Remodelers Advantage Profile

Bob Fleming

Owner/President/CEO Classic Remodeling & Construction, Inc.

Year company founded: 1989

Number of team members:  7 Office / 12 Field

Years at company: 24 Years

Years in remodeling: 33 Years

Industry involvement (memberships, including Remodelers Advantage; designations; certifications, etc.):  

LEED AP, CGR, CGP; Remodelers Advantage Roundtables; American College of the Building Arts (past board member)

Community involvement (if any):

In the past, I have helped with Operation Home and Habitat for Humanity.  The media always shows the living conditions in third-world countries, but it is heartbreaking to see how families in our own communities are living.  I have helped assess and improve some unbelievable living conditions.

When and why did you join Remodelers Advantage? What are the benefits of membership?

I have been with Remodelers Advantage roundtables for 22 years, since 1991.  Some might say I’m a slow leaner, but others might say that continual evolution takes commitment.  I find that my fellow RA members hold me accountable, so I am continually working on the company to make it a better place for myself, our employees and our clients.  In the beginning, there were huge changes that came out of the first few meetings.  My employees would say, “Oh my god, he’s been to another RA meeting – what now?”  Over time we have refined our systems so now I return from meetings with minor tweaks and adjustments.  I enjoy every meeting; seeing what my peers are doing and continually looking for better ways to run our business.  I think it was particularly helpful over the past few years as we survived the economic crisis.

Is the remodeling market primed for growth? Why or why not? 

There has been a pent-up demand by prospective clients who have been afraid to do anything with their homes over the past five years.  Being in the roundtables, I have seen varying rates of recovery over the past few years, all of which seem to be based on locality.  Some of our group members didn’t see much of a decline in work, some saw a moderate decline and some of us really took a big hit.  We are located in Charleston, SC, which was booming in 2007.  We saw an immediate 70% decline in business in 2008, with marginal recovery beginning in 2011 and slightly better numbers in 2012. We struggled for years to keep any form of backlog, and we are now focusing on how we can produce enough to keep up with this new demand.   We managed to keep a lot of our key people through the downturn, and we are now looking to add a few more key players.   But we want to make sure we remain as lean as possible.

How have clients’ expectations changed, and how have these changes affected your business?

With the internet and proliferation of smart-phones, our clients are more involved with product research.  We are often in meetings where one spouse pulls out a smart-phone to show us something they want in their project.  Sometimes this is helpful, and sometimes it takes extra effort to keep them focused.  We have found Houzz and Pinterest to be helpful in learning the client’s preferences.  On the other side, we find clients trying to buy their own products because they see the potential savings.  However, they sometimes buy the wrong product or fail to include all of the needed components.  When we point these deficiencies out to them, and then ask who will service their products they often realize that it wasn’t such a cost savings after all.  We now work harder to assure that all product purchases go through our preferred vendor channels to avoid such pitfalls.

What is the best advice you’ve received in your career?

Plan the Work, and Work the Plan.

What do you enjoy most about being a remodeler? Why?

What other line of work can you so uniquely transform your clients lives?  By the end of the project, we have become friends and family members.  And it is really gratifying to see them so excited about their new space.

As you were growing up, what did you want to be?

I always wanted to do exactly what I am doing right now.  Designing and building fun projects. I went to college to study architecture, but I quickly found that the architect didn’t necessarily know how to assemble the project, nor did he necessarily participate through the construction process.  So I finished my degree in Building Science, but have always been interested in design. The word Architect means “Master Builder” (Merriam-Webster: from Greek architekton master builder).  If you think back to the Egyptian pyramids (or the Greek temples, or the Roman baths, or European cathedrals), the architect designed the project and then stayed with it his entire life to make sure it was built the way he envisioned it.  Somehow we got away from that in the early 20th century.  Thankfully, the current Design-Build trend has reconnected the two.  So we work with our clients to help them achieve their vision through thoughtful design and carefully orchestrated construction.

Can you share a best practice or two that you’ll never abandon?

  1. Listen and engage with the clients.  Make it fun for them.
  2. Work through all the details before you start the project.
  3. Communicate with everyone continuously.
  4. Finish with as much enthusiasm as you started.

What’s an interesting little-known fact about you (examples: champion rope-jumper, climbed Mount Everest, saved someone’s life, etc)?

I asked my wife for an answer to this.  She says I am; Bob the Builder, Bob the Boater, Bob the Barbecuer, and Bob the Bartender (and she says the list is growing).

 

What has been the most important lesson learned from your peers at Remodelers Advantage?

I think we all enjoy learning and helping each other.  It’s always fun to visit another member’s place of business and learn how they operate.  It’s rewarding to know that I contribute to their growth, and to know that I can use some of their best practices for my own business.

 I have seen other company owners join at a time when they were in complete shambles.  We had one company owner (of a relatively small remodeling company) who joined that had rarely made much money over the years, and had lost over $200K the year previous to joining.  We grilled him pretty hard and gave him a lot of suggestions for recovery.  He took it all to heart, and by years end he had more than made up for the previous year’s loss.  He continued that trend for years, and was a role model for newer companies that joined our group.

 As to my own company, I am making significantly more than I ever dreamed possible when I first joined RA.

Where/what are the greatest opportunities in the remodeling market?

No one has been very successful with franchising and replicating what we all do.  Someone is going to find the answers to that challenge and they are going to be wildly successful.

What is the greatest threat to the success of a remodeler and/or remodeling business?

It’s too easy to see the new opportunities and not remain proactive in the event of another downturn.  How can we expand to fill the increased demand while still remaining as lean as possible?  How will we control costs as the economy recovers and vendor and trade partner pricing continues to increase?

How has the remodeler’s job changed in the past few years, for better or worse?

It has changed.  Not necessarily for better or worse - just different.

If you could change one thing about the remodeling industry, what would it be?

There are still so many companies out there that just don’t get it.  They are undercutting their competition with unrealistic prices, short-changing their employees and trade partners and leaving the client with sub-standard work.  So the client ends up feeling cheated and our industry gets a bad rap.  We interview our lost jobs from time to time and get the feedback that the other price wasn’t realistic, wasn’t all-inclusive (lots of change orders), didn’t include the quality they thought they were getting and didn’t include professional supervision.

As an example, we lost an extensive project a few years ago to the low-ball price.  We had spent a lot of time working with the client to design their “dream home”.    The project included an addition and extensive renovations to a cottage in the historic district.  The client wanted to stay in the $300K range, but continued to add to the scope of work until the final budget was at $525K.  They weren’t satisfied that our pricing was accurate, and found someone who was going to save them a lot of money by doing the work T&M (ha – how many times have we all heard this).  The other contractor said he could do the entire project for $200K less than us.  We had committed to complete the project within 6 months, to use great detailing with quality materials, and with systems in place to make the project meaningful and fun.  As it turned out, the other contractor turned into two contractors, they ended up spending $525K (our initial price), the project took two years (not 6 months), and the quality and workmanship was not what we had originally discusses.  They told us the entire process was very upsetting, and had they known (yes we told them this would happen) all this, they would have stayed with us.

 So my second thing to change in our business is client education.

What motivates you ever day?

We all have those few clients who make life difficult.  And then we have those few clients who become our company cheerleaders.  Those are the clients who continually show their appreciation for all that we do, and who make it fun to go to work every day.

What is your most treasured possession?

My wife, my family, my dog, my closest friends (in that order).

 

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