Building Momentum

The criteria for being selected NAHBR Remodeler of the Year are daunting, particularly so, for a relative newcomer to the remodeling business. And that is by design. The Remodeler of the Year application awards points for years in business and number of local, state and national committees on which the applicant has served and chaired. It tallies the number of industry-specific professional designations that the applicant has earned. It gives points for business excellence and community involvement. From there, the recipient must stand out from a crowd of other worthy remodelers in the eyes of the judges who are all tenured and successful industry veterans. That is why none of the past recipients of this award have been in business less than 20 years. In most cases, it simply takes that long to — using baseball terminology — touch all the bases and head for home plate

But Jeff Hunt is no run-of-the-mill Remodeler of the Year. Incorporating his business in January 2003, Hunt and his team at Heritage Construction Services, a full-service design/build firm, have been running flat out ever since. And in the span of slightly more than five years, he has overseen not only the growth of an impressive roster of clients and a profitable business, but he has also been perhaps the most involved and energetic member of the Greater Houston Builders Association.

The story goes that, one month after launching his business, Hunt literally walked into the office of the builders association and asked if they had classes where he could learn more about the remodeling business. When he found out that they had the kind of classes he needed, he asked to join the association. The administrator was surprised to find out that he had not been sent, referred or sponsored by another member. “I said, ‘I don’t have a sponsor; can I still join?’ ” Hunt recalls. “They had not seen a guy like me.

“Most people get their business going, then they get active in the association when they have had some success. I was the opposite,” says Hunt. “I got involved before I even had a business. I was still working out of the house, and I had a little rented storage building. I had some tools and some carpenters, but I was active in the GHBA very early on. And that takes a lot of time. There is a lot of time committed each and every week. But I always tell people that I’ve gotten so much more out of it than I have put into it in terms of the relationships and the specific knowledge and the wisdom of all the people who have been doing what I do longer and better.”

Hunt’s early mentors and friends in the association include Dan Bawden of Legal Eagle Contractors, and Michael Strong of Brothers Strong, on a local level. And by attending and chairing national committee meetings, Hunt soon got to know and learn from national leaders like Mike Weiss, Alan Hanbury Jr., Bill Owens and Vince Butler. “Their attitude was: ‘Hell, I’ll help you. What do you need to know?’ ” Hunt says. “That is the thing about remodelers. Everybody is entrepreneurial yet willing to bend over backward to help.”

In recommending Hunt for this award, Kathryn “Toy” Wood, executive vice president and CEO of the Greater Houston Builders Association, cited Hunt’s willingness to fully participate in the activities of the association and as well as to help others. “There is no need to repeat Jeff’s many achievements over the last few years, but few members have become so involved so fast. I watched as the trainee became the trainer extraordinaire, and the team player — who he still is — become the leader.”

Consultant to Entrepreneur

By the time Hunt and his wife Carrie were building a new home for their family in 2002, Hunt had spent three years with Andersen Consulting and 10 more as an outside consultant, running large projects to create software for some of the nation’s largest and most respected companies. Prior to that, Hunt’s first job after graduating from Texas A&M University was as an estimator and construction manager, helping build hospitals and airports as a member of the nation’s 65th largest commercial contracting firm, Robert E. McKee.

The combined effect of the recession following 9/11 and the Enron scandal dampened the project flow at Andersen Consulting’s Houston office. So, with extra time on his hands, Hunt gravitated to his family’s jobsite, getting to know the project manager and the various tradesmen working on his house. It got him thinking about making a break into a new line of work as a residential general contractor, work he knew well. He had grown up in the home building business. And as a youth he spent summers learning the ropes from his father Jim, who was home builder. Those days around the jobsite rekindled Hunt’s interest in the business.

“At Andersen, you build things. You build information systems. You build software programs and technology, but it is so nebulous you can’t really reach out and touch it,” Hunt says. “When you put your hand to something — I don’t care if you swing the hammer, or you do the estimate, or you sign the contract — if you were directly involved in the physical construction of a building, there is a real, primal type of innate gratification of seeing something tangible come into existence. I’ve always been oriented that way and I think that a lot of people in this business feel the same way.”

So in December of 2002, at the urging of his wife who’d “never seen him happier,” Hunt sent out a simple marketing letter to 100 of his friends and business associates, telling them about his new remodeling venture and asking for referrals. He landed two jobs. The first was a patio cover. The second was a $15,000 siding job. Building upon these first jobs, Hunt quickly notched his way up into bigger projects. Armed with a construction management degree as well as an MBA (which he earned before joining Andersen Consulting), Hunt felt emboldened to keep asking for bigger jobs. Along the way, he heeded the advice of fellow Houston remodeler Michael Strong, and took lots of before-and-after photographs. Methodically, Hunt built a photographically documented remodeling business track record that included most types of remodeling projects — from bathrooms and kitchens to room additions and whole-house remodels. In 2004, he even built a custom home.

“They already had plans drawn up. He was looking for a builder, so I built a $450,000 house. I did not make the money that I wanted to make. But guess what I had? I had photographs. And I had a happy customer. So I’ve always been about that. Get the job, build it right, take lots of good pictures and market the hell out of it.”

Heritage Construction Services made a significant leap forward in 2005, when Hunt partnered with a local remodeler, Tom Pellegrin, who also brought in two carpenters from his previous business. This was a very complementary partnership. Pellegrin is a detail-oriented person, a very exacting administrator and job supervisor. Better with the big-picture, Hunt runs accounting, general administration, marketing and selling.

“Tom had two guys with him when he and I joined forces in November 2005. So it was a very pivotal move. Tom and I are very much opposites in personality and temperament. And that is good. We complement each other in many ways.”

The final team member to join Heritage Construction Services was Randall Self. Hunt hired him in March. Like Pellegrin, he is a project manager with a lot of experience.

“Tom and I knew Randall, because he also had owned a remodeling business. At the time he was working for a custom home builder as a Houston-area manager. He had grown tired of home building and wanted to get back to remodeling for the different challenges.” As of yet the company does not have an office manager or a bookkeeper. Those are hats that Hunt still wears.

Hunt’s 10 Best Practices

Loyalty: Hunt prides himself on being very loyal to trade contractors and employees. But loyalty is something to be earned. Suppliers and trade partners need to demonstrate a can-do attitude and must look out for the interests of Heritage. In return: “We respect them; we treat them as experts and we ask their advice. And we pay on time, and early every time we can.” The result pays dividends when warranty calls get quickly expedited. It also helps Heritage get timely and accurate estimates back on proposed projects.

Market, market, market. Hunt’s business-school training and innate sense of how to spread a positive image of his company is perhaps the single most important factor in the growth of his company. He documents his work with photography. Heritage populates his Web site with these photos and writes up project summaries so Web visitors can get a broad sense of the company’s abilities. “When we won a Star Award for Best Kitchen this year, there was a professionally shot photograph of that award on our Web site in 36 hours,” notes Hunt. “You have to celebrate and broadcast every single good thing that you can.”

In addition to celebrating the company’s wins, Heritage is also involved in local home shows, magazine and internet advertising. Hunt writes numerous articles for the Houston Chronicle. He is a substitute on a Saturday morning home improvement radio show.

“We always have our antenna up, where can we find things to brag about what we do.”

Discipline. Hunt’s success is also a testament to the benefits of hard work. He is not apologetic about out-working all of his competitors. It’s been his way of operating going back to his days as an MBA student at Texas A&M, where he took 16 credit hours per semester and drove 85-miles each way every day to get to classes, all while working 20 hours a week part time. “I never entered remodeling thinking that this was going to be a 40-hour work week. I don’t bat an eye at working a 70-hour week. I can put this aside, that aside, I’ll take a vacation later. If there is something going on, I’ll stay here and work an18-hour day. I don’t like doing it. But if something comes up and things need to be done, you can’t be afraid to work your ever-loving behind off.”

Fairness. Remodeling is full of contrary points of view, says Hunt. In terms of developing a good reputation and enhancing long-term customer satisfaction, Heritage is vigilant about being fair in all of its dealings. “We treat people fairly and we expect to be treated fairly in return. It is not always easy. People will treat you and make unreasonable demands on things. Sometimes you are thinking long-term, what is the right thing to do and it is not all about dollars and cents here. You have to be able to say: ‘We did that wrong, we are going to fix that. You don’t worry about that.’ ”

Use systems and processes. Heritage Construction is very systematized. Hunt is not be able to operate any other way and it gives the company and its team members a clear track to run on. “It could be the way that you prepare your financials and your job-cost reports. It could be in the way that you develop templates for your proposals. It could be in the way that you develop your sales process and how you sell. Good systems and processes have enabled us to grow and handle the volume that we’ve had without the benefit of a bookkeeper or an office manager, or an estimator.”

Heritage uses Salesforce.com to track all of its inbound calls and to keep notes on all prospects and clients. After the first meeting with a client, photographs, field notes and conversation notes all get filed on the computer.
Develop a sweet spot: By doing post-mortems on jobs, measuring the profitability and the tightness of estimates and execution, Heritage Construction is in a good position to know the types of projects where they make the most money. Though Hunt would prefer doing the bigger more challenging whole-house projects and kitchens, the company tends to be more profitable with bathroom jobs and room additions. This is their sweet spot, and they concentrate on putting more of those jobs in their pipeline. “We know what we do. We do room additions and kitchens and baths.”

Know what you don’t want to do. Heritage Construction is now in a place where it has clear limits on the type of work the company will engage in. For example, the company does not do replacement windows, roofing, siding, gutters, etc. In fact, they tend not to look at any jobs under $20,000 because they have less chance to do them profitably. And because Houston is very spread out, the company has drawn a 20 mile radius for a service area. “You need to have limits.”

Measure results. All leads that flow into Heritage Construction get analyzed at some point. Where did they come from? What type of job did they lead to? How profitable was the job? And so forth. “So when I say measure your results and know where they come from,” says Hunt. “I also know which advertising sources are paying off. You pay for them in terms of numbers of exposures or pairs of eyeballs, however you measure it. And then how do they perform as jobs? Which ones are the payoffs? What is your cost per lead? What is your cost per sale? We also measure profitability. We look at the P/L. This is a job-cost thing. We use a matrix to chop it up and to determine our sweet spot.”

Spend time on the business. Swinging hammers, estimating and selling are all activities that can be characterized as working in your business. Working on your business is a step back, developing strategy, writing job descriptions, charting a course. Hunt feels that he needs to clear his schedule to spend at least 20 percent of his week working on his business. “You have to spend time on the business thinking strategically about it. You need to think about who you have working for you and with you, what suppliers you are using, which jobs you are going to go after etc. I’ve heard it said that if you don’t spend time on your business, you just have a job.”

Plug into your association. Hunt is a firm believer that without his work at the local and national levels of the association, he would not be in the position that he is in today, at the helm of a growing remodeling firm, with a lot of momentum. “Being active in my association inspired me to be around the guys here in Houston. They are real pace-setters and they have businesses that are good models for me. Yes, being part of the industry is about giving back to your industry and being a good steward but there is a selfish motive in there. I do it because I get way more back than I put into it.”

Fast Facts About Jeff Hunt, CGR, GmB, CAPS, CGP

  • Company: Heritage Construction Service
  • Location: Houston, Texas
  • Founded: January 2003
  • No. of team members: five (including Hunt)
  • Revenue: Expected 2008 revenue $1.75 million; 2007 revenue $923,000; 2006 revenue $805,000; 2005 revenue $547,000; 2004 revenue $766,000; 2003 revenue $350,000.
  • Local and state industry involvement:
    • Chair, NAHB Designations Subcommittee, 2005
    • Chair, Education Committee, 2006
    • Remodelers Council Board of Directors, 2004 to Present
    • Vice President , Remodelers Council, 2007
    • President, Remodelers Council, 2008
    • State Remodelers Council Start-up Task Force, 2008
    • State Director, 2008
    • National Director, 2006 to Present
    • GHBA Board of Directors, 2008
  • In addition to the positions above, each year Hunt teaches a portion of the CSP designation course pro bono at the GHBA and also speaks four times per year at GHBA new member orientation meetings. He is also heavily involved in two to three charity projects for the GHBA each year, including a Habitat for Humanity house built by the council, and recently, a $100,000 remodel for a local foster parent. He also routinely speaks at local home shows on behalf of the Remodelers Council and contributes articles to the Houston Chronicle on remodeling as a means of promoting the Remodelers Council.
  • National industry involvement:
    • University of Housing, Instructor Review Committee, 2007 to present
    • University of Housing, Master Instructor Review Committee, 2007 to present
    • University of Housing Instructor, 2006 to present
    • Subject Matter Expert, Basics of Building course, 2007
    • Subject Matter Expert, Taking the Guesswork Out of Scheduling, 2007
    • PREP Revision Committee, 2007 to present
    • Vice chair, CGR Board of Governors, 2008

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