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Lessons Learned

Top takeaways after more than 30 years in the business

August 01, 2019

We founded custom design & construction in 1986, and incorporated in 1988. It’s a full-scale design-build firm with 2018 revenue totaling $4.2 million. We currently have nine employees. I’ve learned many important lessons throughout the past 33 years, but there are a few timeless truths that continue to jump out at me. Here are some concepts that have meant the most in helping ensure the continued success of my business over time. 

Know Your Strengths

Truly understanding your strengths takes honesty and self-reflection. Many people want to be good at one thing and work very hard at it, when in reality they would be better served to concentrate their energies on areas of natural ability. 

For me, one of my biggest strengths is my attitude and dedication to achieving a goal. I never give up. I played a lot of hockey when I was young, and was always the first one on the ice and the last one to leave. As a result, I had a 22-year career. 

I brought that same work ethic and general outlook into the remodeling field. In the early days, I was the first one into the office every morning, and the last one out when evening came. In my mind, there was always something that could be improved on, and I wouldn’t rest until I had put my mind to it. That commitment and drive remains one of my most important assets to this day. 

Hire for Your Weaknesses

Just as knowing your strengths is crucial to success, so is understanding your weaknesses and compensating for them by surrounding yourself with the right people. In my case, I had a strong background in architecture, but lacked construction know-how. I needed to find someone with a passion for understanding the field. 

For me, one of my biggest strengths is my attitude and dedication to achieving a goal. I never give up.

I was fortunate and was able to hire an excellent person early on, who stayed with Custom Design & Construction for 23 years before retiring. Part of the reason he worked for the company for so long is explained by another lesson: Stay out of people’s way. Once you hire the right person, let them do what they’re good at without micromanaging or impeding their progress with excessive oversight. 

Your First Loss Is Always Your Cheapest Loss

This principle holds true regardless of whether it’s a remodeling project or business relationship. The bottom line is if you make a mistake, you will never be able to make up for it, and your best course of action is to cut your ties and get out. 

For us, this has held especially true for our financing division of the company. (Before the economic correction in 2009, financing accounted for 45-50% of the business. The recession brought that number down to near zero, and it has slowly come back over the years until today-—financing now represents about 14% of the company. ) 

We have some ways of trying to save a bad loan, but they are usually unsuccessful and end up costing us more money, time, and aggravation. When it comes to financing, it’s better to cut ties and walk away from a bad deal. This is true in remodeling projects as well. Sometimes when the work is done, people don’t pay, and in those cases it can be better to just walk away without throwing good money after bad. 

Share Knowledge

Many things have inspired me over the years, but nothing has been as meaningful as the great relationships I’ve had. Some are with clients, some with team members, but regardless of the source I’ve made lifelong friendships with like-minded business owners who have also enjoyed success. 

When I first started the company I thought I had all of these important trade secrets that I had to keep close to the chest. But after a few years in the business I realized that there are a lot of people who are willing to discuss what made their companies successful. Opening up and sharing those concepts actually helps foster knowledge and growth. It’s crazy how much you can gain from being willing to give a little bit. 

We Are All Responsible for the Industry’s Reputation

Unfortunately, remodelers don’t have the best reputation, and in a lot of cases the bad rap is deserved. When we work together to grow professionalism and improve the industry’s reputation, all of us reap the benefit. 

I was active in my local NAHB Remodelers Council, and served as president for a number of years. The big thing while I was there was continuing education. Anything we can do as remodelers in that area is for the betterment of us all. Along those lines, investing in the education of my employees is very important as well.

This industry has been extremely good to me and my family. I am more than happy to give back to it in any way that I can.

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