Pete Fitzpatrick got into the home improvement business as an installer 28 years ago. Like a lot of entrepreneurs, things were quite manageable as long as he stayed small. “The first 10 years, I was doing fine,” he says. He was selling $1.5 million worth of work a year just at night. During the daytime he managed his projects. “I was the everything,” he recalls. But Fitzpatrick finally reached a point where he wanted to expand his operation. He knew he couldn't do it without help. So he found a consultant to set up a sales program, and hired the first salesman for the company, P. J. Fitzpatrick, in New Castle, Del. Things were off and running.
Then five years ago, Fitzpatrick says, “I saw my profits shrinking and I couldn't figure out why, because my margins looked the same to me.” Once again he turned to a consultant. This one advised him to cost jobs on the basis of overhead, not gross margin.
A competitor came up for sale and Fitzpatrick located another consultant to handle the acquisition. “I didn't know anything about mergers and acquisitions. I would not have done the deal if it was just up to me,” he says. His $4 million company quickly grew to $12 million. Today, P.J. Fitzpatrick is a $30 million-a-year operation.
LONERS LAG BEHIND Fitzpatrick and others like him have learned a lesson that's not particularly easy for those with entrepreneurial, type-A, hands-on-type personalities typical of home improvement company owners. The lesson: You can't go it alone and expect to achieve the full potential of your business.
The home improvement business is complex and growing ever more so. Many of its facets — from information technology to sales and marketing to accounting — require special skills. And as a company grows and managerial control comes to include areas such as human resources and fleet management, even more such specialized skills are required. “You have to understand that you, as a business owner, can't know everything ... and don't have all the answers,” Fitzpatrick says.
There are consultants for everything, plus trainers and personal coaches. And, even for those who regularly employ consultants, networking is another widely used source of outside help for home improvement contractors, either through formal organizations (such as the Certified Contractors Network and the “Mastermind” groups organized by consultant and sales trainer Rick Grosso) or informally through personal contacts.
Entrepreneurs may not always know when they need outside help. In many cases, they aren't able to correctly diagnose their own business problems. Often, they're simply too close to the business. “They don't know what they don't know,” says Scott Lemons, director of member services for Certified Contractors Network (www.contractors.net), in Ardmore, Pa., which provides a broad range of business support and training to members. “They got into the business through sales or installation, and they know what's gotten them to where they are now,” he says. “They get blinded sometimes and need to get a view from outside the box.”
Chuck Anton, a Chicago marketing and sales consultant specializing in home improvement (and a columnist for this magazine) says the calls he gets from contractors are often “triggered by some change in how their business is operating.” That could be, for instance, that installation is suddenly costing too much or that leads are diminishing. “By the time they know something's broken, they're well on their way to knowing they need some outside help.”
Dave Yoho, owner of Yoho Associates, Fairfax, Va., the oldest and largest consulting organization in the industry, and also a columnist for this magazine, says the need for outside help should be self-evident. “If you're not meeting your professional or personal goals,” he says, “if you're not making enough money or getting enough time off, or if you can't get your work done quickly enough, or you don't know where the money is in your business, you need to work with a consultant.”
HOW TO FIND THEM If you decide you need outside help, it isn't hard to find. Consultants and formal networking groups tend to be visible within an industry. You can find them at conferences and shows, as contributors to industry publications such as this one, and often in ads for their books, audio tapes, DVDs, and similar materials.