Meet Smokey Ensey

“I’m just one of those ‘handy, do anything’ type of guys…and that’s what I like.”

Smokey Ensey officially joined STRITE design + remodel in 2015, but we’ve worked with him for 25 years — long enough to know that his skill as a craftsperson, attention to detail, and all around good nature are a great compliment to our organization, and especially to our customers. This is his story.

I’ve been known as “Smokey” since I was born, which was along the Northern California coast near Santa Rosa, in a town up in the mountains called Annapolis. It was basically not much more than a store — but it was a gorgeous place to live.

Back in the ‘70s I was building electronic digital scales — high precision instruments ranging from pharmaceuticals to trucking. The recession in the ‘70s hit our industry hard, so I opted for a voluntary lay off and took up tile work, thanks to an acquaintance who was a tile contractor and worked throughout the Bay Area.

My family and I left California in 1988 and went to Montana. Montana is wonderful for hunting, fishing, back packing…and that’s what we do, along with riding motorcycles and dirt bikes. But it’s hard to make a living in Montana…and the winters get pretty long. We came to Boise on the 4th of July 1991, back when it was about the size of Santa Rosa, but with four seasons. Everything we want to do is a short drive away.

I became a tile contractor in 1992, and STRITE was always my number one customer. STRITE and I were always on the same scale when it comes to cleanliness, detail, and keeping the job site clean. I also preferred remodel projects to new construction, which I quit doing around 2001. They want you to do an entire house in one week when you should spend two to three weeks to do the job right. They had crews back then who would knock these jobs out, and that is a lot of what is getting redone today: leaking showers, tile falling off the walls — not quality work. You get what you pay for, and I’m very quality-oriented. I don’t think I’m anal, but it’s either right or wrong. There is a line you cross between efficiency and quality, and I refuse to cross the line on quality.

Since joining STRITE, I don’t set tile anymore. I’m one of those “handy, do anything” types, and that’s what I like — but what I am primarily is a “punch list” guy. I go in at the end of a job and make sure everything is detailed, and I work with the clients on their accessories. It’s right up my alley — it’s the quality end of the job, making sure that every detail is the way the client wants it. I keep them in the loop, and every evening or morning I let them know what has happened and what is going to happen next.

I’m having a great time, doing what I want to do. We get some great projects to work on, and we’re the number one remodeler in Idaho. I’m on my first remodel as the project manager — but the best part of my day is still coming home to my wife. She is my best friend, and we both enjoy the outdoors and cooking. I look at food the way I look at music and clothes: variety is the spice of life!

Read Smokey’s Team Bio.

What Are the Types of Projects for which STRITE is Ideally Suited?

Professional remodeling companies come in different shapes and sizes, from one guy in a truck to the full-service, design-remodel business like STRITE that has a staff of designers, project managers, and others who ensure that every detail of your project is completed to your standards, on budget, and on time. STRITE is the most ideal choice for people looking for the following remodel experience:

Value added design that not only enhances the esthetics of a home, but improves its livability and functionality.

A single point of contact in day-to-day management of the construction process, and accountability for its successful completion on-budget.

Cost savings through the experience to “expect the unexpected,” the skill to execute your vision, and the ability to pass volume savings along to you.

Client Relations and the Cost of Doing Business

Client Relationships

Any credible company will blithely profess that taking care of customers is just “good business.”  Ingraining good customer service into an organizational culture, however, involves an investment of time (which equals money) that not all businesses are willing to make.

For STRITE, customer relations is as necessary a cost of doing business as meeting our payroll. One of the legacies of our company’s founder, Jim Strite, was to make customer care not simply a rigorous discipline, but the subject of on going study. Rather than handing out reading assignments on new construction techniques, which our project managers were already inclined to learn as a matter of perfecting their craft, the STRITE team was asked to study books like “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” As a result, STRITE’s weekly production meetings typically focus as much on the emotional states of our remodel customers as they do on construction details.

To better appreciate how customer relations shape the STRITE culture and its business practices, I recently interviewed vice president Brad Milspaugh on the subject.

Q: Why are customer relations such an important component of a successful remodeling business?

A: We joke that our project managers need to major in construction and minor in psychology, but when you think about it, we’re spending every day in situations that are inherently stressful — we’re going into peoples’ homes, into some of their most intimate settings, and completely transforming them.  That in itself puts people in a pretty vulnerable mindset, and we have to be sensitive to that.

Q: How do we promote good customer relations among our project team?

A: The first thing we do is practice the techniques we’ve learned from “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” These include always looking for the “win-win” in a situation and seeking first to understand. That last technique is especially important when you have a customer who is upset about something.  We’ve learned that the best initial response to a customer concern is to simply shut up and listen. Another important attribute of our project managers is the ability to stay calm. Bringing a sense of calm to a situation that is inherently stressful is vital to keeping our customers calm as well.

Q: How important are good communication skills?

A: Extremely important — but good communication goes beyond interpersonal dynamics. It starts with the systems we put in place to keep our customers in the loop on their remodel projects. Over the years, we’ve built layers into our tracking and reporting systems in order to accommodate different customer personality types. This means including levels of detail that satisfy a more “engineering” mentality, or keeping things more high level for customers who simply want to know if we’re on track with deadlines and budget, but don’t want to get into the weeds. Every week, our clients receive an email update of their project status tailored to their particular “need to know.” Things like small business software also helps out in managing the team for quick communication.

Q: What else matters to customers?

A: Responsiveness. We don’t like to get a phone call in the middle of the night from a customer who says that the tarp protecting their construction site just blew off in a windstorm, but we have to not only take that call, but respond to it by going out and fixing the problem. In a case like that, just listening isn’t enough.

Q: What is most upsetting to customers?

A: Not being kept in the loop. When we fail to adequately communicate, and our customers have to contact us to find out what is going on with their project, that’s simply not acceptable. Which brings up another aspect of good customer relationships — the inevitability of error, and our willingness to take ownership for our mistakes and fix them without playing “the blame game.”

Q: What is it about practicing good customer relations that makes it a cost of doing business?

A: When we take on any remodel project, one of the things we tell our customers is that after we’ve created the budget, the description of work, and the project calendar, the only wildcard is them. We don’t mean this in a negative way, but simply to recognize that indecisiveness or tortured decision making can add delays and cost. We’re generally pretty good at recognizing these types of situations up front, and we build it into what we call our “dollars versus relationship transaction” rather than put the burden back on the client when issues arise. I think most of our clients recognize that the more they contribute to the efficiency of the process, the more it benefits them in the end…and that the reverse is equally true — but we’ll treat everyone with the same respect and professionalism regardless. As in any relationship, the true test is how well you hang in there through the not so good times as well as the good times.

What Are the Major Stages in a Remodel Project?

Process

For nearly 40 years, the STRITE remodel process has been refined by hundreds of experts: our clients. While good communication is always critical to delivering what you’re looking for, there are steps to getting there that are as critical to the STRITE experience as the people we employ.

While you can review a detailed schematic of the STRITE process by clicking here, the major stages of a remodel project are summarized below.

Input — We ask questions about your expectations and lifestyle, and then we listening. Together, we create a list of your project objectives and prioritize them room-by-room.

Design Agreement — We create an outline of your objectives and an agreed upon budget range.

Conceptual Design — Our design team creates what will be the basis of the preliminary plan for your project.

Final Selections — We provide a shopping list with budgeted allowances for your remodel finishes. Time to hit the showrooms!

Description of Work — We schedule a “trades party” for team members at the project site, and use their input as the basis for a comprehensive “description of work” (DOW) that details every step of the construction process.

Pre-construction — We walk through the entire scope of work with you and discuss project details, such as the preparation of the construction site.

Construction — During construction, you’ll remain in close contact with your assigned Project Manager, who will provide you with frequent production schedule updates. As your project nears its end, you and your Project Manager will review the “punch list” of details that need to be addressed. Upon completion, STRITE will review the remodel experience with you and provide product information and warranties to add to your Project Binder for safe keeping.

 

Your Candid Feedback

Award
We attempt to complete a personal  follow up interview with all of our clients in the hopes of receiving solid objective feedback.  We have completed hundreds of surveys over the past 20 years, and have received valuable tips on how to improve our service a little more each remodel.  We encourage objective, candid comments – in fact we often start with “you won’t hurt our feelings…”.

In addition to interviewing our clients following a remodel, we use the  independent construction industry research firm Guild Quality (originally as a beta tester in 2005).  As of this writing, 194 of our recent clients have taken the time to provide  feedback and testimonials (thanks!).  Our goal?  We sincerely want to improve our service,  and who else better to talk to than the people who have hired us – we want our clients to talk behind our back. You can see the results of the Guild Quality survey here. Our favorite discovery – out of the 194 interviewed, 191 of our past clients (98%) would not only hire us again, but would also suggest us to a friend,  family member or coworker – it is our privilege to help you, thanks!

We are also proud to announce that since 2007, we have been honored with the distinctive  Guildmaster Award every year,  and are nominated for 2011.  From the GuildQuality site:

“GuildQuality also provides a third-party Guildmaster certification program that allows builders and remodelers to earn a Guildmaster rating by meeting stringent qualifications for consistently superior customer service. The Guildmaster certification provides remodelers and builders with objective affirmation of their hard-earned reputation for superior customer service.”

You can read more about the Guildmaster Award here.   Again, thanks to our clients for your input.

Don’t Call Them “Subs”!

Suggestion

We’re going to let you in on a little secret regarding our ability to meet our scheduling deadlines.

Sure, you probably think it has everything to do with experience and organizational skills — tempered with a healthy dose of realism — and those factors do come into significant play when we hand a client their project calendar.  More than anything, however, what keeps our projects on track and manageable is the willingness of our trades partners to make our priorities their priorities — and that willingness comes from years of relationship building and mutual respect.

“Mutual respect,” when it comes to our treatment of our trades partners as well as our clients, has been an indelible part of the STRITE culture for as long as we’ve been doing business — so much so that the often used industry term “subs” when referring to subcontracting relationships has been expunged from the STRITE vocabulary for some two decades now.  Inasmuch as “sub” is a prefix denoting lesser quality or inferiority, we consider it a derogatory reference to our partners — many of whom we have worked with over the course of hundreds, if not thousands, of projects.

While this respect cuts both ways, there are other reasons that our trades partners tend to make our priorities their priorities.  It’s good business.  Our trades partners know that when they attend a “trades party” to preview an upcoming STRITE project, they are virtually assured of getting the job.  They know that when they show up at a STRITE job site, it will be ready for them to get to work.  Finally, they know that we pay when we say we’re going to pay, and that once they’ve met our qualification standards (which include being insured, bonded, and reliable), they can count on a consistent stream of jobs.  All of these things contribute to the profitability of our trades partners, and benefit our clients by ensuring that the folks who work with us fit our schedules into theirs, rather than the other way around.

To hear first hand why the local trades community likes to work with STRITE, watch these YouTube video interviews with Terry Scott of Western Electric and Brad Allison of Allison Heating & Cooling.

10 Year Trend to 2013

Trends

In some hopeful news for both homeowners and construction companies alike, Remodeling Magazine recently published its annual report on the cost versus value ratio for replacement and remodeling projects across the U.S.  In a positive sign for the remodeling industry, the 2013 national average cost-value ratio rose to 60.6%, ending a six-year decline.

Cost vs

The latest ratio represents a nearly three-point improvement over 2011-12, and is more than a half-point higher than the figure from two years ago. The Remodeling Magazine survey reveals that lower construction costs are the principal factor in the upturn, especially when measured against stabilizing house values (How good do those last three words sound, right?).

The further good news in the report is that cost-recouped percentages were up for all 35  replacement/remodel projects tracked in the survey.  This marks a complete turnaround from the 2011–12 report, when percentages dropped in all but three projects — some precipitously.  The biggest gainers this year were mostly replacement projects, which have always outperformed discretionary remodeling projects, more so in recent years as the economic recession brought price to the forefront for homeowners making remodeling decisions.

For those of us living in the Treasure Valley, Remodeling Magazine’s report not only breaks out the cost-value numbers regionally, but by metropolitan area as well, including Boise.  Looking over the numbers for our market, you’ll find that the best return on your remodel dollar comes from “minor kitchen remodels” at 76.2 percent.  The figures are revealing not only from the standpoint of giving you some idea of how much you might recapture from a home remodel project should you sell your home, but also for the insight they will give you into average remodel costs, and how our market compares to the rest of the country (hint: we’re looking pretty darned competitive, my friends).

So what does all this mean to our customers, you ask?  As interesting as the numbers in this report may be, they don’t fundamentally change the math as we see it — which has more to do with the intrinsic value of having a place to live that better meets your lifestyle needs.  That said, however, it’s nice to know that should you decide to sell a home you’ve improved through a professionally managed remodel project (no offense to the DIYers out there), your return on investment should be better than it has been in many a year.  That certainly beats a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, which isn’t a bad metaphor for what our overall housing market has felt like until now.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

Inside Strite

Remodeling your home, whether we’re talking about updating the look of a guest bathroom or a second story addition, is a big decision…and quite possibly one of the biggest lifestyle investments you’ll make outside of the original purchase of your home.  We naturally expect that our clients will have a lot of questions during the decision making process, and throughout the remodel.

We’ve dedicated this blog to publishing a running list of the most frequent, and most thought provoking, questions that we hear from our clients.

Q: What is a “trades party?”

A: A “trades party” is an important step in the process of creating a description of work (DOW) and a fixed price agreement for our remodel projects.  At a trades party we invite our construction partners to the job site (i.e. your home) to review the project with our design and production staff and provide their input.  By giving them the opportunity to share their expertise and experience at the onset of a remodel we not only identify potential challenges, but also potential savings.  We also ensure that they fully share in the knowledge we have of the project plan, and can safely and profitably fulfill their part in its completion on time, within budget, and to the expectations of the homeowner.

For more information, read our blog post, Party Time!

Q: What is STRITE’s warranty policy?

A: Another, and more relevant, way of posing this question is to ask, “Does STRITE stand behind its work?”  The immediate answer is a resounding, “yes!” — but the heart of this question gets down to the difference between “explicit” and “implicit.”  Explicitly, all STRITE remodel agreements include a one year labor warranty, with materials and products subject to the warranties of their respective manufacturers and suppliers.  Having said this, however, we should add that in nearly four decades of doing business, warranties have never been an issue for our company.  The reason for this is not simply that we stand behind the quality of our work, but more importantly because we believe that, “once a STRITE customer, always a STRITE customer.”  To better appreciate the “implicit” side of our warranty policy, read our blog post on the subject.

Q: Why does experience matter?

A: For most of us, it goes without saying that the more experience we have with doing something, the better we get at doing it. While this may be true for individuals, however, it isn’t necessarily the case with organizations — especially in an industry where every job is a “custom build.”  Where the rubber meets the road is in how an organization builds “repeatability” into its processes — and how it in turn inculcates those processes (think “standard operating procedures,” if you will) in its staff and associates.  For STRITE, this “repeatability” resides in our project database — a rich information source for how we approached a project, the costs associated with that approach, the challenges that arose, and most important, how we managed those challenges.  For more insight into how repeatability benefits our customers, read our blog post “Why Experience Matters.”

Q: What does integrity mean in our business?

A: This is a frequently asked question that we can answer in six words: keeping our end of the agreement — which is, of course, another way of saying “doing the things we said we were going to do.”  As an integral part of the STRITE culture, this value goes beyond the notion of contractual obligation.  Sure, our contracts require us to produce what we’ve agreed to on paper, but our interpretation of “integrity” is more about truly having the best interests of our customers in mind throughout a project and beyond.

Q: What does “value” mean?

A: For us, the concept of value starts with how we see our business, which is to provide a high quality service and product.  If you think about a “higher calling” associated with any business, ours is to fulfill a community need — and after all, improving peoples‘ homes is certainly an investment in the quality of a community.  Focusing on this aspect of our business model, rather than on simply making money, forms the basis of how we look at value.  To this, we add integrity (doing what we do honestly and professionally), talent, and experience.  For more about how we define value, read our companion blog.

Q: What does it mean when we say we know our numbers?

A: “Knowing our numbers” is more than just a point of professional pride at STRITE — it is part of the value we bring to our clients when we undertake a remodel project.  Knowing what things cost, based on years of experience with a wide variety of remodel situations, comes from tracking every cost for every project we’ve ever completed.  This knowledge benefits our clients in two very tangible ways: it makes for an accurate estimate at the outset of a job (which translates into a fixed-price contract), and it ensures the absence of “change orders” through the life of the project.  For a better understanding of what this means to our clients, read our blog, Knowing Our Numbers.

Q: What kind of relationship do we have with our local trades people?

A: Mutual respect, when it comes to our treatment of our trades partners as well as our clients, has been an indelible part of the STRITE culture for as long as we’ve been doing business.  While this respect cuts both ways, there are other reasons that our trades partners tend to make our priorities their priorities. It’s good business. Our trades partners know that when they attend a “trades party” to preview an upcoming STRITE project, they are virtually assured of getting the job. They know that when they show up at a STRITE job site, it will be ready for them to get to work. Finally, they know that we pay when we say we’re going to pay, and that once they’ve met our qualification standards (which include being insured, bonded, and reliable), they can count on a consistent stream of jobs. All of these things contribute to the profitability of our trades partners, and benefit our clients by ensuring that the folks who work with us fit our schedules into theirs, rather than the other way around.  For more on this subject, read our blog, Don’t Call Them “Subs”!.

Q: How long will my remodel take to complete?

A: The easiest answer to this question is that things take what they take — and not all remodel projects are created equal. There are, however, a couple of key factors to getting a project completed as quickly as possible. The first is organization…which in turn is a function of experience. Having done thousands of remodel projects over nearly 40 years, we know how the necessary sequence of tasks mesh, and how to condense them down to a schedule that lets us hit the ground running while avoiding the inefficiencies and errors that occur when people are trying to work on top of one another. There is, however, another factor that ultimately trumps experience when it comes to the timely completion of a remodel project: the willingness of your trade partners to make your priorities theirs. For more insight into this frequently asked question, read our blog How Long is it Going To Take?.

Q: How do we treat our clients?

A: For STRITE, customer relations is as necessary a cost of doing business as meeting our payroll.  One of the legacies of our company’s founder, Jim Strite, was to make customer care not simply a rigorous discipline, but the subject of on going study.  Rather than handing out reading assignments on new construction techniques, which our project managers were already inclined to learn as a matter of perfecting their craft, the STRITE team was asked to study books like “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”  As a result, STRITE’s weekly production meetings typically focus as much on the emotional states of our remodel customers as they do on construction details. To better understand STRITE’s approach to client relations, read an interview on the subject with vice president Brad Milspaugh.

Q: What is a DOW?

A: Try to imagine filming a blockbuster movie without the benefit of a script, and you have some idea of how integral a “description of work” (DOW) is to the successful completion of a remodel project.  In essence, the function of the DOW is to take everything we’ve learned from our clients in discussing their project goals, everything our trades partners have told us about those aspects of the project they will contribute to, and all the costs and lead times for materials, appliances, fixtures, and finishes involved in the final outcome, and then compile this information into a “narrative” of how the remodel will proceed from beginning to end.  For our clients, the DOW serves as a way of confirming that their expectations will be met, while giving them a way to gauge the project process.  The DOW also provides the broader context for scheduling the work of our trades partners and for the creation of the project calendars we provide our clients.  To better understand the role that the DOW plays in the overall remodel process, click here for an overview.

Q: How do we deal with mistakes?

A: Nobody is perfect — least of all builders.  In any endeavor with as many details and complexities as a remodel, errors are bound to occur.  Our goal is to minimize their frequency and impact through detailed planning and an in-depth knowledge of the construction process, and then take ownership of our mistakes if and when we make them.  This, of course, begs the question of when something is a mistake versus an unforeseen situation that arises in the course of a project.  Because STRITE routinely generates a “description of work” (DOW), we never try to hide behind a “change order” as a thinly disguised mistake — which is why we don’t use that term in our business.  Between the DOW and our ongoing communications with our clients, there is never any doubt as to the difference between an outright error and a mere “complication.”  The truth is, neither matters when it comes to our obligation to do the right thing, on time and within budget.

Knowing Our Numbers

Inside Strite

Every now and then we confront the perception in our market that “STRITE is expensive.”  Our usual reply is that we’re simply realistic.  “Knowing our numbers” is more than just a point of professional pride at STRITE — it is part of the value we bring to our clients when we undertake a remodel project.

Knowing what things cost, based on years of experience with a wide variety of remodel situations, comes from tracking every cost for every project we’ve ever completed.  This knowledge benefits our clients in two very tangible ways: it makes for an accurate estimate at the outset of a job (which translates into a fixed-price contract), and it ensures the absence of “change orders” through the life of the project.

From our perspective, change orders are too often used as a way to cover a contractor’s mistake in estimating a project, or in failing to anticipate a problem along the way.  If we neglect to budget for a detail in our description of work, we don’t issue a change order — we simply make it right at our expense.  Mistakes have their consequences, but those consequences should never be borne by our clients.  Learning curves are a cost of doing business.

What STRITE does have to cover the possibility that our clients will expand the scope of a project is what we call an “additional work request,” or AWR.”  Note that unlike the change order, the operative word in AWR is “request.”  There are points in any project where a client might want to address a wish list item that wasn’t part of the original description of work (DOW).  Say, for example, that as part of a kitchen remodel we are replacing vinyl flooring with hardwood, and the client decides that they’d really like to take out the carpeting in the adjoining family room and extend the hardwood into that space as well.  If it wasn’t part of the DOW, it becomes an AWR.

In putting together a job estimate, we generally counsel our clients that additional work requests will probably make up between three to five percent of a job.  This means that for a $100,000 project it is realistic to expect that a client might choose to add $3,000 – $5,000 in additional requests for products (think appliance upgrades), materials (how about granite instead of tile), and services (could we just go ahead and bump out that breakfast nook and pick up some more space in the kitchen as long as we’re reframing).  Industry wide, our percentage of AWRs (vs. change orders) is very small, which suggests to us that our planning and estimating phase in the description of work process is thorough…and that our numbers weren’t based on inadequate allowances designed to jack up revenue or “buy the job.”

When remodeling companies fail to “know their numbers,” they either shift the burden of their ignorance to their clients, or they lose money.  Either way, they most likely don’t stay in business for very long.  So while it may sound a bit arrogant, we feel very confident in stating that if we tell you that a remodel project will cost $20,000, and someone else tells you the price is $10,000, you need to be wary.  At the very least, you need to ask, “Do you know your numbers?”

What Does “Value” Mean?

Inside Strite

Whenever we consider a remodel project with a client, the discussion inevitably turns to the topic of “value.”  Sure, the concept can seem a bit trite, if not hackneyed, but the first thing we try to do is to disassociate its definition from that of “cost.”  The lowest bid on a remodel project is no more a metric of value than the highest bid — and while the concept of “return on investment” may make sense in the business realm, it doesn’t translate as neatly into the math of a home remodel.

Value, as it turns out, is something you experience — and at STRITE, we believe that it is an experience with many facets to it.

For us, the concept of value starts with how we see our business, which is to provide a high quality service and product.  If you think about a “higher calling” associated with any business, ours is to fulfill a community need — and after all, improving peoples‘ homes is certainly an investment in the quality of a community.  Focusing on this aspect of our business model, rather than on simply making money, forms the basis of how we look at value.  To this, we add integrity (doing what we do honestly and professionally), talent, and experience.

To compare the value that competing companies offer is a tricky proposition when choosing a remodeler, since it would ultimately require homeowners to have the same project completed by several different companies — something that simply doesn’t happen in the real world.  The truth is, any good remodeler should end up producing the same, or roughly the same, outcome when it comes to fulfilling a client’s needs.  What happens in getting to that outcome is where value is experienced.

It may seem a bold statement, but we are the only construction company in our residential remodel market that doesn’t say, “We can’t do it.”  We’ve learned over the years that everything can be done…you just have to understand the parameters associated with doing it.  Helping our clients work through those parameters is another component of how STRITE adds value — one that also informs the culture of our company, and how we work together and with our trades partners.