NAHB Remodeler of the Month: Restore the Trades

by Kacey Larsen

Neil McGowan
Navigator Kitchens & Construction, Inc.
Parrish, Fla.

Title: President, Senior Designer and General Contractor

Year Company Founded: 2016

Number of Employees: 4

How did you choose this career? What led you to go into business for yourself?

I was a framing carpenter and loved it. [Then] I began in the home center industry as a kitchen designer in a local lumberyard. After working through the ranks, becoming successful in design and sales of kitchens, and developing an installation program, I decided to try my hand in the private showroom environment where outcomes were as important as concepts and ideas. I started a company in the Chicagoland area that included a kitchen and bath showroom and began building homes. Twelve homes of various types helped me gain experience in real estate and development of infill lots.

In 2014, my wife and I moved to Florida after giving four children a second chance, and happily they are all outstanding and productive in their professions. Three years after relocation, we began Navigator Homes & Kitchens. We learned how important it was to be a licensed contractor here and became one—it wasn’t a requirement at the time I was a builder in the Chicagoland area. Since doing so, we have changed the name to be inclusive of our skills. Since 1987, I have been a remodeler and love changing lives and improving lifestyles with our work.    

What motivates you every day?

The thought that we can somehow help our clients experience remodeling better and do it affordably. Our satisfaction only comes when our customers brag on us.

How has the remodeling profession changed since you’ve been involved?

Creativity and differentiation have increased. We have learned that caring for the lifestyle of our client during construction is huge! Protection protocol is worth the extra effort to assure the client we care for them and their comfort is paramount. People in the Remodelers’ Council generally are different this way.

What does being part of NAHB Remodelers mean to you?

NAHB gives us instant credibility as builders and remodelers because of the lengths they go to make credible companies stand out. They represent us at the national levels where decisions are made to either move housing and development forward or let it retract; this has affected the economy through generations. As a chairman of the [local] Remodelers’ Committee, I hope we can educate and bring awareness to remodelers in our region so that we stand out in good times and bad. People invest in people who have integrity, regardless of the external economic conditions.

You have been helping rebuild the local Manatee/Sarasota Building Industry Association Remodelers’ Council after a three-year hiatus. What has that process been like?

Frankly I am learning as I go, but I will say I’m amazed at the infectious excitement that was here from the beginning. The Manatee/Sarasota Council was so active before! I think the economy and market conditions stopped a group of remodelers who had a fire in their belly, and it’s time to stoke the coals again. Remodeling is what keeps people happy. In good times and bad, we all want to live in a place that is enjoyable. New homes are great, but the history of an area is in its older buildings made new again.

Where do you go to look for solutions and ideas for your business?

I rely on experience, customer feedback and many trade publications to come up with ideas. There are many more solutions for storage and convenience today than there were when I began. It’s important to stay in touch with the vendors who make a showing at IBS/KBIS and Southeast Building Conference events.

Where and what are the biggest opportunities in the remodeling market?

Our opportunities to change lives with our craft are as vibrant as ever. The opportunity, I think, is in caring for the client in protecting their investment. Getting caught up in permitting after the project is completed—maybe even years later—just to sell the home for what it is worth is not good for the homeowner or our industry. 1) Operating legally so that clients realize the gains from their investment. 2) Recommending solutions that accomplish their goals (i.e. design). 3) Make the small guy a global citizen with a national voice as contributing to a global citizenship speaks loudly to our goals as an organization.

What is the biggest challenge right now for your business?

Our biggest challenge is finding younger people willing to learn a trade. We contribute to the national fund in place to build up the workplace with students who seek a career in building trades. Also, we work with our local trade school, Manatee Tech, to find students who are interested in learning a trade and finding a career post-graduation. Most who are serious about finding an apprenticeship will eventually find a place, but it is an investment on our part.

How did you get involved as an adviser at Manatee Technical College, and what does that role entail?

It has involved spending a little time talking to instructors and listening to their passion for imparting skills but realizing the limits they face. The instructors can do a good job at introducing skills and identifying those who show a connection, but they can’t teach an aspiring student what it’s really like working in the field. I hope to make an arrangement to discuss real-time job skills and preparedness for the field. They have an advisory committee which I hope to be invited to be a member.    

Your company started an apprenticeship program. What motivated you to create such a program?

I struggled with hiring subcontractors for carpentry and general remodeling skills. We decided to try to create the apprenticeship within our company as a way of investing in a younger workforce, hoping for a loyalty we weren’t finding in the open market. So far we’ve only hired one guy, who is doing well. We hope to find another employee who has a bit more experience and can ease my burden in the field so I can continue growing the management of projects.

You mention wanting to hire a more experienced person. How are you planning to go about doing that?

We have an opportunity to grow and take some good people with us. Finding the right people is critical to our growth, and finding them requires background checks, references and visiting projects performed by them. We want to hear from their clients about the experience they had [because] we need to trust we can put them in our customers’ homes safely and have them perform the work to their satisfaction. Protecting our clients’ homes and experiences are paramount to our success as a company because not everyone does this.

Right now, what is the focus within your business?

I feel we are doing well at treating people generously (our employees and our customers), and they want to be a part of our projects or hire us for more projects, so scheduling added work can be an issue. While our current clients have thought of a couple extra jobs they want us to do, we have to move on to others because we committed ourselves to a tight schedule. Our marketing is going well, and we have complete accountability in our community. Our challenge in is getting me out of the labor pool in order to manage projects and be more attentive to sales. It’s taking more [time] than I like to get back to people; I would love to respond with a complete written proposal for complete projects within a 72-hour time frame. I think this is normal growing pains from previous experience with two other companies I’ve started.

Have you seen a change to the average job size and/or types of projects clients are seeking?

Absolutely! Since becoming licensed in Florida, I have been asked to do many custom closets, outdoor kitchens, pergolas, decks, stairs, etc. Our average job has gone up due to the increased range of projects, but we still like doing things for people who just need help figuring out what they want, how to accomplish it and overcome their fear of succeeding at it. Recently, we installed a staircase that didn’t have one between the top floor and lower level that was enclosed. This [would] involve some structural changes, [and] as the client researched options, they discovered the expense of doing so was a deal breaker. We were able to affordably do it by positioning the staircase in the enclosed porch, just outside the kitchen. The design could be more like the outdoor space, making it more affordable.

What is the best advice you’ve received in your career?

“It takes just as many steps to do a large job as it does a small job.” (Thanks, dad!) However, if there is a relationship involved, it changes the game. Regardless of the size of the job, some are more important than others because there is need that goes beyond being a consumer. We try to help everyone if we can when we can.

Anything else you’d like to mention about career accomplishments?

Someday I hope to be able to do for myself what we have done for our clients: Live in a world that values relationships above all, creates value beyond the typical experience, and where we receive a blessing for doing this for others. QR

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