Pinnacle Award: Predicting Success

Architect-turned-remodeler Mason Hearn earns the 2001 Pinnacle Award with a commitment to his company, industry and community

November 30, 2001
Above from left are Bunnie Pinkston, office manager; Clyde Toms, partner and vice president; Mason Hearn, partner and president; Susy Florance, project manager; and Dwight Orendorff, general superintendent.

Crucial questions guide Mason Hearn in his work and his personal life: What is success? Is it a job that provides financial security and maybe some luxuries? Recognition within a chosen profession? Work that will benefit the community now and for years to come?

Hearn’s answer to each of these questions is a heartfelt "yes." As co-owner and president of a 9-year-old remodeling company, McGuire Hearn & Toms Inc. in Manakin-Sabot, Va., he spends almost 60 hours a week (significantly fewer than he spent last year) building a company that creates beautiful projects for clients and a dynamic environment for employees.

With annual sales near $2 million, the design/build firm specializes in renovating older, sometimes historic homes, with projects that typically run from $300,000 to $350,000. Sales haven’t grown significantly during the past five years, but that’s because Hearn and his partner, Clyde Toms, made a conscious decision not to increase them until all the right systems are in place.

Reaching sustainability is the firm’s focus. In the past year alone, Hearn has led a renovation of the Web site, launched an e-mail system, switched from hand drawing to computer-aided design and drawing, and hired a designer/CADD operator. Hearn and Toms, the vice president and general manager, wrote an employee handbook (they also have an office manager, project manager and 10 field employees), added benefits such as dental insurance and a tool-purchase plan, and developed a program to reward field employees for exemplary attendance, safety and innovative thinking. They’ve joined a Business Networks peer-advisory group and implemented a new cost-tracking and accounting system.

In short, they’re looking at the long run. "If one of my sons wants to come into the business when he grows up, I’d like it to be here and in good shape for him," Hearn explains. "I’m very much into predictability. We can’t predict what’s going to happen six months from now, but if we have good processes and a good reputation, we should be very sustainable and predictable over the long term."

That belief in building for the future permeates his life, not just his business. Hearn devotes his construction expertise and design creativity to volunteer work with and for children. And he has turned his management skills toward industry development, launching the first new chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry in a decade.

"There’s a certain need for stewardship, to give back using our God-given gifts, talents and abilities to our industry, our community and even beyond that," explains Hearn. "I don’t want to get too sappy about this, but everyone needs to have a meaning in life. For me, that goes beyond remodeling. It can be very fulfilling, but isn’t there more? We’ve had a reasonable amount of financial success, but it’s more personal than money. It’s enjoying your time on this earth and being part of something bigger than putting a granite countertop in somebody’s kitchen."

Finding the right fit

The conversion of a porch to a sun room (above) meant controlling temperature and humidity to protect the Steinway piano. The kitchen (below) was part of a whole-house remodel of a 1950s-style ranch. Photos: Taylor Dabney.

Hearn’s first work in construction was as a teenager, when his family bought a Victorian house and renovated it. He soon was helping neighbors with similar projects and took summer jobs with construction companies. He didn’t really consider architecture as a career, however, until he was at the University of Virginia and discovered that other students "were able to get through college by drawing pictures."

Hearn never intended to spend the rest of his life hunched over a drafting table, though. As much as he enjoyed design work, he also wanted the satisfaction of being a builder. After graduation, he set his T-square aside temporarily and took a job as a field engineer with a large commercial construction firm in Washington, D.C. He eventually moved into project management for a competing firm in Richmond, Va., where he met his future partners, Hunter McGuire and Toms. When McGuire approached him about leaving their mutual employer and forming their own remodeling company, Hearn jumped at the chance, seeing it as the answer to his design-or-build dilemma. Toms went to work for the company about a year later and bought out McGuire five years ago.

In a large firm, they’d had little contact with the people making the decisions and little sense of accomplishment. They wanted to be more directly involved with the needs and wants of their clients. "It was just finish one job and go on to the next one," Toms recalls. "But building relationships is a special part of what we do now. We help people realize their dreams. We really enjoy getting to know these folks and creating instead of just building."

Hearn believes that a major factor in his company’s success has been careful selection of clients, a process that starts with him. He calls himself director of pre-construction services: marketing, sales, administration, estimating, design, in-house meetings and meetings with the client before construction begins. At that point, he turns the projects over to Toms, although Hearn makes sure he is available to the client for any design-related questions.

One thing Hearn looks for in clients is an understanding of good architecture. "I design very differently for an empty-nester couple than I do for a family with kids," he explains. "If you don’t provide the right setting for a family to gather, you’re probably denying them the likelihood that they will gather and therefore how they associate with each other. I do socially minded architecture. It’s harder than just figuring out whether I have the right work triangle in the kitchen."

Virtually all of McGuire Hearn & Toms’ business - Hearn estimates 92% to 95% - comes from referrals or repeat customers. He closes sales on about 20% of qualified leads, a number that jumps to 43% of potential customers to whom he makes a formal presentation.

To enhance customer service further, Hearn is testing software programs to find a client-management system to coordinate all of the company’s existing systems for lead tracking, proposal development, design process, production scheduling and more.

"Our ongoing effort is to pull all those systems together so we can manage them in a step-by-step process so we know exactly what happens next," he says.

While Hearn prefers predictability, he has made sure the company remains flexible enough to respond to the ever-changing needs of the market. Two clients put large projects - out of just 11 total for the year - on hold after Sept. 11, even though the designs were already complete.

McGuire Hearn & Toms moved quickly to minimize the lost revenue, taking on work that Hearn says is "on the fringe of our niche." One project currently in progress is a whole-house window replacement that also includes remodeling in the sun room and a new heating system.

"It’s really a maintenance job, but it’s large-scale," Hearn says. "This is an older person who wants to stay in his home, but there are some things he needs to do. And he fits our client profile: He wants to do things right, he wants someone to take care of him, and he’s willing to spend the money to make sure that happens."

Smaller jobs such as this one will ensure that the company meets its sales goals for the year, as well as provide work for the field crew. They are easier to sell, quicker to finish and help maintain a backlog. Fortunately, Hearn notes, the bulk of his clientele is financially secure enough to be able to continue with planned projects.

Building boxes (and thinking outside of them)

The covered bluestone patio above added outdoor entertainment space outside the breakfast room addition behind it. A family room addition (below) features heart-pine flooring and stained beams. Photos: Taylor Dabney.

Key to Hearn’s success as a remodeler is his ability to integrate his experiences outside the company into running the business. One of Hearn’s favorite causes is Destination Imagination, an international program in which students form teams and tackle intellectual challenges. For six months each year, Hearn coaches a group of grade-school children for three or four hours weekly. The challenge last year was to "make something levitate, disappear and reappear, and change something from one thing into another." His group won the program’s Leonardo da Vinci Award, which honors the most innovative approach to solving the problem. In his office, Hearn proudly displays the plaque he received.

"I’ve been amazed at how much of what we did I was able to bring back to the company in terms of creative problem solving," he says. "It really makes you think outside the box. It has helped me look at problems in new ways. I learned about brainstorming and how to ‘piggyback’ ideas - listening to a good one and saying, ‘And then what?’"

Part of his work with the kids involved "trust games," which teach trust in others in a fun setting such as building a human pyramid. His employees spent a day in the woods playing the same games and learning the same spirit of camaraderie.

By the same token, Hearn applies what he has learned from his business to the community. When Children’s Hospital in Richmond needed a new reading center, Kathleen Cabell Belk - a member of the hospital’s Junior Board and a longtime client of Hearn - called him for help. Hearn designed the entire project, which features cubes big enough for children to curl up in to read or relax, as well as storage cubes that are accessible to kids in wheelchairs and strollers. His enthusiasm spread to his work team; one of his lead carpenters helped him build the center and recruited other carpenters.

"The immeasurable impact of Mason’s full support and dedication to this effort will be felt for years," Belk says. "He showed an enormous sensitivity to the needs of the hospital and the children it serves. His generosity has inspired others to participate in other centers around the hospital."

Meanwhile, back at the office

Hearn describes his efforts in the industry as "self-serving," stemming from his hope that other remodelers - large and small - will learn to run their businesses more professionally in every aspect, especially pricing and presentations.

"I want my competition to get better so I can compete more fairly with them," he says. "I want these guys who run a business out of the back of a pickup to get smarter or get out of the business. If we all get more professional, when we present ourselves to a client, they won’t be as defensive. We can concentrate more on what we can do for these clients instead of having to break down the barriers that sometimes exist now."

Seeking more educational opportunities for himself and other remodelers, Hearn organized a new NARI chapter this year. "Mason was absolutely instrumental in forming the Central Virginia chapter," says Stuart Lawry, NARI director of membership services. "He called a lot of local remodelers, and he recruited Siewers Lumber to sponsor the meetings. In fact, Rich Siewers is on the chapter’s steering committee. Twenty-two people came to that first meeting, and all 22 of them joined that same night."

In his own office, Hearn works to set an example. "He encourages education; he’s forever sending us to seminars," office manager Bunnie Pinkston says. "Mason has a true caring nature, and I think that comes through on all levels with his employees and his clients. You can’t fake true caring, and people know that. They know they can trust him."

Hearn and Toms continue to let their staff take over the day-to-day running of individual projects while they focus on managing and eventually growing the company, once they’re sure they’ve done what they can to minimize any growing pains.

It’s a strategy for sustainability that means Mason Hearn will continue to achieve success on his terms - and on the industry’s.


How we pick a winner

You don’t earn PR’s Pinnacle Remodeler of the Year because of the number of your design awards or the size of your sales volume. Those are nice figures to tout, but they don’t speak to the overall quality of your company, nor to your impact on your community and industry.

Instead, we look for remodelers running successful firms whose achievements within the past year are setting trends for the entire industry to follow. Last year, Bill Medina of Medina Construction Co. in Salina, Kan., won for mentoring high school students interested in residential construction.

This year’s winner, Mason Hearn of McGuire Hearn & Toms Inc., spent the past year ensuring that his young firm has the systems and staff in place to weather tough times, working toward sustainability before the real recession hit.

Did you solve the labor problem in your area? Successfully lobby for or against industry-related legislation? Define a new market opportunity and excel in going after it? Consider yourself a Pinnacle candidate.

Nominations can be made by anyone; nominees should be the principal(s) of the firm. PR then requires nominees to complete an application form asking for business information and achievements, write an essay on why this year is that person’s "pinnacle" year, and submit letters of recommendation from customers, subcontractors and suppliers.

The editors and editorial advisory board then enter into weeks of heated debate, culminating in the mid-fall selection of the Pinnacle Remodeler of the Year.

-Kimberly Sweet

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