If you know Doug Sutton, you may have heard that before he took over the family home improvement business, putting it on a path for long-term success, and well before he worked his way through the ranks of local and state association offices, and before he served two terms as chairman of the NAHB Remodelers, that, early in his career, he was a bank examiner, far from home, in Oregon, Ill., where he successfully ran for mayor and defeated an incumbent by four votes.
The story goes that in 1970, Sutton and a friend decided they wanted to make a difference in their town, to improve its outlook. So, the two ran for office, Sutton for mayor and his friend for town commissioner. The campaign involved hard work. And Sutton says he rang just about every door bell in the town of 4,000 and, along the way, earned the endorsement of a popular local official.
At the end of the tightly contested race, the young Doug
Sutton called the defeated mayor, a local dentist who had served for 16 years in the post, and asked him if he would consider joining him at a conference of mayors in a show of unity that would help heal the post-election rift. When the two were photographed at the event, it made the front page of the local paper and Sutton was on his way to a successful term in office.
“At the time, I was just a young punk,” says Sutton.
“It was amazing. Opponents coming together — it was great. It was a great experience because I had to learn how to deal with people. We learned to do things in steps. You move to first base. You move to second, then third, then home. We did things in stages. And, most importantly, we had to think about how our actions would affect the community.”
Indeed, it was this type of leadership, combined with a knack for consensus building that would be the hallmark of Sutton’s career both in business as well as his work in the home builders association.
Learning home improvement
Those who know Doug Sutton may also know that long before he became a prolific educator at the state and national level, and before he earned the first of his many professional designations, he was new to the home improvement business and that, in searching out his own professional education, he eventually received much of his early training with Dave Yoho.
Armed with a degree in finance and 10 years’ experience in banking along with his political experience, Sutton returned to his hometown of Springfield, Ill., in 1973 to be the controller for a local law firm. Not long after, his parents Ed and Mayme Sutton, asked him to join the family home improvement business, Sutton Siding & Remodeling, Inc. At the time, the company was known as Sutton Roofing & Siding and nearly all of its work involved exterior jobs. To Sutton’s recollection, the firm, which was founded in 1946, billed $210,000 annually when he joined. Today it has revenues in the “$5 million to $7 million” range, says Sutton. And in 2009, a year in which virtually all remodeling and home improvement firms experienced lower revenues, Sutton Siding & Remodeling will grow by 2 percent.
Sutton had worked in the family business during high school and college. He drove a truck and delivered supplies to jobsites. At the same time he also marveled at the way his father Ed would go to a sales call and talk only about pheasant hunting and, yet, get the job. Upon returning to the business as a partner, Sutton’s goal was to learn the business as fast as he could, but in an industry that lacked professional education, the options were not as plentiful as he would have liked. It was then that Sutton accepted an opportunity from his siding supplier, Alsco Anaconda, to attend a training seminar titled “One-Day Closing” offered by Dave Yoho — who at the time was already a home improvement expert.
“These were the days of blue suede shoes and all of the high-pressure stuff, so I was a little worried about what I had gotten myself into,” says Sutton. “Eventually, the light went on and I thought, I better know what my competition is going to do out there. We never did telemarketing, and Yoho called us the lazy company. I have always enjoyed going to anything that David has done. I have a lot of his tapes. We don’t agree on everything, but he has a method in his system. So it has been a fun experience learning how to sell and getting the education. That is one of the reasons that I have been so involved with University of Housing.”
Beginning in 1990 and continuing to today, Sutton spends much of his time on the NAHB education circuit, teaching courses to potential Certified Graduate Remodelers, Certified Graduate Builders and more recently to candidates for the Certified Aging-in-Place designation.
“One of the greatest feelings to me is seeing young people coming up and helping them become successful,” says Sutton. “Going forward, I also think you are going to see more builders needing education about remodeling so they understand how to price and how to sell. They really don’t know the product lines like they should. A lot of them are going to get in trouble, but those that get education will become good members of the industry. The key is education.”
Creating a team
With a staff of about 40, Sutton Siding & Remodeling today is run day-to-day by his sons Doug Jr. and Michael. Each has been involved in the business for over 20 years. And Doug Sr. attributes much of his success in civic and industry affairs to his sons’ ability to run the business without him being there every day. Doug Jr. runs the sales and marketing, while Michael handles scheduling and production. Sutton’s management philosophy for the entire company stems in large part from some simple guidelines he and his sons use to guide their interactions with one another as owners of a family business. They treat each other with a great deal of respect and they are extremely loyal.
“It is a very difficult thing to operate in a business environment with family. It adds a different dimension. My father, when I came in to the business, said, ‘OK, it’s yours, do what you want with it.’ Part of the difficulty was that it was my folks’ retirement, so I had to be successful and I had to learn,” says Sutton. “With my two sons in the business, we have not had a disagreement. We discuss things the way they should be discussed. I don’t pull rank on them. I let them do their job. If there is a problem, we sit down and talk about it.”
According to Sutton, sons Doug Jr. and Michael learned the business from the ground up by working for one of the company’s longtime foremen who had originally worked for their grandparents. The foreman was on the job for 40 years with the company before retiring. And that length of tenure is not uncommon at Sutton Siding & Remodeling. Among the company’s employees, the average years with the company stand at eight. The longevity can be attributed to some very forward-thinking benefits that have been in place for many years. Employees receive a good healthcare package. Many of those who work in the field either receive a company truck or they receive a transportation reimbursement. Lastly, the firm has a long-standing profit sharing program in place.
A presence in the community
Like many remodeling firms that began primarily as exterior replacement specialists, Sutton Siding & Remodeling has been a strong marketer in print and on the air waves. Sutton’s messaging in the early days of telemarketing helped set it apart from its competitors. Their tagline was “You call us, we don’t call you.” Though that tagline has long since lapsed in favor of newer call-to-action and offer ads, Sutton says a week seldom goes by when he does not see someone on the street or in a restaurant say to Sutton: “Hey, you haven’t called me,” with a smile on their face.
Sutton is the first to admit that there are some tangible benefits to operating in a secondary market like Springfield, Ill. First, radio and television advertising is not cost-prohibitive. Secondly, nearly all leads that come in from radio and television ads are within the company’s self-imposed 45-mile service radius.
Radio, in particular, has played an important role in the company’s marketing efforts. Ads typically run Monday, Wednesday and Friday one week and on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday the next.
Recently, the company brought in an experienced, full-time marketing professional to manage the firm’s outreach and the results are already beginning to show. Not only does the firm survey its customers about their experience, the firm also makes a point to go back and survey the ones that got away. In batches of about 500 per quarter, the firm will send out survey cards to homeowners who did not buy from Sutton’s after an initial inquiry. As an inducement to get them to respond, the firm offers a $5 gift card from a local video store. About 25 percent of these surveys come back with responses and many have led to new work.
“Leads are very costly. And when you lose them, you need to know why,” says Sutton. “So the outlay of $2,500 or so is worth the investment. If we get a half a dozen of those who still have not made a decision, where does that put us? It puts us at the top. They know that we are concerned about earning their business.”
Another program that has worked well involves a partnership with one of their local TV affiliates. It is called “Sutton’s Big Thank You.” Each year the company seeks entries from the community about worthy candidates to receive one of two $5,000 home repair jobs from the company. Now 3 years old, the program includes a panel of independent judges from the community and has helped the firm boost its recognition in the community while giving back to deserving citizens. The ideal winner, says Sutton, is a person who worked their whole life honorably in the community and who could use some home improvement services. “We’ve had a retired school bus driver, and people like that win the award,” says Sutton.
“These are people who would never ask for help.” That is why one important criterion of the award program is that there are no self-nominations.
Looking ahead, Sutton says the company is on a path to grow about 10 percent annually over the next five years. The goal is to hit $10 million in revenue by 2014. One lesson that Sutton and his sons have taken to heart from years of education and years of networking in the industry is to plan their growth to avoid an unsustainable spike in business that is tough to manage.
“In this business you can be as big as you want as fast as you want. But in my estimation, when you grow too fast, you suffer in terms of profitability and you risk poor workmanship,” says Sutton.
Devotion to community, industry
At the recent National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) fall board of directors meetings in Chicago, Doug Sutton with the help of Tracy Butler, the executive officer of the Springfield Area Home Builders Association, pulled together a very profitable fund raiser for the association’s Bryan Patchen Scholarship Fund. The fund supports the continuing education efforts of people who are very involved in the industry at a local level. The event was a riverboat cruise run in conjunction with the Chicago Architecture Foundation. The event raised over $1,500 for the fund. In previous years, Sutton had organized similar fund raisers at other national events.
Beginning in 1976 all the way to the present day, Sutton has been a tireless worker, serving as a leader with the Better Business Bureau, with his local Optimists Club, at the state and local association level and within the NAHB University of Housing. Along the way, he has mentored dozens of people including Tracy Butler, who nominated him for this award.
“As executive officer it has been an amazing honor to work with and learn from a member like Doug Sutton,” Butler said in her nomination letter. “Doug has brought so many members together for great causes and successful events, and he continues to inspire everyone he comes in contact with. His presence in our local community is recognized daily by consumers that call upon his company and receive the satisfaction of having this professional give them peace of mind. We at the Springfield Area Home Builders Association are honored to share his many accomplishments for your consideration.”
Sutton sees success in similar terms. Legions of his current customers have connections to past customers. The company recently finished a job a little outside its normal service territory — 50 miles away — but it happened to be for a church where Sutton knew the pastor from 25 years ago when the pastor was serving at a different church in town.
“It became one of those jobs in the first quarter of this year that was helpful because we needed some work,” says Sutton. “I can remember that church mortgaging their building to provide funds for a church in Peoria, First English, which is where he ended up. That is what you strive for in this business, that you have that interaction. Here I remember him from 25 years ago. A good salesman remembers certain things. Name recognition is important. That is one of the things about being around a long time and building up a reputation for quality work.”
Fast Facts About Douglas L. Sutton, CGR, CAPS:
- Industry & Community Offices: Springfield Area HBA member since 1976, president 1982; president of HBA of Illinois, 1989, held all senior officer positions including budget, bylaws, education, nominating, industry crisis fund, insurance, legislation and long-range planning; NAHB national rep. for Illinois; NAHB Remodelers — trustee, vice chairman, chairman, leadership development chair, BuildPAC trustee, executive committee; president: Optimists Club, Habitat for Humanity IL, BBB of Central Ill., Rutledge Youth Foundation; mayor, Oregon, Ill.
- Previous Awards and Accolades: Man of the Year: Alsco/Atlantic Richfield Cos.; Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce Small Business of the Year; GSCC Community Involvement Award; Illinois House of Representatives Achievement Award; Illinois Governor’s Proclamation Award; NAHB 2006 Senior Life Director; NAHB National Representative of the Year; Chrysalis Awards.