The Tao of Jim: An Interview with the Founder of STRITE design + remodel

To appreciate the caliber of STRITE’s staff, just peruse the Team Bios on the “About STRITE” section of the company website. One member whose absence may be conspicuous to those who have some history with the company, however, is the man whose name it bears: Jim Strite.

Jim’s absence from STRITE’s “active roster” should hardly come as a surprise, given the fact that it has been nearly four years since he stepped down as president of the company — having left the responsibilities of that post in the capable hands of long time partner Bob Mundy.

But if for those who know him the concept of “retirement” seems odd when applied to Jim Strite, the simplest explanation we can offer is that ever since he gave up active management of the company he founded, he has been doing pretty much the same thing he’d been doing for the past 40 years — the difference being not so much the level and nature of his activity, but its scope. To clarify, I offer the following interview with Jim by way of an update.

Q: How do you describe your current relationship with STRITE?

A: I’m on the board of directors and available to the company upon request. I want to be as supportive as I can. We started this transition in 2004, and finalized it in 2010. We felt that it would take that much time to ensure the survival of the company, knowing that there is a 95% failure rate in transfers of ownership — so we wanted to be sure to take the time we needed to design a program of succession that would make sure we survived.

Q: What are the most important components in a business succession?

A: Having the time and working as a team to determine who is going to be in control, and what systems and strategies are going to be in place. I’ve seen a lot of succession efforts, but not very many that have been successful — even with families. Of course, the dynamics of a business succession are already difficult without throwing in family issues. One of the things that is deadly to any succession, especially in a small, family-run business, is a culture of entitlement. When I was running STRITE, it was as a corporation in which I considered myself an employee. I wouldn’t even take a stamp without paying for it — but I seldom even did that. You create an attitude that, “if the owner does it, then why can’t I? It’s destructive.

Q: How would you describe your legacy at STRITE?

A: I think our company culture is my proudest legacy, and I think it’s best expressed by our mission and purpose statements — they summarize what I want my legacy to be. When we thought about what the letters in the name of our company should stand for, we based them on our Mission Statement and came up with Service, Trustworthiness, Responsibility, Integrity, Tenacity, and Excellence. When people speak about Strite, those are the words I would want them to use. I do think that my legacy has less to do with what I’ve done, however, than it does with the number of years that our key employees have been with us. I’ve learned from my consulting work in the industry that an average length of time that an employee stays with a remodeling company is 18 months. Ours is more like 18 years. It’s difficult to build a culture when there is continual turnover. One thing I will give myself credit for, however, is introducing the concept of “open book management” to our company.

Q: How do you describe the “open book” concept?

A: An open book management style basically means sharing job budgets and income statements with your team so that they better understand how the business works. You show people how to play the game of business: what the rules are, what is a score, what are the boundaries. It provides a much clearer destination for your business. When I first adopted this philosophy, most folks thought I was crazy — they didn’t have the foresight of “win-win.” It took a lot of work to overcome peoples’ fears in our company, and in the industry as I began to promote the concept beyond STRITE.

Q: Why were people in the remodeling industry so fearful of “open book management”?

A: People were fearful of it for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that it was embarrassing to most owners that they didn’t make as much as their employees — at least not when you factored in the number of hours they worked. Another reason is that a lot of owner/operators have an entitlement mentality — if my employees work on my house, it’s just a job cost; if I need some materials for a personal project, I take them. Manipulating the numbers to cover these kinds of things is the quickest way to destroy open book management, and ultimately your business. Another fear is that if you train someone to really understand the business, they’ll go out on their own. In fact, the reality is that when people see what it takes to run this business, and see their benefits clearly, they think twice about going out on their own. When you pay a competitive wage and good benefits, people aren’t so eager to risk that. Personally, I would rather train a good competitor than have someone who doesn’t know their numbers bidding against us. Finally, some people just have a mentality of scarcity. I strive for a mentality of abundance, which is why I started the Idaho chapter of the National Association for the Remodeling Industry (NARI Idaho) and brought in competitors who would give us the requisite15 members needed in 1989 to get the Idaho chapter started — and why I eventually got involved with Remodelers Advantage.

Q: What can you tell us about Remodelers Advantage?

A: The organization originated in Maryland, and you can think of it as an extension of the NARI mission to educate owner/operators in our industry — many of whom are good technicians, but don’t understand basic business. While NARI offered classes to help educate people in our industry to be more professional, and to also help educate the public on how to determine who the professionals are, Remodelers Advantage takes a more hands on approach. I was fortunate to be involved in creating its mission statement, which is to, “Provide a safe, encouraging, yet exacting environment for members to grow toward their dreams and aspirations. We believe those goals should include above average owner compensation, a healthy net profit year after year, and working hours that allow for a balanced life and to develop a significant company that delivers value to all stakeholders, including employees, clients, trades, and community.” Members of Remodelers Advantage are expected to exhibit the highest ethical principles in their business. We don’t tolerate people taking money out of their company to benefit themselves by doing their own remodels and using it as a tax deduction. It is about continuous improvement in an atmosphere of love, patience, care, respect, and fun. It is each member’s duty to contribute to the best of their ability to learn and improve to a significant degree, and we start every meeting reading our mission statement and discussing different aspects of it.

Q: What role do you play in the organization?

A: I’ve been involved in Remodeler’s Advantage since 1995, and I had a lot to do with developing its mission. In 2001, I was asked to be a facilitator, which involves going out to remodeling companies around the country and managing case studies. The case studies entail different organization members flying out to a company location and talking with their owners, employees, vendors, sub-contractors, and clients. We already have a full set of financials before we meet with them. My job is to get the introductions going, then find out from the owners what they are looking for by way of input. We set up three or four “stations” that the employer, employees, etc. cycle through. I monitor these groups and provide guidance as necessary, and make sure the focus is on abundance. Once that process is complete, participants fill out cards that identify five strengths and five areas of improvement. We read those cards, then develop themes or topic points to help us decide what we want to focus on. We then pick out a team member to lead each one of those topic areas. All this takes place in a day and half, with another day and half focusing on financials. We can then focus on specific issues affecting financial performance. My task is to hold this all together, as well as work with folks who don’t understand their numbers. I have the patience to find approaches that work. We also have a mentor group that facilitates issues such as balance and succession in a business. We don’t tell owners what to do, but offer ideas for consideration in how to go from weakness to strength. We try to make it clear to people that their business does not determine their self-worth, but we’ve had folks who have broken down and cried, or gotten irate and defensive at these sessions. As a moderator, I have to bring down those barriers. It makes people very vulnerable — you’re showing all your cards.

Q: How has your involvement with Remodelers Advantage altered your perspective on STRITE?

A: It’s really made me think more about how we differentiate ourselves. The Remodelers Advantage case studies are unique in that there is no other place I know of where an owner/ operator can be in such a secure but exacting environment, and say what they really feel. I can come back to STRITE with all of this insight and information and provide input on what we should and shouldn’t do as a company. One thing this has taught me is that you wouldn’t be in this business if you didn’t want to help other people. We’ve done a lot of soul searching at our company, and we’ve realized that our differentiator has to be that we care — I’m speaking in a holistic sense: caring for our customers, their families, their neighborhoods, the environment, our employees…we cannot and will not intentionally sacrifice any of these in the pursuit of our business. That belief is what I’d like to see not only as a legacy for STRITE, but for other companies as well.

Q: So, what’s next for Jim Strite?

A: I will probably spend at least another three years with Remodelers Advantage. I have income property, and I like doing some of the maintenance myself. Although I do a lot of business related traveling, my wife and I would like to do more for pleasure. We follow the Boise State Broncos around, and because my wife is involved with Idaho Shakespeare Festival, we’ve gone to London twice and to their sister theater in Cleveland. We also belong to the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute through BSU, and I’m currently taking a class on the Supreme Court.

*As a footnote to this interview, I should note that even as STRITE’s marketing associate, it took weeks to get Jim to sit down with me and discuss his life post-STRITE. It wasn’t so much that he was busy, although he always is, but rather that he simply had a difficult time understanding why I would want to spend time talking about him when I could be applying my energies to promoting the STRITE brand.

I was finally able to convince him that we had clients who genuinely cared about what he was up to, and to further sweeten the deal I invited him to lunch at a local ethnic restaurant I thought he would enjoy. And of course, since we were sitting down to a meal together, I might just as well whip out my recorder and ask him a few questions. By the end of that lunch, I had my interview…and Jim had a new place he wanted to bring his wife to for dinner. He also left scheming on ways he might be able to help the restaurant owners expand their business. Welcome to the tao of Jim.