Letting Go Allows Danny Lipford to Flourish in Remodeling and Media

As host of “Today’s Homeowner,” Danny Lipford is well known throughout the industry. Despite his frequent travels across the country, his remodeling company has thrived because of a strong management team and good business systems.

May 31, 2007

Sidebars:
Keeping His Dayjob

A strong management team is important for an owner looking to spend less time in his business. The Lipford team is (from left to right): General Manager and Estimator, Bob Caron; President, Danny Lipford; Production Manager, Wiley Bullock; and Office Manager, Barbara Johnson.
Photos courtesy of Danny Lipford

Learning to let go can be one of the most difficult things for any business owner to do. Sometimes it needs to happen so a business can grow, sometimes so a company can outlive an owners retirement, or sometimes so an owner can explore other interests.

That's how things started out for remodeler Danny Lipford when he started a small cable access television show in Mobile, Ala., nearly 20 years ago. Since then that side interest has grown into "Today's Homeowner," a nationally syndicated weekly home improvement show airing in more than 150 cities.

When Lipford started the show in 1988, it was a live call-in show he used as an effective way to market his remodeling firm, Lipford Construction. It did just that, with business tripling in the first two years the shows broadcast, Lipford says. Because of the popularity of the show, by 1997 it eventually grew to about 25 markets in the Southeast.

"I always intended it to just be a marketing tool, but then it became something important on its own," he says.

Things really started to change in 1998 when the owners of Today's Homeowner magazine asked to partner with him on a national show. Within six months of its June 1998 launch, the show broadcast in more than 100 markets. Lipford even began appearing as a regular guest on CBS' morning show and The Weather Channel. But in 2001 things took an unexpected turn. That's when the Times Mirror magazine group was sold to AOL Time Warner, which was also acquiring the This Old House brand. They didn't need Lipford's show anymore.

Rather than fold up shop, though, Lipford decided to make the risky move of going out on his own, putting his own resources behind the show. He licensed the "Today's Homeowner" name and now has a staff of 15 people dedicated solely to the program. With Lipford's new responsibilities, the show became a full-time job, so if he wanted to keep Lipford Construction going, he had to be willing to let somebody else run the company.

"I had to take a major step back if this was going to work," he says.

Danny Lipford's on-camera duties take him across the country to cover projects and trade shows for "Today's Homeowner," but he knows that Lipford Construction is in good hands when he's away from his Mobile, Ala., headquarters.

Making the transition

Three people now handle the day-to-day responsibilities of the company: General Manager/Estimator Bob Caron, Production Manager Wiley Bullock and Office Manager Barbara Johnson. Before deciding to launch the new show, Lipford had several talks with the three to make sure they were up to the job.

"I told them I needed a commitment from them to stay here and work together to keep this company running," he says. "They made the commitment, and they've really stepped forward in a big way."

In fact, the company had its best year in 2006, with revenues topping $2 million, a success Lipford credits to the management team.

The key to the successful transition was the training Lipford gave the staff for years to take on more responsibility. So although they were adding new duties, they were not unprepared.

"Our ability to make the change started several years earlier," he says. "I'm a big believer in seminars and conferences, so I'd been sending Bob and Wiley to every single one they could go to."

At the time, both were production managers, and Lipford was handling the estimating. As Caron took on more estimating responsibilities, he attended more seminars on topics such as markup and margins, which led to more company success.

Kitchen projects are the most popular projects for Lipford Construction. Danny Lipford's television appearances have improved the company's profile resulting in more high-end projects than before.

"Honestly, he brought in better markups and more profitable jobs than I did," Lipford says. "He wasn't afraid to charge what we needed to charge, where I, as an owner, had been a little afraid to do that."

Like many owners, Lipford had a hard time letting go.

"I think there's a bit of paranoia there where I thought if I wasn't there selling the job, I wasn't going to get the work," he says.

The transition was difficult at first, Caron says.

"I think it was pretty tough for him to let go in the beginning," he says. "It took us a year, maybe even longer, for him to be comfortable that we were working the way he wanted us to. We understood that, because the bottom line is it's his name on the sign."

Lipford adjusted and now the company is thriving. Much of that continued success is due to the systems Lipford put into place years ago, Caron says.

"Danny laid a pretty good foundation for everybody," he says. "He set the standards for us so we know exactly what he expects."

Delegating Responsibilities

While Lipford is still the sole owner of the business, the management team handles most of the major decisions. He receives weekly printed updates of where the company stands and has short meetings with the team when it's necessary. They have an annual planning meeting, and four times a year the team meets for several hours to check in on the business plan and how the company is reaching its goals for the year. Lipford also attends the three or four companywide meetings every year, although he lets the management team run them.

Lipford's celebrity status occasionally has its own consequences; sometimes clients are disappointed he won't be doing their projects.

The company usually handles those concerns by explaining that Lipford is still involved in the business, but that the management team runs the day-to-day operations. If necessary, Lipford will become involved in the occasional project, such as a $900,000 remodel and addition — the largest in company history — that the company did last year. In that case, Lipford met the homeowners and talked to them about the project but left the bulk of the work to the management team.

Danny Lipford not only manages his own weekly show, he also writes and produces all the content for his segments on The Weather Channel, along with video shorts on his Web site. He is also scheduled to make more that 20 appearances on CBS' "The Early Show" and will be producting a DVD series later this year.

Platform for success

The most important part of being able to transition out of the daily responsibilities is having the right people in place, Lipford says.

"If I had not been fortunate enough to find these three industrious employees, the transition would have been a lot harder," he says.

Keeping an eye out for talent is important for any owner who wants to someday take a smaller role in his company. Owners need to constantly look for people who can someday run the company — even if that someday is years away — because making a successful transition is a long-term project that takes careful planning and training, Lipford says.

"The reason this worked is that we'd been moving in that direction for years and they were ready to take on the load when I needed them to," he says.

As for the future, Lipford is confident that both Lipford Construction and "Today's Homeowner" can continue to grow; more projects for the company, a series of DVDs and a possible book deal are all part of the plan.

"With the people we have in place now, I think both companies are only going to be more successful," he says.

 

Keeping His Dayjob

With his success in television, it would have been understandable if Danny Lipford had given up his remodeling business Lipford Construction. But he says he never seriously considered it as his ratings grew.

"TV is a fickle business, and I've always figured I wanted this to fall back on if things didn't work out," he says.

The fact he runs a remodeling company also gives him credibility with his audience, he says.

"My experience is probably the biggest key to my success," he says. "Consumers are educated. They know when somebody knows what they're talking about. My credibility has helped me tremendously to build and maintain the show."

He also didn't want to let down the employees who had invested so much time and energy in building the company.

"I think they were worried I was just going to shut it down," he says. "With the team we have in place, I knew we didn't need to do that, and they really stepped up and proved me right."

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