Project Spotlight: Bath Basics
Criner Construction puts on a clinic in bath remodeling, smoothly building a profitable project
The big news is not what happened when Robert Criner, CGR, remodeled Tom and Karen Boyles' Williamsburg, Va., master
bath, but what didn't happen. Snafus didn't destroy the production flow, the client didn't get testy, profits didn't
vaporize. Despite a few pebble-size problems, the job flowed as merrily as a mountain stream into Criner's
ever-deepening pool of profitable design/build jobs.
With four sons and an active schedule of community and industry activities, Criner doesn't have time for problems at
work. So he prevents them.
To begin with, he chooses customers as actively as they choose him. "I've avoided the `customer from
hell' for many years,"Criner says. He gently bows out in the sales call if he detects problems. Karen and Tom Boyle sent
positive signals: Criner has known Karen since they were children, and Criner Construction had already done a couple of
small projects for the Boyles. They trusted him, and they knew what they wanted.
|Robert Criner with Terry Thomas, estimator/field supervisor, and Julie
Thibodeau, office manager.
In the initial sales call, Karen Boyle told Criner what she hoped the remodel would accomplish. Above all she wanted
to add a large whirlpool tub to the shower-only master bath. And, she says, she wanted to subtract all the "little
things that were starting to bug me" - from the cheesy medicine cabinet to the worn-out floor tile to the sliding shower
door with its "track that collects gunk." How to fit a big, well-appointed bathroom into a not-so-big space? Criner
took measurements in and around the bathroom, and snapped photos. (He used a Polaroid then; now he has a digital camera
and loads the "before" photos into his computer for memory-jogging and design work.) Three weeks later"using
three-dimensional, computerized renderings"he presented a detailed design that soaked up space from the adjacent
hallway, half bath and master bedroom to yield a large, compartmentalized master bath with reconfigured master closet.
Everything Boyle wanted, and then some, was included. She accepted the design and signed the contract that night. "It's
much easier to sell [the design] right off the bat if you listen well, [then] deliver what your clients are looking
for," Criner says.
Criner also presented a complete specification list at the contract signing. He wasn't shy about choosing manufacturers
whose products he knows will be backed up locally, or about selecting specific products himself. Criner uses detailed
specs, with model numbers, because they earmark price points and dimensions even if the client substitutes something
else. Karen Boyle scanned the product catalogs and signed the spec list, going with Criner's selections. "I trusted his
judgment," she says. "He knew I wanted quality stuff."
It seemed to Boyle that Criner's forte was solid construction more than fashion choices, such as color and ceramic
tile. For those decisions, she wanted some help by bringing in an interior designer.
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|Upstairs, flexible space can be used for a fourth bedroom or as a retreat off
the master bedroom suite in plans 3 and 4, respectively.
Criner resisted initially, anticipating budget-busting ideas. But Boyle held firm, so Criner recommended Cindy
McDougal of Inside Design, Inc., an interior designer with whom he'd worked before - and who Criner knew was
budget-wise. Some of the tile Boyle and the designer chose did exceed the allowance and was billed in a change order.
But Criner acknowledges Boyle chose gorgeous selections that helped make the project.
Since there was no promised date to start construction, Criner didn't miss it. "Normally I don't give a start or
completion day," he says. That policy takes the pressure off. Instead, he explains that he has other projects in
progress, and that the company will devote full attention to the clients' job once work begins. He alerts the clients as
the start date approaches. "We do give tentative start and completion dates," he says, such as starting the Boyle job
in September and completing the work eight weeks later. He kept that schedule.
Criner knew up front that he faced delays obtaining permits and approvals for the Boyle project. The house is in a
no-growth county where permits are difficult, and it borders a golf course in a gated community. Since Criner's design
added a window overlooking the golf course, it required approval by the community's environmental preservation board.
At the hearing, Criner reminded the board that there had been a window there in the first place; he'd replaced it with a
deck door in an earlier remodel. That testimony defused any objections, but approval still took weeks - just as Criner
anticipated in naming a ballpark start of construction.
At last, on Sept. 10, lead carpenter Bob Tron arrived at the Boyles' to begin tearing out the old bathroom. From then
on, he worked the job every day until completion Nov. 6. That's the secret of customer satisfaction, Criner says.
"The same guy is there every day. We do not work nights, holidays or weekends," he says, but crews grind out the work
with singleness of purpose. "Most clients are fearful and hate when they don't know what's going to happen," he says.
With Tron there solidly Monday through Friday, such fears did not arise. Karen Boyle received a daily update, saw the
progress, and appreciated that Tron "went out of his way to make sure everything went well."
|The neo-angle tub tucks nicely into a corner, leaving plenty of circulation
space. The interior designer found the ceramic tile trims, the tub base and backsplash. It exceeded the tile allowance,
but Criner admits it helped make the project.
Just about everything did go well. The job encountered only these pebbles in the stream:
delay didn't destroy the master schedule. Tron worked on things outside the bathroom while waiting.
doesn't mind; she hung a belt rack from it.
To avoid misunderstandings, written agreements listed not only what Criner Construction would do but in some cases
also what it would not do: "The Contractor is not responsible for furnishing or installing wallpaper in the hall bath,"
As the job wore on, Boyle stayed calm and cool. "Most disruptive to the client, [was the closet]," says Criner. She
had to empty the entire master closet and operate closetless for two weeks. The reconfigured closet, organized by a
company Criner recommended, was worth the wait. "It's wonderful what they did with the space," says Boyle. "I was very
Buoying Criner's smooth-sailing business is a strong financial current. "It's much easier to operate with a fiscally
healthy company," he says. Criner's not interested in inflating volume; "I don't want to spread myself too thin."
Instead, he concentrates on meeting or exceeding an annual net profit goal. "The ideal situation [is] 10 and 10," he
says. That is, 10 percent of company volume forming the owner's salary and 10 percent of volume as net profit. "I like
to see the company have at least three months' overhead in reserve," he adds.
Criner keeps cash flow healthy on jobs by structuring draw schedules to stay comfortably ahead of expenses. His
estimates follow a relatively failsafe formula. Materials and labor costs (adjusted continually from job to job to
reflect current costs) constitute 60 to 65 percent of the total. Overhead is a big chunk of his estimates. "We put just
about nothing in job cost"and everything in overhead," he says. "It's just easier for me to do the books."
Along with the usual office and business development expenses, Criner's overhead encompasses trucks, small tools and
the salaries of everyone in the office, including estimator/field supervisor Terry Thomas, office manager Julie
Thibodeau, and Criner. The result, he says, is that his "markup is considerably more than the 67 percent [standard, but]
we're only marking up the true, true hard cost [of labor and materials]."
Close to a third of the price of the Boyle job went into overhead. Hard costs took a hit because Criner wasn't
estimating high enough on the plumbing. The job reminded them how long it takes to expand a bath of this size, he says.
Though plumbing costs ran 20 percent high, Criner had enough cushion in other things to protect his profit margin.
After a callback to replace cracked grout around the floor tile near the sink, the grout cracked again. Criner's
going back soon to solve the problem permanently; this time he plans to use caulk instead of grout, as he already does
around tubs and cabinets. "We're probably going to do this differently from here on out. Live and learn," he says.
The more apt line might be "learn and live" for Criner, whose modus operandi is to prevent business problems, then
head out of the office to join his wife Aggie at their sons' basketball games.