Walk the Talk

I used to think the way to handle a business problem was to tough it out alone.

March 31, 2003


Wendy Jordan

I used to think the way to handle a business problem was to tough it out alone. Better that than let anyone else see my inadequacies, I thought. Besides, my problems are specific to my situation; what good would it do to spill them to anybody else?

Then I had a conversation with John Miller. He runs Waldenwood, a high-end design/build business in the Twin Cities, where the market has been slow. One thing he's doing to cope is to meet twice a month with five other Twin Cities remodelers with businesses much like his. "We help each other succeed," he said.

What a crazy idea. At first it seems counterintuitive to talk about your business problems with, of all people, your competitors. But on second thought it makes perfect sense. Who will understand better, and be better able to offer advice, than others with businesses like yours? As long as the group shares a mutual trust, the more you have in common - including market area - the better.

Since Miller's group began meeting last year, what started as a compatible half-dozen NARI members has become a supportive group of caring friends. They talk about which marketing tools are working (or not). They borrow each other's carpenters when work is slow for one company but busy for another. They recommend subcontractors in different parts of town. They talk about scheduling, safety issues, growth plans, exit strategies. They don't talk about pricing or specific customers or anything else they feel uncomfortable sharing. Everything discussed is kept in confidence. The six are there simply to help each other. "We feel very lucky to have the group," says Miller.

Every business encounters rough spots, and any business problems you have probably are not unique. They are being faced or have been addressed by other remodelers. Why go it alone when you can avoid mistakes and find superior solutions by talking with others?

At trade shows and association meetings, talk about business problems with remodelers. In groups of peers from around the country, such as those organized by Remodelers Advantage, Business Networks and the NAHB Remodelors Council, ask for advice and then apply it. One of the beauties of these groups is that they are ongoing. Your fellow remodelers will be persistent about monitoring your progress. One remodeler I know has been in a peer group for eight years. He says the members of his group have become such a valuable resource that "they basically serve as my board of directors."

Count on your peers to ask you the hard questions that demand answers. Be grateful when they push you to make tough, necessary changes in your operation. And don't hesitate to ask them for support when things get stressful. These friends are just a phone call away.

Speak up inside your company, too. You have a brain trust in the employees who have been with you for more than a short time. For years Jim Strite, a design/build remodeler in Boise, Idaho, has run an open-book company. Strite Design + Remodel's financial information (except for individual compensation) is the business of every employee. At company meetings, everyone has a voice in addressing problems. Managers and technicians bring different perspectives and knowledge to bear. The result is that more ideas are generated than Strite could devise on his own. And when the group works together to craft solutions, those solutions gain companywide support. "For me," says Strite, the team approach to problem solving is "the only way to go."

I know a Midwest remodeler who had a losing year last year. At his annual company retreat in January, he laid the problem on the table. For two days, nine staff members analyzed goals and procedures and brainstormed about ways to turn the company around. They agreed on 15 objectives, ranked - by vote - in priority order. Now everyone in the company is invested in achieving those objectives. The company is headed for a profitable year. This remodeler not only talked. He's walking the talk.

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