NAHB Remodeler of the Year: Networked Professional
authors Patrick O'Toole
Nov. 1, 2018, was in many ways a culmination for Leo Lantz of Leo Lantz Construction Inc. He had recently been named NAHB Remodeler of the Year for his many years of committed service to the industry. But perhaps more importantly, his local association, the Home Building Association of Richmond, was hosting more than 600 high school technical students from around the region at its first-ever Student Construction Conference. Residential construction pros from around Richmond, including Lantz’s company, set up demonstration booths at the Washington Redskins’ training center and gave the students a shot at trying their hands at electrical, plumbing, carpentry and a number of other trades.
It was Lantz’s job that day to chaperone a group of 25 students from Henrico High School Technical Center. His group included young men and women and many minorities, Lantz says. “They got a chance to go around and experience what it would be like to actually do specific jobs. They were able to hook up drains and water supplies. There were brick masons showing how to lay block. An electrician showed how to run wires to supply lights. In my booth, the kids could spread thin-set mortar and lay some tile. And the kids really responded.”
The event, which Lantz helped organize, was a heavy lift, but the success of the event means that it will be continued in 2019 and beyond, Lantz notes. Here was a local association addressing the critical workforce development problem in a positive way because of the committed efforts of many volunteers like Lantz. And for him, it’s just what everyone should be doing: volunteer, get involved and be a part of the solution.
Lantz has been in construction his entire life. As a professional he started in business about 29 years ago with his brother, Wayne. Together, they ran a successful, diversified residential and commercial remodeling business in Richmond, Virginia, until 2007, when they went separate directions. Leo stayed focused on residential remodeling, while his brother earned a broker’s license to focus on real estate investments.
In life, they say timing is everything. Well, the same is true of the decision the Lantz brothers made in 2007. By August 2008, in Richmond and most other places around the country, remodeling activity had completely stopped. Newly independent, Lantz had to get scramble to find business. For a while, it meant spending weeks at a time working jobs via connections through his in-laws in Baltimore.
At the same time, Lantz joined the Home Building Association of Richmond. New construction was totally stalled. Minor remodeling and repairs were the only game in town. And by the end of 2008, Lantz had immersed himself in HBA participation. He saw it as a matter of survival.
“In 2008, people were shell-shocked. The stock market had gone down to 6,000. A lot of older, experienced craftsmen retired. Many younger professionals moved to Washington, D.C., or Houston to find work, and I was lucky enough that my brother-in-law, who lives up near Baltimore, had friends who wanted work done. To him I am eternally grateful. And that’s how I got through it,” Lantz recalls. “But in order for me to survive, I also knew that I had to associate with the best in the industry. The people who were surviving were still members of NAHB. I wanted to know the business practices I needed to adopt. I had to learn about marketing, about running a business. NAHB members were surviving somehow, and I wanted to know what were they doing. So that’s why I joined.”
By 2015, when Lantz was elected president of the HBA of Richmond, he was also active in NARI, NKBA and other professional groups. His intention in joining these organizations was two-fold. He wanted to avail his business to member-only discounts. And he wanted to cast the widest possible net. He wanted to know as many other professionals and tradespeople as possible. To Lantz, it was these connections to the industry’s joiners and survivors that would enable him to grow, and to burnish a strong reputation in the community. A broad network also allows him to confidently make referrals to other professionals whom he trusts. Because his family had been a part of the Richmond community for decades, people often came to him with repair or construction problems that he was too busy to handle. At the same time, he felt an obligation to direct those people to other pros.
“People do not want to hear ‘no’ for an answer or ‘I don’t know.’ So part of my membership in all these associations is my networking ability to refer qualified individuals or companies to assist people who call me,” Lantz explains. “The worst thing I can do is refer someone who does a bad job. They will not necessarily remember who did the job, but they will remember who referred them, and that one bad experience will offset a hundred good ones.
“I definitely do my homework. I talk to supply houses or their vendors, people who work with them. So if I do hear back that someone does a bad job, they’re not going to get another referral from me.”
As the economy gradually heated up in recent years. Lantz has been ready. Naturally, he sells to many of those inquiries, but everyone else receives his carefully considered referrals.
Like many remodelers around the country, Lantz is college educated. He holds degrees in computer science and Latin from the University of Richmond. His father was a mason who unfortunately spent many years on disability. He reinforced to his kids the importance of earning a degree. But he also imparted a lot of practical construction education. When he was unable to perform many of the maintenance tasks around the house, his boys became his extra sets of hands. They fixed plumbing, drywall and carpentry, all at their father’s direction. And when they were in over their heads, they would hire a pro and watch how a certain job was completed, so they could add that skill to their tool kits.
To help the family and to save money for college, Lantz and his brother had a lawn service with more than 100 customers while they were still in junior high school. Their mom kept track of which lawns to cut on which days—some every other week and so on. By the time Lantz graduated from college, he and Wayne knew most aspects of construction. And they were entrepreneurs as well. So they hung out their shingle and got started in remodeling.
Their business together, L.W. Lantz Enterprises, comprised large and small jobs. They even did painting. What they learned in their 15 years in business together—often the hard way, Lantz says—was how to price jobs properly. Painting, for example, was particularly tough to price. “Nobody wants to pay for the prep work, but that is what takes the most time.” Eventually they graduated to kitchens, bathrooms, room additions and even a few new houses in the early 2000s.
Today, Leo Lantz Construction Inc. is a full-service remodeling company specializing in designed kitchens and baths. The firm, which consists of Lantz and two full-time employees, occupies a converted gas station from the 1920s. It is located at a busy intersection in town. The first floor of the building is half showroom and half office. They’ve been in the location for six years, first as renters and then three years ago, Lantz was able to purchase the building. To him, owning the building gives the business more stability. They cannot be forced to move, and they can think longer term and make more investments in the showroom and signage.
In 2018, Lantz will complete 50-plus jobs of various sizes. The company’s average ticket for a kitchen or bath is in the $30,000 range. At one point, they accepted very large whole-house and room-addition projects, but they’ve found a sweet spot with kitchens and baths, Lantz notes. Demand in that segment remains strong, and they’ve found they can maintain more predictable construction timelines by doing so.
“We have gotten more selective about what we want to do,” Lantz says. “We were all over the place and we would do window replacements and whole-house siding jobs. What I’ve done now is pare that down to doing almost exclusively custom kitchens and baths, and we have shifted to a design/build remodel platform.”
The company gets paid for design agreements and uses CAD software to help clients visualize their spaces and facilitate selections. Like a lot of remodelers today, they are inundated with prospective clients who want a ballpark price—people who are shopping and kicking tires. Lantz is careful to avoid getting caught up in preparing time-consuming estimates for prospects who take those numbers elsewhere.
Marketing for the company has evolved. The computer science background has given Lantz some additional insights into creating a website that generates leads for new business. The site has been supplied with content that helps educate consumers. Those who register to download a remodeling Q&A packet are entered into a CRM system, where the company carefully nurtures a relationship via a series of emails with helpful articles and ideas. Most of this now happens automatically in the background.
Repeat and referral business are the top sources for Lantz, who as a football and basketball coach, and with years of construction experience, is well known in the community. But he also gets leads from the prominence of his location in town, jobsite signage and online advertising. One surprising source of leads has been a nearby regional bike path. Bicyclists from 30 to 50 miles away who have seen his showroom from the bike path will call to pursue jobs.
Meanwhile, Lantz’ association work continues. In 2017, he was involved with NAHB Remodelers on a national level. But he soon took a break from national involvement to double down at the local level. He and a group of others established an NAHB Remodelers chapter in Richmond, with 30 members. It was a big achievement for Lantz, and it is a group that he intends to stay committed to for many years. The group’s education calendar for the year has become crowded with national speakers and experts.
Indeed, Lantz is one of those people who make volunteering look easy. In 2016, his company fixed a leaky roof and interior water damage for an elderly member of the community. Last year, he remodeled a bathroom for two teenage daughters in a family where the father had recently passed away from cancer. He tends to keep these projects quiet; they are not done to generate leads. “I tend to do these projects around the holidays because my vendors donate a majority of the materials. Around that time of the year, people are willing to do a little more.” |QR