He Gets What He Gives

Nobody has ever accused Michael Nagel, CGR, CAPS, partner of MAW Chicago LLC, Palatine, Ill., of being shy. “Alan Hanbury once told me to never pass up an opportunity to stand and speak to a group of my peers,” Nagel says. (Hanbury, CGR, CAPS, House of Hanbury Builders Inc., Newington, Conn., also is very active in the industry.) Hanbury’s advice has served Nagel well in his construction career, including in his many roles with the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Home Builders. Because of his NAHB involvement, superior business management skills and outstanding contributions to the remodeling industry, Nagel has been named the 2011 NAHB Remodeler of the Year.

 

“People always ask me ‘Why do you spend all this time, money and resources to go out and do what you do for the association on all levels?’ First of all, it’s who I am. I’m a firm believer in giving back to this industry. It put my kids through school, food on my table and a roof over my head. I believe no matter what you do for a living, you should give back. And it makes me feel good. It’s that simple.”

 

Nagel finds the same level of satisfaction from his day job, saying, “I just flat out love what I do.” He credits some of that love to each day being a different experience and to construction being in his blood. “My dad was a cement finisher on his knees into his 70s. He was a hard-working guy. He taught me a good work ethic, and I really thank him for that.”

 

A Varied Career

Nagel grew up in Chicago’s western suburbs playing with erector sets and working for his father. He graduated from Texas A&M University, College Station, with a degree in civil engineering. As he began interviewing for civil-engineering jobs, he realized he didn’t want to be “low man on the totem pole.” Instead, he got a job for a home builder in New Jersey, building about 120 homes, 3,500 to 4,500 square feet in size, during his nine years with the firm. His boss led him into association involvement.

 

“The home builder I worked for was as involved with NAHB as you can be without being a senior officer,” Nagel remembers. “He got me involved at a local level, and I went to my first International Builders Show in 1973. I’ve missed only three since. I had a good role model from that standpoint.”

 

When the home builder decided to close his business, Nagel became a design engineer for another New Jersey company that did roof and floor truss systems and multifamily panelization. “I worked there two years, but I got tired of being inside, so I got an offer from another guy to build commercial buildings,” he recalls. Nagel then built Midas Muffler Shops along New Jersey’s coast. Eventually that contractor purchased 13 3-acre lots on a mountain, allowing Nagel to again build grandiose homes.

 

Nagel and his wife, Vern, opted to return to their Illinois roots in 1985 at which time Nagel established his own business, Remodel One Inc. He joined the Home Builders Association of Greater Chicago (HBAGC) in 1986, and in 1987 he took on a partner, an arrangement that lasted almost 20 years. “We remain friends; we were just going in different directions,” Nagel explains.

 

In Illinois, Nagel ramped up his industry service by becoming HBAGC’s first Remodelers Council chair in 1992 after bringing approximately 150 remodelers into the association when the local Professional Remodelers Association disbanded. He since has been local Remodelers Council chair twice more. “I got involved on a national level in 1991 and, as they say, the rest is history,” he chuckles. (See “Nagel’s Involvement,” page xx.)

 

By 2007, Nagel was NAHBR national chair, spending about one-third of the year traveling for the association, a year he says was a life-changing experience. That same year, he was approached to build a home for a family that had two children with cerebral palsy. It was a $1 million job, and Nagel needed help to complete the project. “First, I hadn’t built a home in 21 years. I was OK with the production side of it but not the bidding side,” Nagel recalls. “I knew Scott [Sevon] through the Home Builders Association. He had built many large homes, and we were already good friends. I offered to go 50-50 on the project. He ran that job while I was traveling for the council.”

 

After the home was completed in late 2007, Belgravia Properties, Chicago, approached Nagel and Sevon to start a remodeling division known as Belgravia Plus. The developer asked Nagel and Sevon to create a holding company so the two organizations could form the remodeling business as partners. Nagel and Sevon named the holding company MAW Chicago LLC (MAW stands for Men At Work).

 

Belgravia Plus operated for 14 months before Belgravia Properties’ leaders decided they no longer wanted to be in the remodeling business. Nagel and Sevon acquired the developer’s shares and decided to continue the partnership with each other, operating under the name MAW Chicago.

 

Adapting to Change

As Nagel settled into his partnership with Sevon, the economy began to dictate the type of work they did. For example, Nagel says the bulk of their jobs the past two years have been commercial. “I used to survive on kitchens, but we’ve done one kitchen in the last three years. Right now our jobs are dictated by the economy and not by desire. We’re doing a lot of things we normally wouldn’t have gotten involved in, but on the flip side, we’ve gotten involved in some projects we liked and probably would do again.”

 

Despite the drastic change in work, Nagel and Sevon are not willing to sacrifice margins. “We did pretty well last year; our margins were in the very healthy range, which is spectacular in Chicago, one of the three worst markets in the country, according to NAHB Economist Dr. David Crowe. Our volume was just under $1.12 million but will probably be in the $850,000 range this year. It’s a really slow year for us.”

 

Nagel and Sevon do the sales for their six-employee company and handle individual jobs based on workload. “Sometimes we’ll look at projects together, which makes it easier to sound off ideas once we get to the point where we’re putting together the final numbers,” Nagel says. Reviewing bid packages together ensures nothing is overlooked, and the margins they set are appropriate.

 

Nagel and Sevon’s partnership is well-matched. Nagel admits to not wanting to handle the business’s finances, but Sevon enjoys that part. “My favorite thing to do is problem solve,” Nagel declares. “If we get into a situation where we have to design something to make the project work—when you can’t just buy the solution off the shelf—that’s where I excel.”  

 

In addition to complementing each other’s strengths, the partners wholeheartedly agree on certain ways to do business. For example, Nagel says they respond to their clients’ questions or concerns immediately. “If a client calls you with a complaint or something he thinks is an issue, never put that on the back burner. Complaints and callbacks have to be handled immediately,” he insists.

 

The partners also are adamant about completing jobs as quickly as possible. “We do this for two reasons: It keeps the clients happy, and the less time we spend on a job the higher our margin will be,” Nagel notes. “If a project is supposed to take two weeks and it takes three, somebody is making another five trips out to that job, which results in a loss of money.”

 

Remodeling’s Future

Although Nagel believes the remodeling industry’s image is getting better, he thinks there is progress to be made. “I think the word remodel has a really bad connotation,” he says. “I think we need to go out and prove remodelers are really good at what they do and they care about the end product and people they’re working for.”

 

Nagel says remodelers should be educated about laws and regulations that affect them and they should support advocacy on all levels, no matter how difficult the battle seems. “The government in this state is screwed up, but we had a major coup last year with the storm-chaser law. Evelyn Yowell [CGR, CAPS, J.J. Swartz & Co., Bloomington, Ill.] and I were instrumental in getting this bill passed. It helps prevent contractors from duping people during catastrophic situations—tornadoes, hailstorms, flooding.”

 

Nagel has spoken to senators and representatives individually and testified at a Senate hearing because he insists remodelers must be vocal about their viewpoints. “I am a firm believer that one person can make a difference,” he says. “You’ll never tell me anything else because I can think of two or three specific times when my voice was heard and it made a difference in the outcome of something. It’s easy to sit home and complain to your friends and nothing happens. Stick your neck out. Tell the people who have a possibility of making changes how you feel.”

 

Making the time to give back to his industry and fight its battles ultimately comes back to help Nagel and his business. He explains: “You have to prioritize in life. There’s 24 hours in everybody’s day. Scott and I are firm believers that you get back what you put in. There are so many things we’ve gotten out of NAHB that have helped us along the way—the networking, seminars and education, exposure to others who are successful. I’ve been given a lot of opportunities because of NAHB, so I give back. It makes me feel good. It’s how I’m made.”

Remodeler of the Year Web Exclusives

The following Web exclusives are available at:

A Day with Michael Nagel, CGR, CAPS (video)
Interview with Michael Nagel, CGR, CAPS, and Scott Sevon, CGR, CAPS, GMB, CGP, GMR, partners, MAW Chicago LLC, Palatine, Ill. (video)
MAW Chicago Project: Carmichael's Steak House (time-lapse video)

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