On a Tuesday morning last month, Brian Altmann, owner of DBS Remodel in Poughkeepsie, New York, was looking ahead to the first day for a new salesperson the following Monday. Like any business owner, he carried a sense of optimism and opportunity that comes with the onboarding of a new individual to his team. This is especially true for small business owners who rely on only a handful of people to run their businesses.

Each new hire carries an inherent expectation on the part of the owner or hiring manager of how quickly that new person will get up to speed and be able to shoulder their share of the load. Then there’s the possibility that the new hire could be someone special. Long-term, maybe this person will exceed expectations and ultimately reveal unknown talents.

Perhaps they will excel enough to one day become a manager or leader. That is a lot to expect; but the truth is, that’s the mindset most owners and managers feel when a new hire comes on board.

For Altmann, that first day for the new sales consultant would be the latest in a series of tests of how well the company was succeeding in its effort to onboard people and train them better and more quickly. Two years ago, Altmann says, the company had similarly hired a sales consultant, Carly Spagnola, who today is thriving with DBS.

Brian Altmann, owner of DBS Remodel, Poughkeepsie, New York

She is selling more than $1 million per year, but few of the current training procedures were up and running on Spagnola’s first day. She was trained the old-fashioned way. She shadowed Altmann and learned her job over many days, weeks and months.

“I have a sales consultant starting on Monday, and I’m just thinking of where I was two years ago to train that person,” Altmann says. “I know exactly where I was, actually. Carly started two years ago, and we didn’t have much documented. It was, ‘Hey, Carly, let’s go for a ride,’ or ‘Let’s go to this job,’ or ‘Let’s see this prospect, and you can kind of watch what’s going on’. There was too much that was locked away in my head regarding training Carly. I knew that I had to get this stuff down on paper. When our new hire comes in on Monday, we already know the courses that she’ll be required to go through right away.”

Altmann is certain that Spagnola and another highly successful DBS remodeling consultant, one hired five years ago, Michelle Merck, would have achieved $1 million in annual sales more quickly had the same training resources been available. Spagnola benefited partially because some training resources were coming online during her first year with DBS, but Merck did not experience any documented, formalized training in her early days.

“We’ve been able to witness firsthand what happens, what transpires, if you can make that commitment to documenting your processes and creating courses for your people. We’ve seen the benefit of putting that information in front of them instead of just teaching them on the job, when specific situations arise and can be taught,” Altmann says. “Let’s put this information in their hands a lot quicker.”

Taking the Big Step

Altmann is the recipient of the 2023 Fred Case Remodeling Entrepreneur Award due in large part to the transformational change he brought to his company after more than three decades in remodeling. DBS was profitable. Its reputation in Dutchess County, New York, was very good. Transformational change was not required. But he pursued the goal of becoming a training organization because he was thinking about the long-term. He saw signs everywhere that skilled labor and talented managers were not as available for hire as they once were.

“For most of my career as a remodeler, there was always a fairly decent pool of trained people who were coming into our company,” Altmann explains. “These days, that reservoir is pretty depleted. People are not getting into this industry for lots of different reasons. And it’s been tough. So, we’ve looked to some younger people and some people without as much experience to fill that gap. And we’ve realized that we need to expedite their growth and development. If we can’t find people who are seasoned, we need to expedite the learning process. We think it’s going to pay big dividends for those individuals who decide to get into remodeling, and for organizations like ours who are willing to offer [them] structured training.”

From left to right standing: Pete Viola, project manager; Chris Haralambides, lead carpenter; Alan Doolittle, carpenter; Mike Whalen, lead carpenter; Greg Schrock, lead carpenter; David Lee, carpenter; Brian Altmann, president; Shane Kip, lead carpenter; Bob Lutz, operations manager; Rob Wheeler, lead carpenter; Chad McClain, lead carpenter; Rich Dutra, operations support; Andrew Philipp, carpenter. From left to right seated: Andalee Powers, marketing director; Carly Spagnola, remodeling consultant; Corinne Bentley-Morales, remodeling consultant, Nadine Wiese, production coordinator; Angelina Szabo, bookkeeper; Ayla Altmann, production liaison and Jennifer Booth, office manager.

It took a few years of thinking, research and planning before Altmann and his operations manager, Bob Lutz, along with operations support manager, Rich Dutra, began to strategize about how best to become a training focused organization. Altmann researched several learning management systems (LMS platforms) before opting for two—360Learning for developing and creating their own training content, and MT Copeland for more off-the-shelf how-to training content for field staff. But a lot of groundwork needed to be laid in terms of the structure of the company as well.

Like most design-build remodeling company owners, Altmann was, until a few years ago, the top sales consultant for the organization. In a company that generated $5.75 million in revenue last year, Altmann was at one time selling $3 million in jobs annually. Devoting the time it would take to document processes and create courses for team members would require him to relinquish all selling responsibilities, which is a very big step. Others would need to pick up that slack.

In addition, there were significant hard costs to consider. It would take a lot of money to support Altmann’s time and the costs of acquiring their learning management systems. Then there was the overall staff time to consider. Several others would also be required to create courses, to provide regular in-person classes, and to maintain the LMS platforms.

Altmann’s daughter Ayla Altmann is a production liaison for DBS Remodel.

Altmann, a frequent speaker at industry trade shows and a consultant to other remodelers, was well-grounded in the proper financial management of a remodeling company. He cited Judith Miller and others as having taught him how to be a profitable remodeler, namely the needed markups and margins required to earn a healthy net profit. For years, he says, DBS has been earning 10 percent net profit. So, aside from relinquishing his sales duties, there was a question of where the money would come from to pay for DBS’s training transformation.

After putting pen to paper, Altmann assigned a $2.75 per hour labor burden to pay for the training. This added hourly cost generated the funds required that ultimately enabled DBS to take all the required steps to get started. Altmann looked at the costs as the price of innovation that is frequently passed along in other products like pharmaceuticals and automobiles.

“I was taught well how to run our books and how to have money set aside through an indirect allocation of labor burden. We charge $2.75 per labor hour towards that burden that’s specifically allocated just for training,” Altmann explains. “That has allowed us to relax and say, ‘Hey, we can afford it.’ The client is ultimately paying for it. It’s part of the cost of doing business. Just like anything we purchase, like a new car. Those new innovations are paid for in advance. Those funds have opened the doors for us to acquire a couple of LMS licenses. It’s allowed me to relinquish some of my duties in sales. And I can allocate a lot more of my time towards training.”

A Robust and Growing Platform

Rich Dutra and Bob Lutz are key players in creating and deploying content along with Altmann. But everyone is encouraged to get in on the act. In addition to dozens of DBS specific courses housed on 360Learning and MT Copeland, Lutz hosts training for four or five staff members in a company conference room. These are called Bobby’s Bootcamp. Altmann also provides in-person training at regular intervals. He focuses on developing courses that delve into all-important, customer-facing soft skills.

“A lot of the training that we do, it’s not the hands-on stuff or how-to build, for example, how to build a mantle. I’m an EQ guy,” says Altmann, referring the phrase “emotional quotient,” which plays off the better-known phrase IQ for intelligence quotient.

“I focus on emotional intelligence—self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, motivation, social skills. Those are the five pillars of emotional intelligence. I spend so much time teaching and helping coach our team on that stuff because that’s the stuff that’s incredibly important for us. In the courses I’ve taught at industry trade shows, I’ve always said that’s where the money is to be found in the remodeling business. The money isn’t building a beautiful mantle. The money is listening to the client well. It’s asking great questions. It’s going above and beyond expectations. It’s exceeding what they thought they were going to get—cleanliness, politeness and trust. And we’ve learned all of that through client feedback.”

Bobby’s Bootcamps, taught by Lutz, are designed to cross-train staffers, so they can be knowledgeable about all parts of the business. For office staff who are responsible for ordering products, it’s helpful for them to learn about products.

For this reason, Lutz teaches a course on Windows. And there’s another course called Kitchen and Bath 101. One of the courses is on lead qualifying and pre-qualifying on the phone. It is one class required of everyone who works in the office.

“Anybody who answers the phones here must be trained in lead qualifying,” Altman explains. “As a company, we’re very strict and very deliberate about how we want that phone call answered. There will be training before someone has that privilege to pick up the phone, and if that person is not ready, if they haven’t learned about empathy and how difficult it can be for these prospects to call us. So, we do a lot of training on lead qualifying in our office orientation course, which focuses on cleanliness, politeness and trust. Those attributes are part of our brand.”

Altmann estimates the company has documented and produced 25 courses in several formats. Some are Word documents with 15 pages of information illustrated with clip art and various links to short videos. Others are short videos on straightforward tasks that nonetheless need to be performed correctly every time.

Andee Powers, the company marketing director, teamed up with Shane Kip, one of DBS’s seven lead carpenters, to create a video on how to correctly hook up one of the company’s trailers. Powers shot the video as Kip walked through each step of the process.

Collaborative videos like this are exactly what Altman is hoping to see more of as the company continues to document its processes. Everyone is an expert at something, and that information should be captured and put into the LMS. That’s the long-term goal, Altmann says.

Capturing Video and Training as Marketing

Like a lot of remodeling companies looking to continue to grow, despite a slowdown in leads coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, the DBS team put an emphasis on creating more awareness of the quality of the work they do for clients, as well as their level of professionalism and expertise that extends from their focus on training. Like the short trailer hitch video, employees are encouraged to bootstrap their own videos and submit them to the marketing department for posting on social media.

“We’ve really honed our brand identity and have become great storytellers by harnessing the power of social media,” wrote Altmann in his Case Award application. “The entire team has become consistent content creators with the use of reels and stories. We also position ourselves as educators. We tripled the number of free education seminars we host. We developed a sales book and published a Homeowner Handbook. We began leveraging our story, videos, process and depth of team.”

About the Fred Case Award
Fred Case founded Case Design/Remodeling in 1961 with a dream of building a business, not a practice. In 2007, Case created the Fred Case Remodeling Entrepreneur of the Year Award to recognize innovation remodeling businesses. These include new business processes; unique building processes or use of materials; streamlined systems; relevant training programs; and creative use of technology. Applicants for the award must be an individual owner or partnership. They must have revenue less than $6 million. They must be in business for three years. Applications are judged on four criteria: community service, business acumen, achievement and entrepreneurial spirit.

DBS’s transformation, led by Altmann, to a training and coaching organization underpins the success the company had with this marketing initiative. And in a larger sense, the proliferation of training and coaching gives the company a big advantage in keeping its position as a leading design-build firm within its market area by ensuring a method by which to not just hire experienced people, but to hire and train those with the same values and positive attitudes.

“We have a tremendous culture. We have great core values. We offer good benefits, and we offer training. But we were still getting nervous that our talent pool would run out. That was the main impetus for all of this. And the other impetus was just, let’s accelerate this company. Let’s make it better.” QR

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