Sizing up Boardwalk

Cornering the market on service and skill has made Boardwalk Builders a quality-fueled business

December 31, 2003


Owner Patty McDaniel expects first-time quality but tolerates mistakes as part of the learning process. "I'm not in chest-bumping opposition with my employees," she says. "I nurture."

Photography: Claire Newman-Williams

Boardwalk Builders
Rehoboth Beach, Del.
2004 NHQ Silver Award winner
Remodeler Division

Type of company: Full-service remodeler; builds custom homes occasionally

Years in business: 17

Number of employees: 19

Average annual jobs: 50-60

Median job size: $30,000

Mission statement: "To build high-quality remodeling projects and custom homes, offer personalized service throughout the construction process and build a business whose reputation for professionalism and customer service is unparalleled by our competition."

Like a Monopoly winner, Boardwalk Builders succeeds in part by maximizing inherent opportunities. Monopoly players depend on the roll of the dice. This $2.15 million remodeling company benefits from its location in a booming beachfront resort market with a stable economy, escalating real estate values and residents who can afford annual remodeling.

But prospering, whether in a board game or in business, also requires strategy. Ongoing exchange among managers, employees, trades, suppliers and customers helps Boardwalk monitor progress against its annual business plan and three-year strategic plan. The insights and information that emerge allow the company - which specializes in high-end remodeling, window and door replacement, kitchen remodeling, storm damage/leak repair and maintenance/winterization work for affluent customers - to adjust and improve continuously.

As a result, Boardwalk has earned a pristine reputation. Employee turnover is low (the company retained 100% of its work force in 2003), and the ratio of repeat customers is high, accounting for one-third of current volume. By the end of 2003, Boardwalk already had $2.9 million in signed contracts for 2004 projects.

Commitment to total quality management practices and processes earned the company a Silver Award in the 2004 national Housing Quality Awards competition. Boardwalk stands as a model for small to midsize full-service remodelers. In particular, the NHQ judges noted:


  • active reinforcement of the mission, vision and values by all team members.
  • integrity and a commitment to customer service.
  • superior construction quality that illustrates a cultural alignment between the company and its trade partners.


Follow the leader

Boardwalk president Patty McDaniel, CGR, has had a formal, written business plan since 1995, when she became the company's sole owner. The plan since has become increasingly devoted to remodeling work rather than custom homes and increasingly focused on making Boardwalk's processes more sophisticated without letting them impede the personalized service that is the company's hallmark.


By adding senior staffers Phil Fields and Martha Withers (second from right) to herself and Lynn Kortvelesy, McDaniel, who was once content with Boardwalk's small size and fairly simple business structure, ensured sustainable growth.

Boardwalk's relationship-driven culture starts with the boss. Across the board, employees say McDaniel's intelligence, fairness and trustworthiness drive the company's approach to customer service and employee retention and its dedication to doing things right no matter what. But analyzing and amending the company's mission, vision and value statements collaboratively at annual companywide meetings ensure that all employees share leadership.

"We take the time to do things right, and we like doing it right the first time," lead carpenter Ralph McCutcheon says. "Carpentry is a dying breed, and Patty encourages us to have pride in our work. I'm fortunate to work for Boardwalk. I'm a company man to the max. I eat, sleep and breathe the company."

McDaniel has honed her leadership skills through participation in industry events and Builder 20 and Remodelers Advantage peer groups. She often takes her business plan to these meetings to see how she compares with her peers and the industry as a whole.

Humility allows her to admit shortcomings and learn from mistakes. She does not chastise employees and asks only that they be willing to fix mistakes.

"I have survived mistakes, usually on a much bigger scale than the things they have done, so why should I be upset?" she says. "I create an environment where learning is important."

McDaniel, production facilitator Phil Fields, contracts ad-ministrator Martha Withers and office manager Lynn Kortvelesy meet annually to create the business plan for the next year. Boardwalk's marketing and accounting consultants participate as well, providing outside perspective. Weekly meetings of the senior staff help monitor progress and in making adjustments if necessary.

"Measuring is very important to Patty," Fields says. "She uses it as a tool. Patty is driven to excel and creates her own pressure to move ahead. She sees it more as what she can do to make the organization better, and her employees are willing to follow her in this process."

After her partner left in 1995, McDaniel alone was the process. Kortvelesy has been with Boardwalk for 14 years, but McDaniel, for the most part, wore every company hat. From 1995 until mid-2002, she hired three office workers (a salesperson, a project manager and an estimator), but each stayed a year or less. The addition of Fields and Withers during the past two years marked a significant turning point: a stable leadership team.

While McDaniel still serves as the sole salesperson, Boardwalk's growth necessitated more delegation and the creation of detailed operational systems. Fields focuses on field operations and tracks materials ordering and use. Withers manages job-related invoicing and change orders, and she administers and monitors all of the company's customer relationship management tools, for clients as well as subcontractors. Kortvelesy is responsible for accounting and maintaining inner-office files.

"The real transition in the company has been from everything being in Patty's brain to everything not being in Patty's brain," McDaniel says. "As a leader, I want to plant the seed so it spreads. I want to empower people who already yearn to do things well."


As an incentive to get more field employees to pursue training, such as the CertainTeed Siding Master Craftsman program that Randy Ingram completed, Boardwalk pays for any training done during company hours.

Fortify the field

Boardwalk stakes its reputation on the beauty and craftsmanship of its projects, giving already ambitious designs more aesthetic appeal as well as high functionality in coastal weather. That makes hiring the most skilled carpenters and trade contractors, providing them with ongoing education and managing their performance essential for customer satisfaction, sales and profitability.

Much of the education comes in-house. McDaniel, who worked in the field for three years before starting Boardwalk, occasionally still goes into the field to help with detailing and the execution of more difficult plans. new or less skilled employees shadow field supervisors, who oversee large crews, and lead carpenters, who lead small crews, creating informal mentoring relationships. Boardwalk encourages all employees to take at least 40 hours of training per year. For carpenters, this comes through company-sponsored trips to trade shows or through manufacturer programs.

Monthly meetings, implemented in 2002, provide product training from manufacturer representatives, safety talks from Fields and business education. McDaniel discusses the company's year-to-date performance, the number of repeat client inquiries and contracts, monthly income or invoices sent, close ratios and percentage of production complete, among other things. These metrics are compared against goals for the year and help track where employees stand regarding their profit-sharing incentive.

Besides building an open-book culture that helps engage employees, the meetings help keep McDaniel on her game, as she tracks company performance more frequently and consistently. They also unify employees in a common purpose outside of their day-to-day duties and deliver a message that complements the safety manual.

For a third-party perspective on safety, Fields arranges quarterly safety audits by Boardwalk's insurance carrier. Boardwalk also reinvests capital to update and add safety equipment. Field supervisor Kenny Wells cites the addition of guardrails and catch nets to apparatus and of more ground fault interrupter plugs and cords as significant investments during 2003.

Every workday, each of the two lead carpenters and two field supers generates a handwritten report tracking which employees, materials, subs and equipment were used on a job site. The report also includes a chronological account of job activities and hours worked per employee. In 2003, Boardwalk also began using formal quality- control checklists after each stage of a project.

McCutcheon, who has been with the company eight years, says that while this adds paperwork, filing all of the daily reports in one area makes information easier to find, especially when trade partners or employees bring up discrepancies and he needs evidence.

In 2003, for the first time, Withers sent surveys to Boardwalk's trade partners asking them to evaluate the company. Conversely, field employees evaluated the trades. Once tabulated, information from the surveys will help streamline processes, increase efficiency and identify consistent problem areas.

"There's clearly room for improvement when it comes to how we schedule our trade contractors," McDaniel says. "We could be more organized, and so could they. Our guys don't want to be baby sitters or the cleanup crew, and we probably make our trades crazy by not being organized."

John nelson, owner of Oceanic Ventures, Boardwalk's cabinetry trade partner for 16 years, says the company already does a commendable job working with subs and organizing job sites. "Boardwalk coordinates the time so we can work efficiently," he says. "Their job sites are always clean and organized. The field guys are helpful, and there's no competition for space."

Alan Porcello, owner of AJ Painting, says Boardwalk always pays promptly, runs an efficient office and makes materials or keys to a job site accessible whenever he needs them. Porcello, Boardwalk's trade partner for more than three years, adds: "From working on [McDaniel's] jobs, I've learned that a clean work site with proper equipment reduces injury."

Porcello says McDaniel's professionalism, integrity and fairness show a genuine commitment to seeing that her trades have not only pleasant working conditions but also a good life outside of the work, and that motivates him to work hard to keep her as a client.

Sharon Henry, a sales associate with Pella Corp., has worked with Boardwalk, a certified Pella contractor, for seven years, handling approximately 60-70 window and door orders annually. She praises McDaniel's accuracy in pinpointing what a customer wants by asking the right questions before ordering and her familiarity with Pella's product offering.

"She is always very organized and very specific about what she needs from me as far as products, quotes and time frames are concerned," Henry says. "I know she's installing our product properly. They're not leaking, and we're not getting customer callbacks. For example, after Hurricane Isabel, we had tons of calls concerning faulty installations. I had no calls from Boardwalk customers."

Making gains, looking ahead

The business plan helped Boardwalk hit or surpass major goals in 2003: continuing its strong marketing program, initiating performance reviews for each employee and exceeding targeted sales by 7.5%, giving the company a nine-month backlog for 2004 and thereby booking two-thirds of its field labor capacity.

The plan also helped McDaniel note areas for improvement and recognize disappointments. For example, the company did not meet its 2003 goal of implementing a purchasing system. McDaniel also cites scheduling software, better organization of manpower and placing job boards on work sites as initiatives to eliminate operational deficiencies discovered in reviewing the plan.


Field employees such as Dan Cochran praise Boardwalk's regular equipment updates, tool replacement and quality construction.

The quality journey

Any company that embarks upon the NHQ process constantly seeks improvement. For McDaniel, that meant growing not necessarily in volume but "in ways that would actually accomplish something for us, make us more efficient and create more opportunities for my people."

For Boardwalk, the second NHQ application was the charm. The discipline of the first application process prepared McDaniel for the second. The process also gave senior managers a common goal and helped them connect changes in work flow and paperwork with end results.

"Going through the process helped me understand why all the measuring we do is so important, so it didn't just seem like extra work for me," Kortvelesy says. "It helped us assess where we are and where we need to go."

McDaniel adds: "The idea that everything is driven from the vision, goals and mission is a paradigm shift. It really took me the whole first-year process, getting the judges' report and feedback, to help me understand what that paradigm was. Going through that process really shifted my business plan. It didn't tie together before. now it's a document that is definitely connected from year to year. It's more proactive and less reactive."

NHQ judges said Boardwalk's quest for excellence initiated through the application process exposed areas of opportunity relating to:


  • improving margins and increasing profit.
  • moving toward a system that will increase field accountability and output per worker, specifically production per man-hour/field employee.







The importance of lifestyle marketing
"When you take care of people, you don't need glitzy communication pieces. Patty understands the idea of lifestyle marketing. She has outstanding craftspeople, and together, with the client, they all take care of each other."

- Jennifer August, owner, Psychagraphics, Boardwalk's marketing consultant for 10 years




Win the architect's trust
"You know what is built will be true to the design. From a nuts-and-bolts standpoint, you know the work is going to be put together in the best possible way. You know the finish work is going to be the absolute best you can get around here in terms of quality."

- David Dutton, project manager, GMB Architects & Engineers, who has worked with Boardwalk for 15 years




Service and education equal value
"We knew immediately we could trust Patty with our project from her mannerisms. She listened to our thoughts, was never pushy and put our minds at ease. She's a true professional, someone who takes time to share knowledge."

- Mark Rollo, three-time client




Share the culture with customers
"Her estimate wasn't the lowest, but we liked the company's philosophy. We love the folksy marketing pieces we get. It feels like we're all family. We have recommended Boardwalk and will continue in the future."

- Carolyn Wakefield, client




The National Housing Quality Awards



Based on the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award and sponsored by the NAHB Research Center and the Reed Residential Group, the National Housing Quality Awards ( recognize residential construction companies for all-around quality achievement. Companies whose written applications pass two rounds of screening receive a one-day site visit from a panel of judges. Applicants are judged in eight core competencies and must demonstrate a high level of achievement in subsections within each competency.


1. Leadership

2. Strategic planning

3. Customer satisfaction

4. Performance management

5. Human resources

6. Construction quality

7. Supplier partnerships

8. Business results: a) customer satisfaction results, b) company's operational improvement results, c) trade contractors' operational improvement results, d) product quality results, e) human resources results, f) financial results






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