Remodeler's Exchange: Tips and Advice from Under 40 Pros

Professional Remodeler’s Tom Swartz talked with Molly Switzer and Zak Fleming, who offer tips for running a successful business, how and why they chose to enter the remodeling business, the challenges of starting a remodeling business, and more, all while under the age of 40.

July 08, 2014
Remodeler's Exchange: Tips and Advice from Under 40 Pros

This month, the Remodeler’s Exchange hosts two professionals who are part of our 40 Under 40 Class for 2014. Professional Remodeler’s Tom Swartz talked with Molly Switzer and Zak Fleming, who offer tips for running a successful business, how and why they chose to enter the remodeling business, the challenges of starting a remodeling business, and more, all while under the age of 40.

TOM SWARTZ: How did you choose the remodeling or design business?

MOLLY SWITZER: I started out in school working toward an architecture degree, and I realized the architecture program I was in at the University of Oregon was primarily commercial driven. I wanted to work with more family oriented-type projects in the residential side to have an actual impact on people and homeowners. So, I switched schools and enrolled into an interior design program at Oregon State University, and it was a program that was through the National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA). I was heavily involved in the program immediately; I met a lot of people very quickly and became very involved in the local NKBA chapter (Columbia River) after graduation.

ZAK FLEMING: I started out as an electrician by trade. I really enjoyed working in construction but there was not a lot of creativity in being a commercial electrician. You are a technician, you follow the plans, and you go about the work. I really enjoy working with clients and the creativity that goes into the design process on the residential side. Basically, the day I received my Master’s License, I stopped working as an electrician and started up my company. It was a surprise to my colleagues at the time.

This month features:

Molly Switzer, Design Consultant
Precision Countertops, Wilsonville, Ore.

Founded in 1987, Precision Countertops specializes in solid surface custom countertops primarily on the West Coast. The firm completes thousands of jobs annually ranging from countertops to backsplashes as well as plumbing and electrical, faucets, and fixtures.

Zak Fleming, Owner
Fleming Construction LLC, Des Moines, Iowa

Fleming Construction is a design-build remodeling firm that has been in business since 2001 and completes a variety of jobs including sunrooms, kitchens and bathrooms, finished basements, and whole house remodels. The firm bills just over $600,000 in annual sales.

SWARTZ: What are the major challenges you’ve faced when operating or running a business?

FLEMING: The real struggle with running a remodeling business is just finding time to do everything that needs to be done and finding the right people to help you do the work. Those are the two main challenges, but when you are just starting out, finding homeowners who are willing to hire you is also difficult because your company is so new to the industry.

SWARTZ: How did you overcome these challenges when starting a remodeling firm at such a young age?

FLEMING: The real solution to these problems was to find the right trade partners to work with. By using those trade partners, they opened up more time for me to bid work. One of the tricks is to be confident enough to charge the right prices. You are going to have to trust that you are good enough to demand the pricing you need in order to have the right margins and to pay your trades in time. This will help build your reputation in the remodeling industry.

SWARTZ: Molly, what where the major challenges you faced when starting in the business and how did you overcome these challenges?

SWITZER: I graduated in 2008, which was not exactly a good time to graduate and enter the workforce, especially in the remodeling industry. I did get a job right out of school for a different remodeling firm. I started with them and six months later, they closed their doors three days before Christmas. In early 2009, I was fortunate to get my job at Precision Countertops. It was only part-time, but I was working hard to find a niche market to define “what people are looking for in their kitchens.” Homeowners were not spending the kind of money they were in years past; they were being very frugal with their money and watching every penny they earned. I did find that countertops were one area that homeowners actually do change even during a tough economy. Maximizing the effort, getting out there to meet with customers as well as contractors, and establishing those relationships accomplished this. Most of my business is through repeat customers, contractor relationships, as well as dealer relationships. I worked on my networking skills and that was a huge part of being successful that put me in the position I am now.

SWARTZ: Did you have any mentors or advisors that offered advice and help to you early in your career?

SWITZER: Absolutely. Sandy Hayes of Hayes Designs, a member of the NKBA and a Certified Kitchen & Bath Designer, is someone I did an internship with and we’ve been very close ever since I was in college. She handpicked me to be her intern and has been a huge source of directing my career. She’s a very successful designer and has been in the industry for many years. I was able to connect with her through the NKBA. Through networking meetings, I was able to find the company I work for now. This has been a huge part of my success. You need to put the effort into your career in order to be successful; it is not just going to happen.

FLEMING: Probably my main mentor was Rollie Clarkson; he is a remodeler that owns a company that is very similar to mine. I met him through the HBA of Greater Des Moines. He was the onetime president of the HBA of Greater Des Moines, the local Remodelers Council Chairman, and has held other titles within the association. When I joined the HBA seven years ago, he took me under his wing and showed me a few tricks and was constantly encouraging me to trust the people who work for me more and more. He also wanted me to work more on the business rather than in the business. I’ve had several other mentors at different levels because I am also involved in the NAHB Remodelers group as well as other NAHB committees, and I’ve definitely learned a lot from all of them.

SWARTZ: At what level of importance did you put trade magazines such as Professional Remodeler, trade shows, and education in your career?

FLEMING: I believe that each is very important. The local networking is probably a little more important because they have insight into what you’re going through as long as people are willing to share that insight. In Des Moines, the remodelers are definitely willing to help a young remodeler. I also attend the national shows and I really enjoy meeting other remodelers and finding out they have similar problems and sharing how they are trying to sort through these problems. Even within the trade publications, the articles contain a lot of neat hints and tricks that help me out quite a bit. When you go to a trade show, you might see 10 ideas that can help you. When you come home, just implementing one idea is useful. If you can do one, you are ahead of where you were previously.

SWITZER: All of them are very important to me. The magazines are great as far as trade articles, being able to see design work of what’s popular and trending around the U.S. Each area of the country and parts of Canada have their own trends and styles; I like to really see what’s going on out there in the industry. The trade shows are excellent. I was so excited to have all the shows come together for Design & Construction Week 2014 this year in Las Vegas. I had a chance to be part of the NKBA’s 30 under 30 team at Design & Construction Week this year. I didn’t get a chance to see everything I wanted at the show, but next year I am really excited to see everything and more. Designations are very important as well. I have my Associate Kitchen and Bath Designer designation through the NKBA and I plan on continuing my education in the future. Education is important for everyone in the industry in order to better your craft in this industry, you really have to be competitive and stay on top of your continued education to keep your designations up to date.

SWARTZ: Is the aging of the labor force a concern for you and your business?

FLEMING: Absolutely. Finding good, qualified trade partners and employees right now seems to be a struggle. The older workforce will start aging out very soon and we are not replacing their expertise fast enough. We are losing more people than we are gaining at this point. We have been working with our local schools through our HBA including a community college here in Des Moines, the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and the high schools in order to promote working in the trade as a viable option. There is plenty of money to make in trades for those kids that don’t want to go to college. The trades offer a schedule that allows you to be home with your family at the end of the day. It’s a great way to make a living and that message needs to be conveyed to the next generation of tradesmen.

SWITZER: I graduated five years ago but have been involved in the industry for nine years. Last year was the first time that I’ve actually gotten the chance to meet with other individuals in the industry that were my age. It’s always been issue for me to find out how we can get more people in my generation excited about the remodeling industry. We also do work with our local schools as well. We also have a program with our local NKBA chapter in order to get students involved, helping them get internships, and eventually with job placement once they graduate. That’s been very important to the success of the industry in our area. From there, it’s just continuing to keep people excited and interested in the industry.

SWARTZ: How do you manage your business, prioritize your time, and still be successful?

SWITZER: I definitely set aside time for my daily goals—what I am planning to get done today. The order of importance is also critical to making things happen. I also work on my monthly goals, my sales goals for the year. I am very goal-driven so as long as I plan out what I need to get done. I can work long hours; I’ve been known to be the office past 8 PM. I set my own personal goals but I also set goals with my sales manager. We discuss last year’s sales goals and plan sales goals for the current year. Obviously, we work every year to increase our sales goals and push ourselves to a higher level.

FLEMING: When I was in my 20s, I was a 70-hour-per-workweek guy. Now that I have a family, I have to balance my lifestyle. I set limits on what I was doing, so now at 6 p.m., I am done for the day. I no longer work until late at night and on the weekends. I just set limits on how much time I allow myself to work, and I’ve surrounded myself with good people that can do the work that I used to carry on my own. Honestly, they do a better job on some of the work than I was doing. You need to find people who specialize in certain areas because they are more efficient. In my case these people created a happier environment at Fleming Construction because of their skill set.

SWARTZ: What advice can you offer someone looking to get into the remodeling business?

FLEMING: It’s actually very simple. Find a mentor. Find someone who’s been there, done the work, and listen to what they have to tell you. Follow their lead. We want to reinvent the wheel every time, but the guy who has been in the industry for 30 years knows the industry much better than you do. As soon as I started listening to other people, it made world of difference in both my professional and personal life. If you are involved in the remodeler’s council at your local home builders association, you may not have one main mentor but you might have seven. Those seven people will give you seven ideas about how to solve a problem. You want to take the best of those ideas and implement them.

SWITZER: First is finding a mentor. Also following your passion and remember why you started in the remodeling industry. Remembering why you started in this industry can keep you grounded and motivated to be successful. PR

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