Early this year, on a frigid Duluth, Minn. winter evening, Bob Bell got up on an ice-covered rooftop to replace some shingles. It was a last-minute job, pro bono, to aid a family of five children whose parents were in the hospital after a car accident. In the ensuing weeks, Bell rallied other local builders and remodelers and coordinated further needed repairs and improvements to the home. For this effort, Bell was honored by the City of Duluth with a Volunteer of the Month Award.
But this is not unusual for Bell. Friends and colleagues from around his local community and the larger remodeling industry say Bell is the kind of guy who is always there taking on the tough jobs and quietly getting them done.
During the early 1990s, Bell spearheaded a state legislative effort to improve Minnesota's contractors licensing program, adding provisions to toughen education requirements. For several years in a row, Bell drove from Duluth to Minneapolis once a week to pursue passage and enactment of the law. Later, he traveled to all corners of the state informing local builders and remodelers about the impact and benefits of the licensing changes.
At the Remodelors Council on the national level, Bell successfully pushed for organizational changes that led to a program to continually update and improve the association's education program. Later he and a group of remodelers and builders took on the thankless and tedious task of rewriting and updating the Residential Construction Performance Guidelines, a process that took years. The tome is now the top-selling title within the NAHB's Builder Books division. Some 30,000 have been sold to date. But these efforts and accomplishments only begin to list Bell's contributions to the remodeling industry. And to Bell, the time and energy spent away from his business never failed to pay him back in terms of business knowledge and valuable personal and professional contacts.
"There is no doubt in my mind that I have been paid back richly through my involvement with the association and community," says Bell. "The people you meet become a source book so-to-speak. If you have an issue that you don't quite know how to deal with, you have a person you can contact. Most people are willing to share. There are no trade secrets in our business. You nail a wall together the same way. The difference is how you run your business and how efficient you are. So you meet people who are not threatened by you being in business and not afraid to talk to you. And that is part of the valuable lesson and the experience that you get. I don't think that I would be where I am today, not that I am anyplace huge, without my involvement in the local, state and national association. The little things that you pick up here and there make you more aware of your business."
Building a Business
Bell began his remodeling career doing summer jobs for clients while he was still teaching high school in the Twin Cities during the early and mid-'80s. By 1987, he had made up his mind to move back to his hometown of Duluth to launch a remodeling company full time. An industrial arts instructor well versed in all of the primary construction skills, Bell was not worried about the technical requirements of the remodeling business. It was the business side of things that had him concerned. Involving himself with the association and attending education seminars offered by such industry consulting luminaries as Walt Stoeppelwerth and Linda Case, opened Bell's eyes to the true costs of doing business and choosing appropriate markups, he says.
"When Walt told us that we needed a 50 percent markup," says Bell, "I was very surprised. At that stage, I did not know that I'd be going out of business with only a 20 percent markup."
Linda Case's advice was also critically important to Bell. Early on, Bell says he was overly concerned with the way many local contractors would win business away by low-balling prices. Case said Bell should not try to compete at the price game; rather she told him to differentiate. The advice helped Bell begin to look at all of the options available to him as a remodeler and to pick a path that best suited his goals.