As long as there have been homes, there’s been remodeling. So when the staff of Professional Remodeler sat down to pick the 10 most influential people in the history of remodeling, we knew it wouldn't be an easy task.
From dozens of ideas, we, along with input from others, winnowed the list down to the 10 (actually 11 — we counted Home Depot founders Arthur Blank and Bernie Marcus as one) individuals profiled below. These are the people we believe have shaped the industry, for better or worse — the individuals who had the most to do with the creation of the modern remodeling industry.
We don’t expect everyone to agree, and frankly we’d be a little disappointed if you did. So let us know what you think by posting your thoughts using the Talk Back section below at the end of the article.
As the director of the Remodeling Futures Program at Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies, Kermit Baker has elevated the image of remodelers and demonstrated that remodeling is a separate industry from home building. Before Kermit, there was not a spokesman for the industry that could put it in economic terms,” says John Gordon, director of contractor business at Home Depot and a past NARI national officer. He shed a light on how the economy affects remodeling and how remodeling affects the economy.”
The center’s biennial reports have changed the way those within and those outside the industry look at remodeling. Baker also developed the Leading Indicator for Remodeling Activity, the only index to report remodeling volume on a timely basis. “A lot of people think of remodeling as a fly-by-night industry and Kermit has helped give it legitimacy,” Gordon says. Besides his role at Harvard, Baker is also the chief economist for the American Institute of Architects. Prior to his work at Harvard, Baker spent 10 years with the economics department at Cahners (now Reed Business Information, the parent company of Professional Remodeler), where he developed several important construction industry measurements. He was inducted into the NAHB Remodeling Hall of Fame in 2006.
Arthur Blank & Bernie Marcus
For better or worse, the big boxes changed remodeling forever. And with more than 2,000 locations throughout North America, Home Depot, Lowes and other smaller chains have become in some cases competitors and in others partners for remodelers. While some complain about competing with installed sales from the boxes, others have built their businesses through alliances with them. For many, Home Depot and their ilk have become the supplier of choice, even as the company has had its problems reaching the pro market.
“We basically changed the way America lives. People bought houses because they could to to Home Depot and figure out how to fix problems in their houses.”
— Bernie Marcus
Photo courtesy the Arthur M Blank Family Foundation
One thing is undeniable: Home Depot has raised the profile of home improvement in this country through its extensive marketing and advertising. By doing so, the company has increased interest in remodeling in general.
“We basically changed the way America lives,” Bernie Marcus said in a 2006 speech at Dartmouth College. “People bought houses because they could go to Home Depot and figure out how to fix problems in their houses.”
Although Lowe’s came first in 1946 (Blank and Marcus started Home Depot in 1979), by 1990 Home Depot had passed Lowe’s in sales and become the dominant brand in home improvement retailing. The company’s focus on installed sales and the pro customer has made it the public face of home improvement in America.
Marcus retired from Home Depot in 1997 after 17 years as CEO and was followed by Blank five years later. Since then, both have started philanthropical foundations, although Marcus has kept a lower profile than Blank, who frequently finds himself in the news due to his ownership of the Atlanta Falcons.
More links for Blank and Marcus:
The New Georgia Encyclopedia article on Blank
The New Georgia Encyclopedia article on Marcus
Over the last 46 years, Case Design/Remodeling has grown to be probably the best-known name in remodeling. Between its local remodeling business in the Washington, D.C., area, and franchise locations throughout the country, the company generated more than $100 million in revenue last year.
“In the case of Case, Fred is very much the heart and soul of who we are,” says Mark Richardson, who has been president of Case for more than a decade and worked for the company since 1980. “What differentiates Case from the hundreds of thousands of other remodelers out there is that when Fred started the company he approached it as building a business instead of building a practice.”
Case has affected the industry in a number of ways since he started the company as Case Construction in 1961 out of his basement. He is credited as one of the pioneers of the design/build process, which revolutionized residential remodeling.
“Many clients were saying to him, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you could handle both the design and the construction,’” Richardson says. “Moving into design/build was very market driven. What people wanted was a one-stop shop.”
Besides being a model of a large successful remodeling firm on a local scale, the company’s handyman division (launched in 1992 when traditional remodeling slowed) led to a large franchise operation that now has locations in more than 60 cities.
"Fred has always believed that you invest in growth in challenging times," Richardson says. If you look historically at Case’s growth, we’ve gained market share in slow times because we don’t slow down when the market slows down.”
Case was also a leader in education and associations, helping to develop NARI’s CR certification and serving on the board of directors of both NARI and one of its forerunners, the National Remodeling Association. He was inducted into the NAHB Remodeling Hall of Fame in 2002. Case still serves the company he founded as CEO.< br/>
|“Many homeowners might have saved tens of thousands of dollars had they held adjustable-rate mortgages rather than fixed-rate mortgages during the past decade.”
— Alan Greenspan
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images News
Like with Blank and Marcus, there can be a lot of disagreement about whether Greenspan’s influence on remodeling was positive or negative. Regardless, the actions of the Federal Reserve Board during his tenure as chairman have played a huge role in creating the housing market of today.
On the positive side, the Fed’s moves to manage interest rates in the late ’90s and early part of this decade made money readily available for many homeowners. As mortgage rates dropped, home values increased, leading to more home equity that could be pulled out for remodeling projects and other spending.
At the same time, though, Greenspan was one of the biggest proponents of adjustable rate mortgages, telling Congress and business groups that they represented a smart investment for many consumers.
“Many homeowners might have saved tens of thousands of dollars had they held adjustable-rate-mortgages rather than fixed-rate mortgages during the past decade. ... American consumers might benefit if lenders provided greater mortgage product alternatives to the traditional fixed-rate mortgage,” he said in 2004.
In recent months, as the housing crisis has deepened, many economists and pundits have blamed the Fed — and Greenspan in particular — citing his support for ARMs and his inability or unwillingness to slow home price growth.
Late last year, in advance of the release of his memoirs, Greenspan gave several interviews where he admitted the Fed didn't necessarily understand everything that was going on in the mortgage market during his tenure.
“I really didn’t get it until very late in 2005 or 2006,” he told “60 Minutes.”
Kelly started the Neil Kelly Company in 1947 with only $100 after becoming disenchanted with the selling practices of the siding company for which he was working.
“He worked for the classic tinman operation,” says Tom Kelly, Neil's son and current president of the Neil Kelly Company. “That really turned him off. He believed there was a better way to do business.”
From that point on, Neil dedicated himself to improving the professionalism of the industry.
“Neil really felt it was important that contractors work together for the common good,” Tom says.
Early on, Neil was heavily involved in the Oregon Home Builders Association and helped get laws passed in the state to regulate remodeling and clean up the industry. He was a member of some of the earliest remodeling peer groups. He was also instrumental in the merger of the National Remodelers Association and the National Home Improvement Council into NARI in 1982. He was the first president of the group and the only to serve two terms.
“In those days it was a pretty difficult thing to get those groups together,” Tom says. “There was a lot of politics involved, and he had to rise above it. It took a strong leader to get that merger to hold.”
Neil was also a pioneer in bringing women into construction. From the early 1970s, he had women working in sales, design and other nontraditional roles.
Neil served as company president until 1979 when health problems forced him to retire from day-to-day management, but he spent the rest of his life improving the industry and working on charitable causes in the Portland area. Neil, who died in 1995, was part of the NAHB Remodeling Hall of Fame's inaugural class in 2001.
|“Any fool can build homes. What counts is how many you can sell for how little.”
- William Levitt
Photo: Tony Linck/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
In 1947, Levitt and Sons began construction of Levittown, N.Y. The housing industry was never the same.
For all intents and purposes, the suburb and production home building was born there on 1,200 acres of potato fields on Long Island. William Levitt applied the techniques of assembly line production to housing. In an era when most builders were constructing a handful of homes a year, he wanted to build 30 a day.
By opening up affordable homeownership to a large segment of the population, he made the modern remodeling market. And after all, where would remodelers be without production homes to improve, upgrade and repair?
Levitt and his brother Alfred ended up building 17,000 homes in Levittown, N.Y., before going on to build Levittowns in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, along with other suburban developments. In 1950, Time magazine estimated that one of every eight homes built in the United States was a Levitt house.
In 1968, the Levitts sold Levitt and Sons to ITT Corp. Over the years, Levitt and Sons went through a succession of owners and late last year became the biggest home builder — so far — to file for bankruptcy during the current slump.
William Levitt continued to invest in real estate and housing developments in both the United States and overseas, usually unsuccessfully, until his death in 1994.
More articles on Levitt: 1950 Time article on Levitt
New York Times article on Levitt
State Museum of Pennsylvania virtual exhibit on Levittown
If your response was, “Who?” you wouldn’t be alone. Meredith isn’t a household name, but he has had a significant influence on the remodeling market all the same.
He was the founder, in 1922, of Fruit, Garden and Home magazine, which two years later would become Better Homes and Gardens. Before there was HGTV, before there was “Extreme Makeover,” homeowners turned to Better Homes and Gardens for ideas to renovate their homes. The first issue cost 10 cents and a year’s subscription was 35 cents.
It tapped into the desire of middle class Americans to improve their homes and their lives. Every day a client comes to a remodeler with a picture torn out of a magazine or a Web site and says, “I want that.”
Although Meredith died in 1928, the company he founded has gone on to become a huge force in the consumer publishing industry with dozens of titles spinning off of the original. Besides publishing, Meredith was also active in politics, as a candidate for the U.S. Senate, governor of Iowa and president. He also served as Secretary of Agriculture under Woodrow Wilson.
|“The provision of a decent home for every family is a national necessity, if this country is to be worthy of its greatness.”
— Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Photo: Hilton Archive/Getty Images
Franklin Delano Roosevelt may not immediately leap to mind when one thinks of those who influenced the industry, but there were several important decisions during his time as president that profoundly affected the industry.
Two parts of the New Deal legislation have played major roles in shaping remodeling. In 1935, Roosevelt’s National Recovery Act established the beginnings of the North East Roofing, Siding and Insulation Contractors Association. NERSICA eventually became the National Remodelers Association, which, in 1982, joined with the National Home Improvement Council to form NARI. Throughout the years, those associations have played important roles in increasing the professionalism of the industry.
The New Deal also created the Federal National Mortgage Association (or Fannie Mae) in 1938. Along with its younger sibling, Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae has been crucial in providing mortgage funds to millions of homeowners.
But most importantly, in 1944, Roosevelt signed the GI Bill of Rights, which essentially created the middle class by paying for education and offering guaranteed home loans for soldiers returning from World War II. From 1944 to 1952, the government backed nearly 2.4 million home loans for World War II veterans. By 1956, 7.8 million veterans had taken advantage of the education benefits of the program.
Over the last 20 years, Americans have taken more pride in their homes, and Martha Stewart is a big part of the reason why. From her various television shows to magazines to product lines, she’s become the face of that movement as she’s encouraged homeowners to make their house a home. And that has meant more money spent on furnishings, decorating and remodeling.
Perhaps more importantly, she has helped raise the profile of the woman of the house, putting her in a position of decision maker when it comes to all things home. While Stewart may have focused on decorating and interior design, that trend has carried over into remodeling, with most studies showing that the woman is now the key influencer in making remodeling decisions.
Walt Stoeppelwerth was one of the earliest proponents of professionalism in the remodeling industry. Since the 1970s he has told remodelers about the importance of charging enough to make a profit.
“He was the first one to define markups and margins in the remodeling industry,” says Tom Swartz, the third-generation owner of J.J. Swartz Co. in Decatur, Ill., and a friend of Stoeppelwerth’s. “People said the numbers he was talking about we’re outrageous, but countless remodelers are successful today because of Walt Stoeppelwerth.”
|“The No. 1 problem in the remodeling industry is that relatively few feel confident enough to charge customers what their work is worth.”
— Walt Stoeppelwerth
Photo: Courtesy HomeTech Online
Through his books, magazine articles and workshops, Stoeppelwerth has reached thousands of remodelers over the last 30-plus years. His 1985 book, “Professional Remodeling Management,” was one of the first on managing a remodeling business. It was at about that time that Swartz met Stoeppelwerth when Swartz attended his two-day workshop, “How to Make Money in Remodeling.”
“After that, I went back to our company and rewrote our whole business plan, rewrote where this company was going,” says Swartz, a past chairman of the NAHB Remodelors Council. “We’ve been around since 1921 and we’ve had our share of good years, but a lot of those good years are due to Walt Stoeppelwerth.”
Stoeppelwerth also predicted many of the changes that would come to the industry, from the impact of the big boxes to the growth of the lead carpenter system.
“Walt Stoeppelwerth was probably the most clairvoyant person in the remodeling industry,” Swartz says. “He saw the changes that were coming, and he taught us what needed to be done.”
Stoeppelwerth has retired from writing and teaching, but is still involved with HomeTech, the remodeling education company he founded in 1967 with Henry Reynolds. In 2001, he was among the first six inductees to the NAHB Remodeling Hall of Fame.