Small But Mighty

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.

The path he chose is not one frequently championed by other top remodelers. Eschewing growth in favor of consistency and professionalism, Bell sought tight control of a small but profitable enterprise operating in a small geographical portion of the Duluth market. Today, there are, no doubt, thousands of remodelers who would envy not only Bell's reputation and standing in the market he serves, but also his bottom line. Over the past three years, Bell's Remodeling billed less than $500,000 annually but has usually stayed at or near a gross profit target of 40 percent. He does this while continuing to spend six weeks of the year on the road doing association and industry work.

A full-service remodeler whose only advertising comes in the occasional edition of a local luxury homes magazine, Bell manages to keep his job pipeline filled with a range of work from handyman on up to room additions priced around $150,000. The key, he says, has been his good fortune through the hire of two full-time craftsmen who have been with him for 11 years. He's also built a solid relationship with a local plumbing contractor and a local electrical contractor.

The loyalty from his workers Randy Gray and Erik Altonen stems directly from a winning combination of fairness, good pay, good benefits and a low-stress environment.

"I treat people as I would like to be treated. I remember struggling as a young family man and nobody really gave a rip," says Bell. "I am not a hard driver type. We talk for a half hour in the morning about what is going on. They go and they work and they don't abuse their breaks and they don't abuse their lunch. If they ask for time off, I give it to them. And I try to provide an easy-going environment, and if we make a mistake, we make a mistake. It is not the end of the world."

Systems and Processes

Bob Bell estimates that 90 percent of his jobs are conducted within five minutes of his home and office. Each morning, Gray and Altonen meet with Bell before driving together to head out to the job. Sweatshirts, T-shirts and ball caps embroidered with the Bell's Remodeling logo serve as a uniform for the crew. The professionally lettered truck also projects a positive name and image for the firm. Once on the job, the team takes pains to be polite and courteous. There is no loud music or foul language. The team has worked together too long to make those mistakes. They also make an effort to keep the jobsite clean each day.

A post-project customer evaluation form, provides the team feedback, and the cleanliness, attire and professionalism seem to pay off.

"We were extremely thrilled and honored to work with such a great bunch of guys," says one of Bell's customers in an evaluation form. "We were extremely impressed with the timeliness and quality of work."

Part of what makes Bell's customers so happy goes back to a commitment Bell makes to do one job at a time. Once the company starts a job, they stay on the job everyday until the work is completed.

"I don't think I have ever given a customer a certain date when we are going to start or when we are going to finish," says Bell. "What I tell the customer when we sign the contract, is that I can usually hit within a day or two, maybe a week, maybe two weeks.

"When we get on a project, we always get the 'as long as you are here' requests. There is no way I can schedule for that. And if I scheduled for that, I would be wrong. I keep them informed, but once I start, I will be there everyday until it is done. One of the reasons I stayed small is because I don't want to be running from place to place to put out fires. Customers know that we will be there everyday until their project is done."

At the beginning of each job, the customer gets a sheet that explains the remodeling process in detail. They also get a well conceived contract with a very specific scope of work that is clearly tailored to the individual job. There is very little boilerplate copy from other contracts. Clear, consistent and quality-oriented, Bell's remodeling is the cream of the crop in its Duluth service area.

"People will say we are damned expensive, but we are very good," says Bell.