Evolving and Adapting with the Times

On a late June afternoon amidst one of the worst economic downturns in the country’s history, Mark Elia, CGR, CGP, of Mark of Excellence Remodeling in West Long Branch, N.J., brims with optimism. He is on his way back from three days of training with the Building Performance Institute to become a certified energy auditor. That same morning, much to Elia’s delight, the New Jersey Clean Energy program announced increased incentives to help homeowners pay for energy-performance retrofits.

For Elia, this was proof that embracing green remodeling, and energy efficiency in particular, had been a good move. The new certification would qualify him or any member of his team to conduct these assessments and make recommendations for upgrades in the state of New Jersey. Typically those recommendations include better windows, more insulation, high-efficiency furnaces and water heaters, as well as air sealing. The new incentives from the state, he said, would allow people to put in $20,000 worth of improvements for about $62 a month. “You can’t beat that,” says Elia. He speculates there is enough air sealing work alone to operate a separate division of his firm.
The transition to energy efficiency stands in contrast to his business as it existed only 18 months prior. Back then, Mark of Excellence, like a lot of remodeling companies, was still experiencing a high level of activity related to bigger projects. His average ticket was about $80,000. Today it stands at $50,000.

Elia has had to impose some tough changes to his full-service remodeling firm. The company has a staff of seven, including himself, down from 13 last year. Lacking a receptionist, inbound phone calls are now routed directly to mobile phones. “It’s one of the sacrifices that we’ve had to make, but every call gets a live voice,” says Elia, who started his company 22 years ago as a windows, roofing and siding business and gradually expanded into design/build projects and a true, full-service offering.

Today, the company is operating with a six-week backlog, and Elia is seeing an uptick in inquiries. Earlier this year, the picture was murkier. To keep bigger jobs coming in, Mark of Excellence kept its marketing budget fully intact, but it also selectively trimmed its gross margins to lock up quality projects. In some cases this meant allowing customers to buy their cabinets directly from his source.

“They know we are the best company for the job,” says Elia. “They like our process. But people are looking for deals. It is a buyers’ market. So we are passing any discounts we get from that vendor onto our clients.”

The company has also expanded its service territory to portions of two neighboring counties in order to act on leads it was generating from local home shows. “In this market, we treat every lead like gold.”

Despite these recent changes, Elia has remained consistent in a number of important ways. Each year the company has held a day-long yard sale of remodeling products from local vendors. In 2008, the event raised funds for Habitat for Humanity. This year the local anti-cruelty society received the proceeds. In addition, Elia is very active in his local NAHB Remodelers organization and serves on the national Business Associates committee of the NAHBR.

Most significantly, Elia drives an unusually intense focus on quality and timeliness in its execution of remodeling projects. To whit, the company backs up its job schedules with a $500 per day on-time guarantee. In two and a half years of offering the guarantee, the company has only had to write one check.

“From the get-go, we have always prided ourselves on being different, and one of the hot buttons with clients was that contractors and remodelers never finish on time,” says Elia. “We started that program with a $100 per day penalty. I later concluded it was not enough money to give clients real assurance. That is when we came up with $500 per day, which we display prominently on our Web page.”

Elia says the impact of the unique, on-time guarantee has been difficult to measure. The company generates about 80 percent of its business from referrals, but the reasons for the referrals tend to be wrapped up in many of the things the company does well for its clients, including overall quality of the finished project. The company knows this because it conducts post-project customer satisfaction surveys through a third-party firm, GuildQuality.

“We live and die by the schedule,” says Elia. “We want to give our clients that level of comfort. We present the schedule in writing. I am, however, still grappling with how to get our guys to finish ahead of time, but it’s a fine line. I don’t want them to rush anything.”

Fast Facts About Mark T. Elia

  • Company name: Mark of Excellence Remodeling
  • Location: West Long Branch, N.J.
  • Years in business: 22
  • Web site: www.markofexcellence.com
  • Industry involvement: Shore Builders Association of Central New Jersey Remodelers
  • Professional designations: CGR, CGP