Photo credit: Greg Forehand
Tim Swafford, CAPS, CGR, CGP, CGB, has seen a lot of change in the remodeling industry since getting his start in 1985. Economic booms and busts, a changing workforce and evolving client expectations have helped mold him into the remodeler he is today. Swafford, who started his business working out of his garage, has trekked each mountain and valley with grace and precision, constantly figuring out how to best fit into his environment. In addition to his notable work as owner of Chattanooga, Tenn.-based Swafford Construction, he finds time to give back to his community. Today, he is honored with the 2013 NAHB Remodeler of the Year award.
As a high schooler, Swafford worked with a contractor part time before studying to be an architect at a local community college. After completing a two-year associate’s program, however, he opted to work full time with a contractor and forego further college.
One thing led to another, and he eventually started doing jobs on his own. “When I first started in the business, I did mostly painting and wallpapering,” Swafford recalls. After five years, Swafford started getting requests for minor remodeling jobs and, as his projects grew in size, he obtained his contractor’s license to launch his career in remodeling.
“Nothing is guaranteed,” Swafford says. “You don’t know if you’re going to make $100 or $10,000 this month.” To guard against uncertainty, Swafford is set up to accommodate both small and large jobs. “We don’t have to do $100,000 to $200,000 jobs all the time; we can do a $5,000 project,” he says. Swafford also has increased his company’s versatility. For example, he has executed many energy upgrades in the past few years.
Universal design also is booming. “A lot of customers want to stay in their homes as long as they can,” Swafford observes. “Especially in the boomer generation, people are really wanting to make their homes suitable as they age.” Swafford has taken steps to further educate himself in universal design by earning the Certified Aging in Place designation from NAHB. He also holds Certified Graduate Remodeler, Certified Graduate Builder and Certified Green Professional certifications.
“That’s why I became involved in NAHB — for the education,” he says. “I knew how to do the work, but I didn’t know how to run a business. You’re never too old to learn, and I never claim to know everything. In my area, there aren’t a lot of designation holders, and I wanted to put myself on a different level so maybe I’d be looked at as somebody who had trained and become educated in the industry.”
Working in Today’s World
Like so many remodelers, Swafford notes the labor force’s lack of qualified craftsmen as a hurdle. “Because of the recession and downturn, a lot of good, qualified people have moved on to other things and gotten out of the business entirely,” he says. “You can get unskilled labor all day long, but someone who really knows how to get into the guts of a renovation project is becoming a dying breed.”
Swafford observes, however, the younger generations are not wanting to put in the time to gain the experience. “They want to start making big money and not put in the time or experience to learn everything there is to learn,” he says. He suggests better education about craftsmen opportunities is the best way to encourage young people to apply themselves in the field.
Client-wise, Swafford sees them demanding more for less. “Everybody is tightening their belt to an extent,” he says. “You have to be really lean with your work process and have less waste in every area to meet the demands.”
“Chucks-in-a-truck,” which have always been a challenge to work against, have been even more of an obstacle in the past five to ten years. “In particular, in the past five years, there have been a lot of layoffs in other industries and someone who was maybe a little handy thought they could build a deck, add a room, install windows or repair a roof, and they’re willing to do it for less [than I am].” Swafford says. “But they really didn’t have the experience necessary to do that.”
Swafford’s success is a result of deliberate and defined effort. “Customer service is huge,” Swafford says. “You have to gain the trust of your clients and maintain that trust. That’s the biggest key to success in remodeling.”
He also has realized if he gives customers what they want and what they ask for, they are OK with paying extra for the peace of mind of knowing the job will be done right and done well. “Follow through. Perform the project you said you were going to do. Don’t always let it be about the money. If you have a problem, take care of it. Be willing to follow through on the commitment.” Because of these mantras, Swafford has built a loyal client base he has been able to maintain throughout the years.
Communication is a large part of customer service. Despite living in an increasingly tech-savvy world in which text messaging and email takes up a larger percentage of communication, Swafford still prefers to connect via telephone. “I like to call them up and have a conversation with them,” he says. “Typically if we’re doing a project, I have a job superintendent doing it, but a few times a week I’ll check in to see if everything suits the customer, if things are going their way or if they have any problems.”
Swafford typically juggles about six projects simultaneously — usually two big ones and a handful of small jobs. “I’ve never been able to reach the income I needed on one remodel project at a time,” he says. “I find more volume is better. But you have to be efficient, too. You have to be able to service all your projects, and it’s a matter of scheduling.”
Every job is worth considering. “You’re not going to score big on every project,” he says. “A lot of contractors think they don’t want to fool with the smaller job, but my experience has been if you can do a smaller job and satisfy a customer, many times that will lead to larger jobs.” For example, an older woman needed someone to install a storm door, which Swafford agreed to do. Three months later, her nephew called Swafford to do some work, which resulted in an $80,000 project with him. “You never know what something will lead to. Take the good with the bad. Take the small jobs with the big jobs,” Swafford advises.
Peers view Swafford as a colleague who doesn’t easily get bent out of shape. “I try to maintain a pretty even keel. You have to put things in perspective,” he says. Swafford also makes time to give back to the community in which he lives and works. “I haven’t made millions of dollars, but I’ve made a decent living and supported my family in this industry,” he says. “Everybody should give back to whatever level they can in their industry and their community. My involvement is a way of giving back. You can always be doing something else, but you just have to make the time.”
Swafford accepts the 2013 NAHB Remodeler of the Year award with humility and honor. “I was very honored to receive this based on the talent that is out there,” he says. “I know there are a lot of well-deserving contractors who are just as deserving as me. I have become educated in the industry and try to lead as best I can — by example.”