Construction pro wanted to narrow his business’ focus — and found the perfect way to do it
Larry Schaffert, 57, has been in the construction industry for 40 years. He started his own business, Schaffert Construction, in 1989, so he could have the flexibility he needed to care for a son with cerebral palsy. He bought a Kitchen Solvers franchise in 1998 and has focused on kitchen remodeling ever since.
What were you doing before Kitchen Solvers?
I’m a carpenter by trade. I worked my way up through the trade and started my own construction business, Schaffert Construction, in 1989, but I was looking for something that was more of a specialty. We operate Kitchen Solvers as a division of Schaffert Construction, but that’s where we put our emphasis. We do whatever work comes along right now, but we put all of our marketing efforts into Kitchen Solvers. My preference is to do kitchen work. There’s no mud, no working out in the cold weather or rain. When I do additions and that kind of work, there’s a lot more involved. Kitchens are easier. It’s a more specialized product line, and it’s easier to get workers because they don’t have to have as broad a range of knowledge. In kitchens, I can also offer a wide range of options — from a reface to a total remodel.
I’m able to have a wider range of services than anybody in my competitive market. Kitchen Solvers allows me to offer a huge range of services. Most people that do a kitchen remodel, let’s say they go down to the box store. If refacing is available at all, it’s in six door styles, three different woods and two stain choices. We have thousands and thousands of different options that we can offer customers. We can modify their existing cabinets, not just reface them. We can add new cabinets and use refacing to make everything match.
Historically, refacing has been pretty appealing to people. People have been pretty tight the last few years, and especially now, people are typically looking for the least expensive approach, which is something we can offer. We’ve even done a few jobs where we just replaced doors and drawer fronts, did a stain match with the color of the existing cabinetry and changed out the molding.
How did you find out about Kitchen Solvers?
I was looking online for franchise information, using franchise-rating websites. I was specifically looking for something with kitchens. One nice thing about kitchens is that the jobs are pretty quick. I was thinking about various options for specialization. When my focus was design/builder remodeling, I wanted to get out of the full-blown wide range of remodeling and get into something narrower and more focused, and I liked that kitchens would allow me to focus on one room with a shorter duration for jobs. Also, I can train pretty much anyone to reface, unless you’re all thumbs. That doesn’t apply to other aspects of remodeling, so the labor force was another consideration in looking into kitchen remodeling and refacing. I have two carpenters that I work for me, and I have a part-time office person to help me run my business. Since the jobs are smaller, it does require you from a sales cycle standpoint to get more leads. It’s a different dynamic for sure, but you’re also not stuck working for somebody for three to six months, especially if they turn out not to be fun to work for.
What sets Kitchen Solvers apart?
They have their own business operating system. If you’re new to kitchen remodeling, they train you. If you’re already in business, they still help you, because it gives you a framework in which to better operate your business. They have great sales tools. I get access to products and services that I wouldn’t otherwise get at the same price point because of the buying factor of going through a franchise. A franchise is also more saleable. Kitchen Solvers has a history of franchisees being able to sell their franchise. If you’re AAA Remodeling, or Bob’s Remodeling, that makes it harder to sell your business. With a franchise, you have verifiable financial information that a buyer can look at when they consider buying your business. Having a franchise gives you a level of credibility. Kitchen Solvers isn’t going to sell a franchise to just anybody. You’re part of a national organization that is reputable. The brand is a major part of that.
Who makes a good Kitchen Solvers franchisee? What attracted you to it?
I wanted something that was easier, and my intention was to have a business I could build and grow so that I was not involved with every aspect of the operation. I think someone who wants a business that they can grow is a good candidate for a Kitchen Solvers franchise.
I’m no longer out on most jobs now. You can hire your installation expertise. Somebody who has a background in sales and experience at managing a company, I think, is going to do well at a franchise. Someone who has construction skills and wants to have a simpler, more predictable product is also going to be a good candidate.
What do you enjoy about your business?
I like bringing a project together and seeing the finished product. What I really like is when we do a CAD (computer-aided design) design for a more involved kitchen remodel, and then you start to look at the finished product and you can’t tell the CAD design from the finished kitchen. That lets you know that you delivered on the vision.
Refacing usually isn’t as involved. It’s usually about updating the style. With a new kitchen design or remodeled kitchen design, not only are you changing style and fashion, but you are changing the way the kitchen functions. I like giving people a more functional kitchen — one that better meets their needs.
I prefer to work in homes built after 1978 because you don’t have to worry about the hassle of lead laws. One of the challenges of remodeling a kitchen in any home is accomplishing someone’s goals. When you do a reface, you’re not doing many changes to the room size and cabinet layout. One of the benefits is that you don’t have to change anything other than the looks of the cabinets. When you get into more functional changes, the project becomes much more involved. You might expand into an adjoining space.
Pretty much every kitchen needs remodeling about every 20 years or so because it’s made of products that wear. I’ve worked in kitchens that were 40 years old and still original. There was no refacing that kitchen. One thing for people to be aware of — the longer you put off remodeling, the more it will cost when you finally do it.
How large is the opportunity?
I have more prospects now than I’ve had for the last two years. Tentatively, things are looking better. From a “work on the books” standpoint, the last two years has been a challenge. We tried a lot of things to get through it to find work. What we found was most successful was marketing back to previous customers. I just joined a Business Networks International group, which is a peer referral network group. That’s pretty promising. I tried to do some online lead generation services and found them to be a waste of time and money. Home shows in my market have not been that successful — they don’t have enough traffic or qualified buyers. In other markets, home shows do well, but in our market the home show we have hasn’t resulted in business the last few years. One of the things I like about BNI is that only one of a business type is allowed into a group, so I’m the only remodeler. So anyone in the group who knows someone who needs a remodel — I get the lead. I find it appealing because it’s exclusive. The other thing is that people in my group include a realtor, a banker, an investor, a lady who sells food supplements, a photographer. That covers a broad range of businesses and demographics. I have found that I need to do more networking. I’ve joined some networking groups. Business used to beat a path to my door, and it doesn’t anymore. I need to spend more time talking to people and getting our message out.
Who are your main customers? Who are your best customers?
Professionals, whether it’s a one- or a two-worker family, are good customers. Recently there have been a lot of single worker households with kids. I’ve done some jobs for empty nesters. Also, people who are getting ready for retirement who want to do some work in their home before they retire. A fair number of my customers have been federal government workers — I guess they’re the ones that have money right now. My base of customers over the last year has largely come by referral.
What kind of carpentry experience did you have before starting a Kitchen Solvers?
I got into the industry in 1972 at age 18. I started right out of high school, and went right into construction. My wife and I — I’ve been married since 1976 — we started the business because we had a son born who has cerebral palsy. I was a project manager for a developer, and I was not able to have the freedom to work my own schedule. That was why we started Schaffert Construction — to have that flexibility. That is one of the real benefits, if you do it right, is you can have that personal flexibility. If you own the company, it follows the direction you point it in, or at least it should. My son is 25 now. He lives at home. He’s like a big, happy 2-year-old in a 6’1” body.
What types of work are you getting more of?
What we’ve been doing more of over the last year and a half is repair work. We’ve also been doing some new kitchens. The bulk of what people are doing seems to be repair work on the Schaffert side. Things that need repair and replacement, you can’t put off. But I just sold a kitchen today. A job we just finished up was a lady who needed to have her porch rebuilt. That’s normally at the bottom of my list. Once somebody hires us to do a job, they will call us and I’ll either do the job for them or point them to someone else who will do a good job. I did a couple of bathrooms last year. Bathroom remodeling is a line of work in itself.
How long do most jobs take?
A reface is going to take less than a week. We had one huge kitchen that took two weeks, but it had almost 100 openings. A renovation, it just depends on how much is involved. If it’s a $60,000 total kitchen renovation, it could take two months. Ripping everything down, rewiring, permits, inspections, putting in a new hardwood or tile floor — all those things add to the schedule. The time need for the job is dictated by the scope of the work and how many things you’re replacing. A quick swap — where you change out cabinets and counters — is a one- to two-week job, because you’re maintaining the layout of the existing kitchen. You’re not expanding the cabinet layout. If you get into moving walls, you’re talking about a major renovation that will take more time.
Different franchises have different approaches and different levels of skills. I’ve done commercial work. I’ve got a total construction background. I’ve built new homes. You don’t need that. For me, it just happens to be where I came from. If you’re going to focus on refacing and new cabinets — one of the things that appealed to me is that it is a narrower skill set that is required for the people doing the installation. It makes it easier to hire, train — and ultimately it will make it easier for me to sell. It’s not wrapped up in having to have people with extremely high levels of construction knowledge and skill.
What does your typical day look like?
Frederick County is a relatively large area. I try not to be driving every day. I might have a day with several appointments where I inspect jobs, visit job sites or go on a sales call. A lot of days, I’m working in the office doing estimates, project planning and purchasing — spending my time working on the computer. Today I did some administrative work first thing in the morning. My bookkeeper was here for a few hours. I did several projects that I’m working on pricing for — one that I’m working on a preliminary design for, one where I’m doing some CAD work. I do my own CAD work. For refacing, it’s not necessary to have CAD skills, but I’ve been using Chief Architect since 1994. It’s a skill I developed and have kept using. This is for an addition. It’s a good skill to have. If you’re going to get beyond refacing and get into doing full-blown kitchen remodels, you’ll have to be able to generate some CAD drawings, or you won’t be able to compete. I know Kitchen Solvers has somebody (Trey Anderson) who can work with you on the CAD.
Do you own one unit, or several?
I own Frederick County. When I bought, I bought the population base for my entire county. A lot of my sales have been in one particular community. Frederick is kind of an agrarian community. Frederick is the second-largest city in Maryland after Baltimore, and it is surrounded by little satellite towns. The city of Frederick itself is where a lot of my business has been. There are a lot of 40- to 45-year-old homes in the community. A lot of our work has been in 10- to 20-year-old homes.
What is a secret to your success?
Employees have provided me great word of mouth. Over the years, I have gotten some good employees that were people who I got to know through involvement in the local Builders Association. My salesman used to work for one of my suppliers. He was my service representative, and I liked him, so when I needed to hire somebody, I hired him. Another staff member was with a builders supply company. They were looking for a job at the time that I was looking. I find carpenters through word of mouth. I find trade partners, like plumbers and electricians, through other employees. That’s where I find the best workers for my company: Through trade associations and peer networking.
If you’re going to advertise, start with the small local paper — not the countywide paper. We have a small neighborhood community newspaper that just covers my area. I want to get someone local as a customer before I spread out and try to get someone from just anywhere.
I market back to people that we’ve already done business for. We’ve tried neighborhood marketing and haven’t gotten a whole lot of response out of that. The last two years, nothing has been as effective as I would like. I tried a newsletter and got nothing. I tried radio advertising and got nothing. We tried online lead generation, and that was a waste of money.
Remodeling is about relationships. It’s a service you’re providing to someone, and services tend to be more personal. One of the challenges is getting across to the customer, because they’re focused on the product and the price, and they’re inviting someone into their home to tear things up and make them better.
More than half of our volume of business comes from referrals. I get nothing from the Yellow Pages. I actually dropped our Yellow Pages ad. Actually, probably 75% of our business has come from referrals in the last few years.
Would you recommend a Kitchen Solvers franchise to someone else?
Yes. I think they have a lot to offer: buying power, salability, a proven business system, estimating tools, good technology. When you’re running your own business, you’re on your own. As part of a franchise system, you can get on the phone and call Gerry or Trey or Bill Weber, our marketing guru. You can talk to Gerry about sales, and about strategy for selling. You can call Bill and have an ad put together. I get a lot of support that I wouldn’t get outside of a franchise system. Plus, I am a dealer for a cabinet line. If I wasn’t part of Kitchen Solvers, I’d have to find the local area representative and buy cabinets from a local distributor rather than buying it direct. I have more leverage with my suppliers because I’m part of a franchise. When I go to sell, there’s going to be more value in a franchise that there would be in any self-named remodeling business. You also get a way to gauge your performance, to see how your business does compared to other franchises of similar size. Gerry has platinum sales training that you can go through. Other training and support, such as getting books set up and so forth — for someone new that’s going to be important. If I had it to do all over again, getting into construction, I would do it as part of a franchise because it gives you a jumpstart. Knowing what I know now, starting from scratch, I would go with a specialty, and it would be Kitchen Solvers.