Having it All

They are decisions every successful remodeler faces at some point.

July 31, 2002


They are decisions every successful remodeler faces at some point: Is the continued growth of the company worth working 60, 70, 80 or more hours a week? How does your responsibility to your business and your employees compare with what you owe to your family — and to yourself? And even if you figure out all the answers to these questions, how do you balance them with reality?

Maybe balance isn’t the right word when the subject is work and life, says Phyllis Moen, Ph.D., who directs the Bronfenbrenner Life Course Center at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. She believes it implies an almost either/or situation. As entrepreneurs can attest, there is rarely a distinct division between work and life. Remodelers especially often bring their work into their homes. In fact, many work entirely out of their homes.

What we’re trying to do is not live to work or work to live,” Moen says. “We want to figure out how to make life work. People like their work, so finding the right combination is what’s important.”

Moen notes that research has proved repeatedly that most people like the idea of being their own bosses, largely because of the time flexibility it seems to provide. And most small- business owners report that they do have more flexibility than they would have working for someone else. They can take off for special events such as children’s school plays or graduations.

Easier said than done? Certainly. It takes careful planning and effort to attain and maintain a viable, healthy balance.

The key to finding that balance is the ability to prioritize. In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey recommends using a four-window time-management matrix to assign priority levels to tasks: urgent, not urgent, important and not important. Urgent and important tasks are automatically top priority.

The same system can be used for larger life issues. Family-first is the prevailing philosophy at Remodeling Designs Inc. in Dayton, Ohio. For example, during the local home-show season, the salespeople must put in extra hours on weekends and in the evenings. But company managers try to spread that overtime across as many people as possible to minimize the load on any one person, and overtime isn’t the norm.

“If time is needed at home, we make sure it is available,” says vice president Erich Eggers, CGR. “We will be able to look back and say that we were involved in our children’s lives, whether it was coaching, scouting or just supporting them by sitting in the stands and watching. You can never get that back if you don’t put it as a priority.” Moen says that learning to anticipate events and plan for or around them is one way to get the best of both work and personal worlds.

“It’s not about putting one thing ahead of another or treating both equally,” she explains. “It’s recognizing that there are good things about both and trying to figure out how to do both. People just have to decide how much time they’re willing to invest in their jobs, their families, their friends at any given time in their lives.”

Bob Connelly, CGR, CR, decided this year to step back from his leadership role in NARI to devote more time to his family and his business, R.L. Connelly & Sons in Lithonia, Ga. “The next logical step was to become a national officer,” he says. “My ultimate decision was that my priorities were elsewhere and it would be most difficult to do the appropriate job for NARI, family and business.”


Double time

Moen also suggests using synergy — killing two birds with one carefully chosen stone. Examples include increasingly popular work/play vacations, such as extending a business trip to an attractive location by a week or so and adding downtime to what was probably heavy-duty work.

Randall Hall, CGR, CR, has gotten so good at combining work and pleasure that he says he avoids burnout by attending industry meetings. His work with the Texas Association of Builders and the NAHB takes him on at least three trips a year.

“The trips are a complete break from the everyday business,” he says. “You are not only accomplishing something for the industry, but you make a lot of great friends for life. I still work in some golf and fishing, but nothing gives me the break that traveling to the board meetings for NAHB does except a real vacation. And besides that, it can all be written off as a business expense.”

Tony Thompson, CGR, president of Remodeling Services Unlimited Inc., is another advocate of combining business and pleasure when possible. He often takes his golf clubs when he travels away from his home base in Columbia, S.C. “The travel is usually tied in with HBA business,” he says. “I enjoy working with the other remodelers and builders from around the country to learn from them and to give back to the industry that has supported me for the past 20-plus years.”

Eggers has found that his involvement with competitive youth sports programs through his two daughters has been a great stress reliever. He also has parlayed it into business.

“We travel a tremendous amount throughout the year to different tournaments in different states,” he says. “The ripple effect of being involved with these different activities is the referral business. The networking is unlimited.”

Setting goals

Consultant Cynthia Bonebright, Ph.D., specializes in helping businesspeople balance their work lives and personal lives. She emphasizes the need to keep checking to be sure you’re still on the path you’ve set for yourself, whether your goals are related to family, self-improvement, favorite activities or organizations you want to support. Bonebright believes that personal goals should be approached the same way as business goals: Plan them and plan time for them.

“Goals can provide the framework for business owners to balance their lives — keeping a ‘big picture’ for themselves,” she says. “But they can’t just wait for it to happen during their downtime.”

Chuck Russell, CGR, learned the value of setting goals while building Westhill Inc. in Woodinville, Wash., from a one-man carpentry shop into a remodeling firm that employs 20 people. After 10 years of specializing in carpentry, he had to decide if he wanted to keep the company small or expand it so that it could employ his children and other family members. He knew the work that would be involved, and he decided to work many more hours than the 50-55 or so per week he had been working.

Russell estimates he worked 65-70 hours a week during the next 10 years of growth. “Once we got some good people and systems in place, we were able to get back to fewer hours,” he says. “I believe in getting your systems in place, getting comfortable with them and then moving on to the next step.”

Even after 28 years in the business, however, Russell is still re-evaluating his goals to see where he stands in relation to that big picture he envisioned almost two decades ago. One son, Chuck Jr., already works for Westhill. Another son works in the industry, and Chuck Sr. hopes he soon will join the family company. And his daughter is studying construction management in college.

So Russell is fine-tuning again. The company is rewriting all job descriptions. Among the changes: Chuck Sr. will assume the role of CEO and concentrate on running the company, while Chuck Jr. will head day-to-day operations. Tim Russell, Chuck Sr.’s brother, will take over all responsibility for sales.

Jason Asmar, recently promoted to president of The Burke Co. in Dallas, is using similar goal-setting tactics professionally and personally. First, he plans to develop and refine systems to streamline the day-to-day running of the company. “This in turn decreases the hours in the workweek, which is a direct cause of burnout,” he explains.

The second and third parts of his “three-pronged attack” involve serious fun and relaxation during those off hours. “I don’t like to clean house or mow the yard, so I hire someone to do it,” he says. “This frees up time that I can spend with friends or use for personal projects I enjoy doing.


“The third part — and my favorite — is to take at least a month holiday a year. I like to travel overseas and see new places. After the first two days — ‘worklag’ — I totally forget about work, almost. On return from this time off, I am amped for at least three months. So I like to take three two-week vacations a year.”

Bonebright says failure to set aside time for personal goals invites burnout, which is dangerous to an individual’s emotional and physical well-being, the continued well-being of relationships with family and friends, and the health of the company. She says that at the first signs of impending burnout, such as sleeplessness, increased irritability, feelings of overwhelming stress, or chronic physical or mental exhaustion, it’s time to look for outlets for the stress — and something other than work to think about.

Exercise is a favorite stress reliever among remodelers. Thompson’s routine includes at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise and light weightlifting three times a week.

The balance sheet

In an industry dominated by family-owned businesses, it can be difficult to keep family and business separate. Russell proudly reports that Chuck Jr. seems to naturally understand the importance of the concept, even though the family and the business are so intimately intertwined. That wisdom should serve the younger Russell well — and his father, who says he has learned to take a cue from Chuck Jr.

“One year at a holiday dinner I brought up something about business,” Russell recalls. “Chuck just looked at me and said, ‘Dad, can’t we talk about that another time?’ He’s really good about it.”

It often takes a conscious decision by each individual to leave work issues at work, especially when those individuals are married to each other. That’s a lesson Jim Stephens, CR, and Joan Stephens, CR, owners of Stronghold Construction in Boise, Idaho, learned about 10 years ago.

“We almost ruined the Great American Dream for our kids,” Jim says with a laugh. “I think we soured them on ever wanting to own their own businesses. They’d say, ‘Can’t you ever talk about anything but work?’”

Relaxing on purpose

Bonebright suggests finding what she calls “purposeful” ways of relaxing — using the mind creatively but differently than at work.

“There has been a lot of research lately about the value of expressive writing: poetry or keeping a journal about your feelings about what’s going on in your life,” Bonebright says. “Some other ways to unwind are fishing, painting, gardening, biking, yoga — anything that has a purpose in itself.”

Even if it were possible to get rid of all stress, Bonebright points out that doing so would be a bad idea. Humans need some stress to maintain interest in a project, their motivation and a sense of accomplishment.

She also reiterates the advice we probably all heard from our mothers: Look on the bright side. Remind yourself and your family members that you really do like what you do — and why. It will keep all of you in a better frame of mind.

Russell recently got a vivid reminder of the value of that advice. He had been going through a period of more downs than ups, personally and at work, and was beginning to feel discouraged. He was complaining about his misfortunes to a friend, and the friend snapped him right back into perspective.

“He said, ‘Chuck, you’re living your dream,’” Russell recalls. “‘How many people can say they’ve done what they love to do their whole life? Why are you in such a bad mood?’ And he’s right. I’m really lucky. I love what I’m doing, my family is with me, we’re all healthy, and I enjoy going to work. Not many people can say that.

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