The Perfect Storm

Barely one month after Sherry Schwab, CGR, CAPS, and her husband Joe, CGR, opened the doors of Bellevue, Wash.-based HCS Construction Services Co., a major windstorm raged through the Seattle area. The untested company abruptly was challenged with more damage repair and insurance restoration work than it ever anticipated.

That situation and the lessons learned during the past 33 years of operation characterize HCS Construction Services’ business strength, Sherry thinks. “Our company has always been adaptive and creative in getting the work that comes to us done quickly and to the clients’ satisfaction,” she says. “This challenge set the precedent that we always would find a way to perform whatever was needed.” To get the work done, the Schwabs reached out to contacts Joe had in his previous job as an insurance adjuster. “That’s when we first started using many of our subcontractors, our trade partners,” Sherry says.

“Most of these companies have been working with us for 20 to 30 years,” she continues. “Because of the emergency work that HCS does, we rely on our trade partners to, like us, adjust their schedules to meet the immediate demand when needed. Their service is respected and HCS is loyal in trying to provide work year round. Over time, client expectations have been established. Problems are rare and those few are taken care of quickly.”

Sherry says her firm does what it can to accommodate any situation. “We’ve been known to work without power or heat in our office when utility lines are down. You can always find a way to get the paperwork done,” she says. This attitude certainly is one of the characteristics that led Sherry into her current role as the National Association of Home Builders Remodeler of the Year.

Coping with the Unexpected

Coping with unexpected storms and the resulting emergency and insurance work is a challenge. “You can’t put someone who has a hole in his roof off for two weeks until you can get there,” Sherry says. “At the same time, the client whose job was ongoing when the storm hit doesn’t want his life disrupted just because someone else has an emergency.”

During the years, HCS Construction Services took on remodeling work, in addition to its insurance and emergency services. Sherry likes to think of her company as a remodeling concierge service. “Regardless of how many clients we have at any one time, as far as the individual client is concerned, he is the only client we have.”

Remodeling is a service industry, Sherry comments. It involves a high degree of contact with clients. “The client is the most important asset in remodeling. If clients are satisfied with your service, they will tell other people, and they will come back to you. If they are unhappy, even if it’s not for a legitimate reason, they will tell more people than they would have if they were happy.”

Roots

The drive to get the job done and take responsibility for satisfactory completion shouldn’t come as a surprise. Sherry and Joe’s parents were sole proprietors of businesses that ranged from remodeling and insurance work to “dirt construction.”

“My father was a cat skinner,” Sherry relates. “I mean he built reservoirs and roads and leveled fields for ranchers in Montana. In my family there was a model of working for yourself and having your own company.”

Growing up in rural Montana, where people out of necessity were independent and adaptive, was formative, Sherry thinks. “It was an area that had been homesteaded, and each person learned how to fix and take care of things.

You really came to think about a problem and how to solve it. If anything, that is one of the things remodelers do really well.”

Solving unique problems is only one aspect of remodeling, however. Systemization also is important, Sherry contends. “In remodeling we are always seeing something that needs a creative solution, so each job is not a repeat process. By contrast, I have learned much of what we do in the office is a repeat process. The more we can systematize our paperwork and the steps we go through, the smoother the process is,” she explains.

“The three of us—my husband, my son Joe and I —are all capable of managing any part of the business so we can cover for one another.” Sherry adds. Sherry’s son Joe joined the company in 2001 after receiving his degree in business administration.

“Like most companies,” she continues, “we have streamlined and shifted job responsibilities in response to the economic market. We use a systematized process to handle a job from the first phone contact to final payment and closure of the file.”

“We started as a sole proprietorship; not many small companies were incorporated at that time,” Sherry recounts. “We later incorporated as we did more commercial tenant improvements. The initials stand for Homes, Construction, Service relating to our residential services.” Today, the company offers residential remodeling, commercial tenant improvement, property management and private handyman services, as well as custom building.

“We’ve stayed busy during the economic downturn because of our diversification,” Sherry says. “During the ‘boom’ times when many companies only wanted to pursue large-scale remodels, we chose to keep what we call our ‘bread and butter’ work, the smaller projects, in addition to doing larger remodels. Smaller projects, many closer to handyman-type jobs, kept us busy in the past through what were often slow months for other remodelers.”

As HCS Construction Services became more involved in remodeling, Sherry developed a tagline: Making Homes Better. “As remodelers, we improve homes and buildings,” she says. “Our work helps people improve their lifestyle. Remodelers are in the industry as remodelers because they care about people. Yes, they want and need to make money as in any business, but this is a service industry.

“As a group, remodelers care about their clients, other remodelers, their neighbors,” she continues. “Across the country remodelers donate materials and services to people in need by building ramps; fixing unsafe conditions in homes; and working with other groups, such as Habitat for Humanity and Rebuilding Together.”

Building Relationships

If the Seattle windstorm more than 30 years ago was a propitious event for HCS Construction Services, so was the day Sherry joined the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties. She was first attracted by the health insurance the association offered. “It’s amazing today to look back and see the tremendous positive impact that one decision had on our business,” she comments.

Like the relationships HCS Construction Services has developed with its trade partners, the relationships Sherry has formed through involvement in local and national association activities are an integral part of her professional life.

Her involvement with MBA led to membership in the group’s Remodelers Council. “We were welcomed as friends to the Remodelers Council,” Sherry recounts. “I’m often asked how we could be competitors and close friends.

We had respect for one another, and although it is never easy for a competitive person to lose a job, we all agreed it was better to lose to one another than to have the job potentially be done unprofessionally by someone else,” she says.

King and Snohomish counties are a large geographical area, Sherry explains, so members weren’t always directly competing. Today, the MBA Remodelers Council is the largest council in NAHB. Despite the growth, there is still a strong camaraderie, she observes.

“As remodelers, we shared techniques and even employees if there was a need,” she says. “Because HCS is known for its insurance work, we often get referrals from other MBA remodelers, and we have also helped other remodelers with referrals and advice.”

Remember the Alamo

Sherry attended her first NAHB meeting to receive her Certified Graduate Remodeler’s certificate. The meeting was in San Antonio, and she admits the chance to visit the Alamo initially held more attraction than the CGR ceremony itself. The decision to attend, she recalls, was another life-changing event.

“I was introduced to the meeting schedule, and I could see there was much more to learn from this network,” Sherry says.

Looking back at her national involvement, she says it enabled her and her husband to tweak their business systems and provided motivation to improve. Equally important were the relationships she developed. “Today, if I have a question on anything related to the industry, I can make a phone call to someone, somewhere across the country who probably has the experience or knowledge to answer my question. Remodelers are incredibly willing to share and give advice when asked,” she says.

She started attending national meetings as an alternate from her local and, before long, wanted to become more involved. Not knowing the system, she asked an officer how to volunteer.

Sherry’s introduction into committee work was with the NAHB Membership Committee, where she served seven years, sharing information with state and local membership committees. As a result, her local membership director asked her to start a member-retention program. As local membership chair, Sherry oversaw a five-year plan that made the MBA of King and Snohomish Counties the largest local in the NAHB with more than 3,000 members, a distinction it still holds today.

Her involvement has paid dividends. “On every committee and every board position on the local, state and national level I’ve been involved in, I’ve met outstanding people and I’ve learned from the experience. Those experiences continue to help HCS improve its business model,” she says.

For Sherry, involvement in NAHB, nationally and locally, was more than just taking advantage of educational opportunities. “I never had a goal to be on the number of committees I’ve been on. I’m rather amazed myself to see the total over time,” she says.

“People say they don’t have time to get involved,” she comments. “I think if you want to improve your business skills, you will be involved because these are the things that impact your profitability.”

For Sherry, it’s not a matter of having the time; it’s a matter of making and taking the time. “Volunteering is my personal way of contributing to the industry, but it also keeps me informed,” she says. “Additionally, through interaction, I am energized to think creatively about applications and changes we can make to improve HCS.”

Sherry hasn’t stopped volunteering. She recently stepped into the position of second vice president of MBA of King and Snohomish Counties, when the previous officer, John Bratton, CGR, CAPS, passed away.

Relationships—whether they are with clients, trade partners or industry peers—are a common thread in much of what Sherry has achieved and are high on her list of best practices. She explains: “I can’t say the success of our company or anything I’ve accomplished is due solely to one thing I’ve done. It’s based on relationships with so many people who have supported us and have been there to help us satisfy our clients and establish the reputation we have.”

Sherry Schwab, CGR, CAPS, Is Involved

Local
Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties

  • Second vice president
  • Board of directors
  • Finance Committee
  • Long Range Planning
  • Committee
  • Membership Committee, chair
  • Membership retention chair
  • MBA University board of directors, Marketing Committee
  • Mentor

  • Executive member
  • Home Tour committee
  • Seattle magazine Committee
  • Excellence Committee
  • Cadre chair

Building Industry of Washington

  • State representative
  • National director
  • Executive Committee
  • Board of directors
  • Membership Committee
  • Remodelers Council member, vice chair and chair

National

  • Executive Committee
  • Remodelers board of trustees
  • CAPS chair
  • CGR board
  • Remodelers Membership Committee
  • Education Committee
  • Membership Committee
  • Membership leadership conference
  • Board of directors
  • Gold Key
  • Spike 856
  • CGR and CAPS instructor

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