Professional Focus

by Kacey Larsen

In today’s world, statistics like “nine out of 10 start-ups will fail” and mores specifically “the businesses doomed to fail do so within the first two to three years” often float around. Yet in the face of those statistics, the following five remodelers opened their doors and/or furthered family businesses for a minimum of four years and do not see failure anywhere on the horizon. In speaking with these five emerging remodelers — all located in different parts of the country and with different business strategies — several themes kept occurring and appear notable: education, innovation and diversification, and thoughtful growth.

The QR staff selected these five people as emerging remodelers because of their unique backgrounds — some working in the construction industry previously and others coming from completely different vocations — and because of their unique approaches to business. Each one has led their company to grow, even in the tough economic times of the Great Recession for some, and continue to look for spots for improvement in the future. None of them are planning to sit back and relax in what they’ve made or helped create; instead each of them exudes hopes and excitement for what lies ahead. We listened in as each shares how their businesses have survived and not become just another statistic.


Philip Calinda

If you ask Philip Calinda, Jr., CGB, CAPS, CGP, GMB, GMR, CGR, to describe himself, he will likely refer to himself as a “muddy boots builder.” He explains he likes being out on jobsites and personally running things for Millennium Custom Homes, based in Livingston, N.J. He credits his success to passion for the industry.

It all started when Calinda was 13 and spent his Saturdays picking up nails on jobsites for cash. A work program in high school then launched what would become a 35-year career with a building company. Millennium Custom Homes launched seven years ago with the help of his former company, who did not understand the renovation side of business. “Because of my background doing track homes, doing retail, schools, tunnels, bridges and everything, I’m more flexible than most because I’m not afraid,” Calinda says. “If you want paperwork, I’m not your guy. If you want something built and you want it to last, be styled and be right, then I’m the guy. If you want all the fluff and the glitter, you’re paying for that. Here we are streamlined, down and dirty, and working for our money.”

His work for the building company taught him to multitask. “You don’t have just one contractor around a house at a time or one tradesperson around a house. You put multiple people and trades out, and you manage those people in there,” he continues. “One of the things I tell my homeowners and my own people is that we’re a team. And if we’re not a team, then I shouldn’t work for you or we shouldn’t be working together. The team aspect is very important to a customer — they want to hear that.”

Arguably, Calinda’s team philosophy can also be applied to his viewpoint on the industry at large, especially his relation to trade associations. An active participant in the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) on multiple levels, he is currently serving as sitting president of his local builders’ association, the Metropolitan Builders and Contractors Association of New Jersey, and reiterates the importance of education in his backstory.

“Educational opportunities are the reasons why I’m in business. I meet great people at those courses and become lifelong friends and lifelong mentors. I could pick up the phone and call a gentleman in every state in the U.S., so my resources have become huge and vast,” Calinda says. “I can pick up the phone right now, call someone in another state and have an answer for a solution. Money can’t buy that — that’s bought through connections.”

Such connections include mentors throughout the industry. “I’m one of the guys who has taken advantage of mentors his whole life,” he says. “I’ve had great mentors, and that’s what makes me me.” He is quick to mention Howard Schwartz, owner of BNE Real Estate, and Bill Asdal, owner of Asdal Builders, as mentors — oldest and newest respectively. “I could pick up the phone and contact my mentors at any time. I throw a lot of value at them, and they throw a lot of value at me,” Calinda explains. “I have strengths they don’t, and they have strengths that I don’t so we utilize it.”

His personal drive for self-betterment through the NAHB certification programs and work with mentors form the basis for his aspiration for the remodeling industry down the road. “Metaphorically, there’s three baseball fields out there. So I consider myself a Major League player, but half the times I’m bidding against remodelers who would be PAL players. I think the playing field has to become even through some sort of certification requirement across the U.S. through an association — because the government can’t oversee it. I think it would benefit homeowners, and there would be less issues out there with bad contractors,” Calinda says. “I think it would benefit homeowners, and there would be fewer issues out there with bad contractors.” Such a program existed in New Jersey during the 1980s, he comments, requiring contractors to be part of a builders’ association in order to be able to issue home warranties. “It helped the builders’ associated, but it brought together a lot of people in the same industry and made people better, in my opinion,” he says. “I like to see everybody be a part of the association to get the knowledge of what they’re building. I went there and expanded myself. Being part of the association brought out talents in me.”

Jack Crocker

A “unique résumé” seems to be quite an understatement when it comes to Jack Crocker’s work history, but there is one thread tying it all together: He’s worked in construction his whole life. With a dad in remodeling, he grew up surrounded by the industry, taking his first full-time job over the summer when he was 16 working for a tile setting company. “When I got out of high school, I wanted to become a foreman in several trades so I basically could learn every trade,” Crocker says. “I was hands-on with the tools, so my goal was to make it to foreman. The ultimate goal, I thought, would be to be a superintendent. To be a good jobsite superintendent, I thought knowing every trade meant you would know what you were doing. So that’s kind of where I embarked.”

Throughout much of the 1980s, Crocker remembers starting in a trade as an apprentice, working his way up the ladder and then quitting when he felt he’d mastered that trade just to start over in a whole different trade. By the time he arrived at a window factory, he decided that he “kind of figured out the field side of things and would like to learn the office.” He started out selling vinyl windows, moved into management, shifted to running a division and then left to go into plumbing. As part of a large plumbing company who was purchased by a conglomerate, Crocker embarked on a corporate career. “The conglomerate decided they were going to buy up multiple trades and sort of package all the trades together for the big builders. They would buy large companies and give them to me to run,” he explains. “I did that through the 2000s — through the boom times — and that taught me a lot of the big business items, like business planning, balance sheets, profits and losses, and all those things it really takes to run a business.

“I decided in 2011 when things started picking back up again that if I was going to be building companies, I was going to do it for myself this time. If you could put on a calendar the absolute lowest day for the construction industry, that was probably the day I opened business,” he continues. “That was intentional because I always believe if you can make money in a down economy, you’ll be able to make money in a good economy, and it forces you to be a better businessman.”

Classic Home Improvements, based in Escondido, Calif., opened its doors five years ago and is a full-service remodeling company for multiple reasons, according to Crocker. He reiterates that diversification and innovation drive his company. “What I decided to do was get into the remodeling business and try to add business acumen to a kind of small business environment, and at the same time run it as a construction company, not a sales organization,” Crocker says. “I think there’s a big difference between being innovative and doing things for the sake of change, so we’re constantly looking at ways to do things better, smarter and faster.” Part of the business plan involves, as he calls them, “silos” of the business — exterior remodeling, kitchen and bath, and design-build — and recognizing each silo needs to be handled individually.

“I think diversification is key and, based on my corporate experience, being able to nail multiple disciplines creates a lot of synergy and efficiencies. Combine that with the customer not having to hire multiple people for multiple things — they just have one person to call. We can handle what I call the choreography of the job, like which goes first the windows or the exterior paint?” Crocker explains. “The multiple silos of my business need to managed in different ways. If you try to run an exterior business the way you run a kitchen and bath business, you’ll fail and vice versa, and the same with design-build. You have to recognize that, and you’ve got to have different processes, procedures and field management specifically to handle those different disciplines. And I’m kind of uniquely qualified to put it together, and that was really my business plan from day one.”

Crocker is a big proponent of revisiting things that may not have worked or been the right fit in the past. For example, this year his company aims to go completely paperless by moving to a cloud-based platform, after looking several years ago at a cloud-based software and determining it wasn’t where it needed to be for the company. “Picking your spot and waiting until you find the right solution is important,” he says. “If you try to force it because you think computers are good, you’re just going to be creating more work and problems for yourself.”

Chelsea Mihalko

Being the second generation in a family business is not something Chelsea Mihalko takes lightly. Instead she feels it is a driving force for all the possibilities available to Mihalko’s General Contracting Inc., based in Johnstown, Pa. “It’s definitely still a family business. My dad is still involved, my husband is involved, and it pushes us forward. It’s very motivating, and we aren’t scared to do things and work,” she says. “We aren’t the second generation who sits around and does nothing — we’re here everyday, we want to keep growing, and we want to give people more opportunities to be able to do more.”

In the four years Mihalko has been in her role as senior vice president, she has implemented change, some of which she credits to her background. Having attended school for finance and real estate, Mihalko was living in Pittsburgh and working for Jones Lang LaSalle, a commercial real estate firm. She earned her M.B.A. from the University of Pittsburgh, then met her husband, Tyler, who is from her hometown as well.

“I’ve always been into the office with my dad and was just always around the business, so I have always thought that somehow I’d like to get back into it. Tyler was just kind of that extra push for me. Right after we got married, we moved back here and that’s how it got started,” Mihalko explains. “I think that by my working in a completely different industry and a Fortune 500 company there are a lot of things that I picked up that really, really helped me revamp the business.”

Many of the initial updates were operational and, as she describes it, brought the 36-year-old business “into the 20th century.” While much of role is in operations, Mihalko is very involved in analyzing and evaluating the company’s pricing and profitability. Mihalko’s General Contracting has three locations — Altoona, Johnstown and Latrobe/Greensburgh — with eyes on more in the future. “We are constantly looking to do more and know we cannot remain the same. We are also a fire and restoration company [in addition to remodeling], and it is actually easier to break into that industry in a new market than it is on the remodeling side,” she says. “We are looking to add more locations by growing through that side and then eventually pulling the remodeling in as well.”

The company’s work in insurance restoration has inspired and motivated Mihalko to personally be more active in the communities where their offices are based and encourage other employees to do the same. “I’ve been very passionate about helping people and families around our area, especially with the insurance side. Sometimes you see the devastation that people go through with fire and water losses, losing all their stuff,” she says. “It’s really become a passion, and I’ve pushed it onto the people here as well because it’s important that people realize the importance of helping others and making sure that we take care of our community because our community supports us and the people who work here. I know that we can bicker and get upset about certain things, but always remember that you have to take care of the place that you live in if you want to succeed as well.”

Beyond recognition from their community service work, Mihalko credits the company’s longevity to the knowledgeable and passionate employees at Mihalko’s General Contracting. She indicates attitude is considered just as important as skills when it comes to hiring. “Our biggest selling point [as a company] is that you’re not just getting a handyman. You’re getting a company, a customer service representative and people who know what they’re doing and are very passionate about what they’re doing,” she explains. “Customers can count on us to be there if they have problems; we can do anything for them. While we are well known because we’ve been around for so long, we aren’t running our business like everyone else. We are constantly striving toward and seeking better ways to do things and aspire to continue being innovative in the industry. There’s something to be said about another generation coming in and bringing with it the new and innovative ways to do things.”

Angela Rasmussen

Running a design/build company in Silicon Valley keeps principal Angela Rasmussen busy while fulfilling a lifelong dream of hers to become a business owner. “I am a person of opportunity and from the time I was a small girl, I wanted to be a business owner,” she recalls. “The type of business I envisioned changed over the years, but I was open to possibilities and opportunities coming my way. When I met the man who would become my husband, he was involved in construction and I was always interested in remodeling residential homes and design. It made sense when we started talking about our own business to form a design-build business. My creativity was sparked, so I decided to further my education through design and build classes with that goal in mind.”

Thus, H2H design + build, based in San Jose, Calif., was born. Now in its sixth year, H2H brings in about $1.9 million in annual revenue sitting in the heart of Silicon Valley — a competitive, high-priced, mixed area that also is cutting-edge in technology. “As a younger company, any technology we can find and use immediately is a direction we’re going with,” Rasmussen says. “Our clientele expects it. We communicate clearly and quickly and that is all done through the use of technology.”

That technology integration is part of what differentiates H2H from others in a highly competitive playing field. “It’s based entirely on our service, the quality and the attention to detail as we serve our clients,” Rasmussen says. “We’re only six years old, so still have a long way to go, but we’re competing with companies who are 25 to 30 years old.” Rasmussen attributes some of that to pure determination and some to being on the cutting edge of technology.

“We’re young and fresh; we can get things done more quickly,” she says. “In addition to that, our marketing and advertising is advanced. Our competitors might get a lot of work from word-of-mouth because they’ve been in business so long. Although we also acquire clients from word-of-mouth, we don’t have the clientele base they have established through the years, so our Internet marketing presence is more advanced.” Right now, all of their marketing efforts are digital. Rasmussen does hope to expand on that somewhat to broaden the client base beyond young families and the techies moving into the area, although that demographic is H2H’s primary target client.

Rasmussen is conquering a male-dominated field. Although she has encountered a few industry veterans who have talked down to her, being a woman in this field is largely neutral or even a perk, particularly when interacting with prospective clients. “A lot of times it’s the woman of the household who will make a decision about what team she wants to work with,” Rasmussen says. “The woman will often connect better with me and see I have style and design ideas. I also have a level of service of being caring and understanding their needs and why they’re doing the remodel. You can design all day long or do construction all day long, but in the end it’s about meeting the clients’ needs. As a woman, I understand that and women know that, so they feel comfortable with that when I meet them. Yet I also know the ins and outs of construction and all the layers involved with it.”

In addition to Rasmussen’s previous education in design and business, she continues as a contributing member of NARI and NKBA. “Construction is a combination of education in the classroom and experience in real life,” she says. “I also do a lot of self-education on personal development and leadership skills so I can build and grow a team successfully. I don’t swing a hammer; I run the business.”

The real life education Rasmussen refers to involves “street skills,” or being able to talk to communicate with contractors in their language. “It’s important to get out there and learn how to talk to contractors, learning verbiage that might be different from what we learned in school, fully understanding how a home is built and being assertive. You can’t just be knowledgeable; you have to show them what you’re capable of. Show them rather than tell them.”

Strong leadership is the keystone of successful business. Rasmussen’s favorite author is John C. Maxwell, who focuses his writing on leadership and business. “He says everything rises and falls on leadership,” Rasmussen explains. “If you’re going to build any business, you have to become a leader first. You have to continually grow your leadership skills. Ultimately, leadership is influence. You can’t lead anyone unless you influence them. It doesn’t matter what you do in any day. If you’re not influencing people, you can’t build a business. Always focus on developing one’s leadership skills.”


Chris Towson

In 2007, amidst the biggest recession to date of most people’s lifetimes, Chris Towson took a huge risk and launched his own remodeling company. Nine years later, his company is booming.

Towson studied construction management in college and interned with a renovation company in Massachusetts. After learning the trade there, he moved to Utah and worked as a carpenter on older homes before starting Living Home Construction & Design in Salt Lake City, specializing in custom renovation and construction projects.

Education has played a significant part in getting Towson where he is today. “It’s important to be constantly learning,” he asserts. “It’s not only good to be knowledgeable in your field, but that knowledge can help you market your company so when clients ask you questions you can speak intelligently. It also sets a good example for employees.”

Towson earned the Green Certified Professional certification from NARI, and is involved with NAHB and the Sugar House Area (Utah) Chamber of Commerce. He is also a Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business Scholar, which involved applying for and being accepted into a class for owners of small businesses. Towson says the class involved writing a business plan, focusing on problems within your business and networking with other business owners in the area. “It’s a good thing because they’re thinking about the same problems you are in owning a business — marketing, accounting, ways to grow.”

In the past three years, revenue has increased by about 50 percent each year. Average annual revenue right now sits around $3 million. In 2015, the company added one full-time project manager and one full-time office manager. This year, Living Home Construction will complete a full renovation on a commercial building in Salt Lake City that will house the new company headquarters, which will include added shop and office space, as well as showroom and conference room space. He remains ever cognizant of growing carefully — ensuring growth doesn’t outpace the company’s ability to keep up with it without sacrificing quality.

“A key factor of success is growing smart,” he says. “It’s also important to surround the company with good people — both staff and subcontractors. Listen and take in everybody’s opinion; use a team approach.

“It’s a fine line to grow sustainably, especially when we started in 2007 when work was scarce,” Towson continues. “It’s easy to take on too much. We try to focus on projects that are good for our company. We did not sacrifice on price or quality during those tough times just for the sake of getting the next job. Our company kept our overhead low so we didn’t have to scrimp as much, and we learned a lot of valuable lessons during those years and are well-equipped now that things are picking up. We’re in a good position now because we didn’t give anything away during those tough times. We focused on building a good reputation and that’s paying off now.”

Living Home Construction’s good reputation is largely built on customer service, which is illustrated in part by the company being honored with a Best of Houzz 2016 – Customer Service award. “We never leave any of our clients unhappy. Customer service is always our No. 1 thing. It’s always been at the front of what we do, and we never forget that on any project. That’s the biggest reason we’re successful right now.”

Towson passes on the following advice: “Know your numbers. If you’re just starting out, you have to know what it costs to run your business. I wouldn’t load up on overhead costs just because you can at that moment. And always leave your customers happy. Focus on customer service and communication.”

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