NAHB Remodeler of the Month: At the Midpoint
Kurt Clason, CAPS
K.A. Clason Fine Woodworking Corp.
Year company founded: 2006
Number of employees: 8
Where did your interest in woodworking come from? How did you get started?
My father had a small shop in the basement and, from as young as I can remember, I worked with him in the shop building small furniture pieces while he restored antique furniture. My uncle was a high school tech teacher, and in his off-time I worked for him building and remodeling houses while in high school. I actually went to the United States Coast Guard Academy and earned a degree in engineering. After graduation, I was fortunate to be selected as an Industrial Officer. For the following 18 years during my time as an officer, I ran construction crews repairing and rebuilding lighthouses and offshore structures. This was a great place to learn how to calculate overhead costs and create production schedules. When I retired from the Coast Guard, I had just finished building a house on an island for my family, and I thought it would be great to take my offshore experience and start a remodeling company dealing with the islands around Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire.
What is the best advice you’ve received in your career?
The best advice has come from real-life experience! I was fortunate in working my way up in the Coast Guard’s Industrial Forces to get an MBA via a master’s program from Arthur D. Little (now Hult University). To be able to combine what I learned and then to work with the experienced and talented people I work with daily, I learned something new every day and continue to do so. My experience and education have given me a great background in production management and estimating. Since leaving the Coast Guard, I have friends in the business gained through our local HBA as well as nationally through the Remodelers’ Council who allow me to ask questions about how other firms may have done something, which saves us from going through the school of hard knocks.
What does being part of NAHB Remodelers mean to you?
That I have instant access to years of knowledge far greater than what I could ever accomplish on my own. It is a nationwide family that stands by you and supports you. This was made even more clear during the time we spent at the International Builders’ Show (IBS) this year in Las Vegas.
What first drew you to your local NAHB chapter, and what keeps you involved?
I came from a military background and that comradery that you have in the military was lacking in the civilian world. I first joined our local chapter to give our company recognition, but quickly realized that it was far greater than that. It is a network of the best professionals in the area whom I can ask questions, share concerns, gripes and jokes with. The members of our local chapter, who are our competitors, have also become close friends whom we can use as a knowledgeable sounding board if the need be.
What motivated you to help re-establish the New Hampshire Remodelers’ Council and recently serve as the council chair?
I heard that years ago, the Remodelers’ Council in New Hampshire was substantial. Members would come to learn about markup, margins and best practices. I thought that this is something vastly needed in our world and used that for the reason to re-establish the council. Most of us build our businesses with what we assume to be the best practice, but by meeting with other remodelers the whole group becomes better.
Where do you go to look for solutions and ideas for your business?
We believe in keeping all of the guys up-to-date. Each year everyone goes to the JLC Live Show in Providence—this is a great event to see the newest products and tools. In the past we have brought some of the guys out to IBS and are looking at ways to bring half of the crew each year. Other than that, I love to get the remodeling magazines, like Qualified Remodeler, to see projects that other remodelers have done as well as business ideas and new products. These provide great examples we can incorporate into our projects to stay competitive and to make sure our customers have the best possible home that we can give them.
Can you share a bit about the local high school tech program, and how you first became involved with it?
Huot Technical Center is the Construction Trades program for schools on the southern side of Lake Winnipesaukee. Our state HBA started a program three years ago with the state lottery to build tiny houses with five trade schools. Upon completion, the house built by Huot was selected as the winner for a scratch ticket game. Our local program became involved by offering to cover all the expenses with Huot, and providing the construction and plumbing labor. We have two fantastic teachers who are perfect for helping high school kids get exposure to the trades. When we first started the program, the classes were marginally filled. Since then, our local program has decided to keep building tiny houses—we are currently on our third one. The classes at Huot are filled, which is great for workforce development! We take the proceeds from the sale of the tiny houses to provide scholarships for students who will be attending college in the construction trades, or tool belts for those who will directly head out into the workforce.
Are there any takeaways you can share as far as fostering and training the next generation of builders?
Everything happens locally—all the regional and national programs are great for publicity and possibly funding. However, the impact is at the local level. The kids get to work with builders during the all-day builds on the tiny houses and see that we are ordinary people who can thrive as builders making enough money to buy a house, have a family and give back.
Are you hiring this year, and how are you going about finding the right people for your company?
We have tried Craigslist and Indeed. The Craigslist people did not last very long in our company, but we have had good luck with Indeed. In speaking to other builders in our local area, they have had good luck with newspaper ads, so we might try that also. Other than that, we work with a local technical school and have hired two of their graduates.
How has the remodeling profession changed since you’ve been involved?
The remodeling industry has changed incredibly since we started. The customer is more educated than ever before. They know about products that we may or may not have ever heard of before they tell us, and this in turn allows us to become more educated about the building world, which in turn helps us better serve other customers. The product selection now is vastly greater—a lot more thought goes into water management, technology and energy efficiency than ever before. In addition, customers are also more schedule conscious. I am not sure whether this is from HGTV and their 30-minute shows that covers a house from the beginning to the end, but we must manage their expectations for time more closely now.
What is your business focus right now?
We are trying to grow responsibly. Our son has just come back to working with us, and he brings his law degree and the knowledge attained with it, as well as unique problem-solving skills, with him. This is a great opportunity to start growing [plus] developing a succession plan for the company. After the recession, we grew too fast and irresponsibly with a hard impact on our finances. We learned from that experience, will be working with a marketing agency and have hired a bookkeeper to help us grow responsibly. We are actively looking for new people who want this to be their last job, [and] we are looking at benefits that we can offer our current workforce so we can stay competitive.
What is your No. 1 source of leads, and why is it working?
We have a great relationship with a local architect. While we do design/build, they have partially taken over our design side. They have fantastic ideas and a great customer base why they use to match us with the type of customer that fits our remodeling style and strengths. Other than that, it is the old word-of-mouth which has been our standby. We are working with a marketing agency to expand our lead sources and help us grow responsibly.
Have you seen a change to the average job size and/or types of projects clients are seeking?
We seem to have found our niche in the whole-house remodel. These projects are larger than before and are looking for comfort features. In a house that we remodeled two years ago, we took an old 1900s camp, lifted it up, put a foundation under it and then almost doubled the square footage by adding a second floor. In the end, the house looked like the original 1900s house but it had great energy efficiency, and a floor plan that incorporated almost every space to take advantage of the views of the lake and mountains. A house we are currently working on is a similar concept—in this case it is a 1929 house that was dated. Once again, we lifted it, put a foundation under and have redone the first-floor plan to include a large, open kitchen, updated bath and new bedrooms—all while keeping the 1929 look.
Where and what are the greatest opportunities in the remodeling market?
We are seeing the effects of the tightening housing market as homeowners are either deciding to improve their older homes or have bought older homes that are vastly in need of updates. We work in an area that is primarily second homes, so the desire to make older homes more open concept and to let light in is paramount. In our case, a lot of the older houses are grandfathered for setback from the water, so these older homes are in higher demand because you can be so much closer to the water. We have worked with local municipalities and architects to keep these old homes close to the water without harming the environment.
What is the biggest challenge for your business, and how are you facing that?
Just like everyone else in construction, our biggest challenge is labor. We are extremely fortunate to have some unbelievable guys, but we would like to get more craftsmen with similar skillsets to build our already impressive workplace culture. We have a motto of “It’s what you do when no one is looking.” Everyone on our team builds with quality work in mind, and if there’s a mistake, you fix it right away. While there can be disagreements, no one yells at the jobsite, making it a nice place to want to work. Finding more people like the ones we already have to join our team is hard!
What motivates you every day?
I love this work! Just to look back at the end of the day and see what we have built is exciting! I think this is also what motivated our son to leave the law practice and come back to work with us. There is something extremely satisfying to be able to build something for someone that comes out exactly the way they wanted it, or sometimes to build something that you didn’t think possible before starting is awesome!
Anything else that you’d like to mention about career accomplishments?
I like to think of this as the midpoint in my career. We have a great business with some talented people. I want to see us push forward and grow to be the premier remodeler in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. QR