2021 Fred Case Award Finalist: Innovation in a Transition

by Kyle Clapham

Becoming one of four finalists for the Fred Case Award was not something on the radar for Robert and Paul Criner as they entered 2021. The father-son team who own Criner Remodeling in Newport News, Virginia, were busy smoothing out the lingering effects of the early days of the pandemic when their large projects were halted, delayed or deferred.

The Criners expect to book $2.3 million in revenue on 29 jobs. When the pandemic hit, they sought ways to keep their team of nine field-staff productive. And in the true spirit of entrepreneurship, they launched a real-estate division for buying and upgrading homes. They envisioned holding and renting some properties. Others they expected to remodel and flip.

“The first home we picked up for $125,000. Then we invested $85,000 in it,” says Robert, who is a past chairman of the NAHB Remodelers. “That project took over a year to complete because we used it as a proving ground for training some of our younger field staff. It also helped us solve an unexpected scheduling problem from the pandemic.”

Despite a prolonged skilled-labor shortage, many remodelers responded to the pandemic’s initial shock by laying off their lesser-qualified carpenters and project managers. The Criners knew they could not let that happen. Their decision to add a real-estate wing was the kind of calculated, improvisational risk that is the hallmark of many previous Fred Case Award winners. The move enabled the firm to retain their young talent pool while also leveraging the knowledge of their highly skilled, tenured veterans.

Paul says the company’s experience with its first project was positive on many fronts. In addition to the training benefits and the creation of a new profit stream, the real-estate project had an unexpectedly positive impact on company culture, he notes. Team building occurred where it may have never happened in quite the same way.

“At the height of the pandemic, a lot of other workers were getting sent home,” Paul adds. “Our team was worried about what we would do. Our project enabled us to be together and to work safely, and it really did bind the team together.”

Robert agrees. “Our first project demonstrated to our staff what the company would do to keep them. It was a step above what our competitors did.”

The Criner Way

Years prior to the pandemic, training younger team members and capitalizing on the decades of institutional knowledge trapped inside the heads of their 60-something project managers was identified as a key strategic initiative by the Criners.

Their pairing of experienced staffers with new staffers on jobsites to create some informal apprentice situations was not good enough. That was when Paul took it upon himself to begin writing down the company’s methods for everything from flashing a window to installing cabinets. “All 35 steps in the production process are addressed,” says Paul of a 3-inch thick, three-ring binder filled with information on what the company expected for myriad construction tasks. The document is called, “The Criner Way: Best Practices Manual for Field Employees.”

Paul assembled the document from a wide array of authoritative sources, so the information was solid. But it did not become the Criner Way until experienced members of the field staff provided their input and stamp of approval.

Robert and Paul say there isn’t complete unanimity among the staff about each task that is set forth in the “Criner Way,” but there is a broad agreement that the document made them more efficient. “It allows them, if there’s any question, to just go right back to the book that’s in their truck and get a little refresher course, and then right back to being productive,” Paul notes.

In the opinion of the Fred Case Award judges, productive and profitable is what Criner Remodeling will be well into the future. QR

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