Three years after Bob Dillon bought Unique Window & Door of North Central Indiana in 1994, agreeing to pay owner Jim Shirey a cut of revenues, he was sick. Sick with worry that he'd made a drastic mistake. That the banks would call in his credit lines. That he'd let Jim Shirey down.
Dillon had expanded into Kentucky without the people to handle it; his new company, All Dry Waterproofing of Indiana, was losing money. He'd done too much, too fast. A jangle of nerves, he dialed up Shirey, who ripped into him. The PG-rated version: Extract your head from its dark place and lose the negative attitude. “You can solve anything,” insisted Shirey, who had taken over the business from his father-in-law, the founder of the company's precursor in 1946. “The banks are not going to bankrupt you. I'll bankroll you if I have to.”
That's all Dillon needed to hear. He pulled out of Kentucky and by 1998 was back on track. This year, he expects to hit nearly $9 million in revenues with Unique, netting 8% after taxes. All Dry and Ram Jack, his new foundation repair franchise, will bring in $1.5 million, on slimmer margins.
Unique Philosophy Dillon's business philosophy runs counter to that of many company owners. He offered employee benefits almost from the start and hires people inexperienced in home improvement. He has brought outsiders in to fine-tune company vision and direction.
With principles the backbone of that vision, he has won the Central Indiana Better Business Bureau Torch Award for Marketplace Ethics two years running. His sales reps tell him company ethics keep them on board. Dillon was once asked what ethics meant to him. His answer was, “Make every decision based on whether you thought it was going to be on the front page of the paper tomorrow.”
He lives his credo, in one case replacing 400 sashes, contracted with safety glass but installed without, at a cost of $85,000. Unique installs 1,285 jobs annually, averaging $7,000 a job. Deep business roots mean the company has 22,000 past customers. It has been BBB complaint–free for a year, and over three prior years Unique has resolved 13 complaints. Dillon's full-time service department quickly responds to warranty and service requests. His sales compensation program is salary-based, almost unheard of in the all-com- “ mission world of home improvement sales.
Through trial and often costly error, Dillon has developed a winning company. He's done it on the strength of his people. “I'm not truly in the window business,” he says. “I'm in the people business.”
First Lap Bob Dillon was a psychology major in college. But it was his part-time finance job that taught him more about corporate culture and what motivates and de-motivates people. He worked in auto loans, then home improvement financing, and quit school 20 credits short of a degree to take a full-time job in financing. In 1981, he started out as a finance manager for Pacesetter, moving into sales and eventually being promoted to district sales manager. Dillon saw how a home improvement operation could be a “real company” with its own service department, installers, and health and retirement benefits. He also began to think about how a business owner's vision shaped the company, its culture, its product, its employees, and its reputation in the community.
He left Pacesetter in 1988 and worked as an independent broker, repping for several home improvement companies. One of the dealers he brokered jobs to was Shirey, who wanted to sell one of two territories. Dillon took on the first in 1993, then the second in 1994. Shirey exited. Dillon put no money up front but paid Shirey 3% of revenues over five years.
His first year he lost $60,000. There were two good years, then the Kentucky debacle and the $300,000 loss, followed by a minus-$90,000 year. Yet by his 12th year, those three years were his only ugly ones.