Scaling New Heights
From the time his father first hung out a shingle — and then installed a whole lot more of them — Fran Beaulieu says the secret to this 50-year-old company’s success is almost too simple to be true.
“The key here is we outwork everyone,” he said. “We’re here at 7, we’re open on Saturdays, we’re always on top of it, always focused on every job. We outwork everyone. It sounds corny, but it’s true.”
That legacy of hard work began in the mid-’60s, when Fran’s father, Phil Beaulieu, a French-Canadian immigrant, arrived in Western Mass. looking for a job, and found one at Fisk Rubber in Chicopee, which later became Uniroyal.
At one point, Fisk’s unionized workers went on strike, and while on strike, the elder Beaulieu met a couple fellow French-Canadians who hung siding, and went to work for them.
“They would go out on Saturdays and on Sundays after church and knock on doors to generate work,” Fran said. “The first time he did that, he got three jobs, and he never had to look back.”
Beaulieu officially launched his home-improvement business in 1967, gradually adding other skills beyond siding, from roofing to window and door installation. His son Al came on board in 1984, and Fran followed in 1988, eventually taking Phil Beaulieu & Sons Home Improvement to new heights.
“My brother and I have been operating the business since 2008,” Fran Beaulieu said, noting that the company recorded $1.8 million in gross sales that year, but $7 million last year. “We are, from what our supply houses tell us, by far the largest exterior remodeler in the area, but we’ve done it quietly — 90% comes from past customers and referrals.”
That testifies to high levels of customer satisfaction, he went on.
“As soon as you call here, we don’t drop the ball; we make an appointment and show up on time. Unlike a lot of home-improvement companies in the area, we aren’t about marketing; we’re about the trade. My brother and I, and the key guys here, are all about the trade and the craft. If that’s where our focus is, we don’t have to worry about what the competition is doing.”
Today, Phil Beaulieu & Sons specializes in all manner of exterior home improvement — tackling about 600 projects a year — including roofing, siding, windows, doors, decks, and masonry, with occasional light interior work related to an exterior project, like repairing ceiling damage caused by a leaky roof or installing interior trim on window jobs.
Products have evolved over time; for example, Beaulieu said new energy codes have put many window makers out of business and consolidated business among fewer manufacturers. He said he chooses product lines with a long track record for quality, and for good reason.
“We choose manufacturers that stand behind their products,” he told BusinessWest, rattling off names like Mastic siding, Harvey windows, Therma-Tru doors, and Trex decking. “We get every salesman in here, wanting us to sell their product, but we’re cautious about what we sell. If we select an inferior window to save a few bucks, we might put in a couple thousand windows in a year, and if they have a problem, it could destroy our reputation. So we have to be very careful. We use products that are time-tested and generally leaders in their industry.”
For that reason, Beaulieu said, his company tries to be up-front about pricing, but customers appreciate the candor. After all, while a generic product might cost 10% less, “if something goes awry, people don’t remember what kind of window is in their house; they remember who put the window in. So we don’t want callbacks — unless, of course, you want more work.”
At peak times, Phil Beaulieu & Sons may have 60 people working, including eight office staff, three on the sales team, and professionals scattered at job sites throughout the region.
“It’s a struggle to find labor,” Fran Beaulieu said. “We have a young crop of guys coming through the system, along with reaching out to other guys in the industry. They might have been a small-time contractor, and we say, ‘listen, come work here. You won’t have to chase leads and make calls; here’s your next job.’ We’ve been able to bring in some guys that way. We’re always looking.”
That said, some Beaulieu employees have been there 30 years or more, crafting the sort of long-term, successful, and satisfying careers that many young people mulling career choices may not consider.
“The trades are great, and they’re not what they were 25 years ago,” he said. “If you take it as professionally as, say, a banker does, you can do really well.”
But it’s also hard work, he added. “You have cold days, hot days, rainy days, but also beautiful bluebird days. Working in the fall is amazing. Working in February and March … not so fun. But you become accustomed to working outside in the elements. You learn how to dress in layers, how to eat properly, and how your body reacts.”
While job volume remains strong, he told BusinessWest, large projects tend to be fewer than in the past.
“People tend to nickel and dime on their house, but if they’re comfortable with our work, we’ll get more projects from them,” he explained, noting, for example, that it was common 20 years ago for homeowners to order 32 windows at once, where now they’ll order a few at a time as they can afford it. Tax season is a healthy time for orders, not only because people like sprucing up their properties with the warm weather, but they see a hefty tax refund as an opportunity to reinvest in their homes.
“That’s when we get a lot of repeat business — ‘you did our roof last year; this year we need a rear sliding door, and take care of that hatchway.’”
Over the years, the company has become increasingly involved in the communities it serves, lending energy and resources to organizations such as Lorraine’s Soup Kitchen, D.A.R.E., the Ludlow Hockey Assoc., and many local schools and youth sports groups.
Fran Beaulieu also sits on the executive board for Revitalize CDC, which is dedicated to performing home repairs and modifications for low-income families, the elderly, military veterans, and people with special needs. “We do a number of projects with them each year. We did a big Veterans Day project. When they came to Holyoke, we closed an entire block at Beech Street and worked on about 15 homes, all in one day. That was a great day.”
This year, Phil Beaulieu & Sons struck an affiliation with the Valley Blue Sox, with a billboard in left field reading ‘hammer it here,’ and making a donation to Revitalize CDC with each home run.
Beaulieu also sits on the board of the Home Builders and Remodelers Assoc. of Western Mass., which, among other roles, helps members comply with new building-industry codes in the Bay State.
“All that regulation has eliminated a lot of the little pickup-truck guys; they’re harder to find,” he said. “We used to bid projects against the small-time guys who were uninsured, unlicensed, and, if there was a problem, the homeowner probably couldn’t find that guy again. That’s changed in Massachusetts, which has become increasingly progressive about regulating our industry. A lot of it has to do with consumer protection.”
Fran and Al Beaulieu are already looking down the road to the third generation of this family business, as Al’s son will soon graduate from American International College and has decided to make home improvement his career.
“He’ll wear a tool pouch for a while,” Fran said. “You can’t manage it if you can’t do it. You’ve got to appreciate your employees.”
That said, he added, “we’re always looking for young talent. Any time someone wants to be a carpenter, sider, or roofer, we’re always willing to listen. We try to find guys who are into the trade and have the same passion we have for it. I’ve talked to young guys after their first cold day and said, ‘this trade isn’t for you. Not to make you feel bad, but you’re only 21, and you should know it now.’ If you don’t have the passion, this isn’t for you.”
For those who embrace the challenge, however, there are plenty more ladders to climb, on days both cold and gray, and when the bluebirds are happily singing.
Joseph Bednar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org