this one," says Nancy. "One guy was so ornery and cranky I didn’t like having him in my house. Another didn’t do what he said he would." The Bainbridge job was worlds apart, she says. "It was the easiest remodeling job we’ve ever been through."