On the House
Brian Rudd parlayed 14 years of experience with his father’s large home-improvement company into his own small firm in 2008 — one he has grown into one of the larger players on the regional landscape. But that growth, he insists, has been measured and smart, because he doesn’t want to lose the emphasis on customer service that continues to drive impressive repeat and referral business.
Brian Rudd graduated from college with a degree in accounting, but spent about six months in that field before deciding he’d rather work for his father’s company, Patriot Home Improvement.
That was in 1994, and he worked his way up to operations manager in that organization before the elder Rudd began contemplating retirement. Brian made an offer to buy the business, but his father didn’t take it — so he struck out on his own.
“I learned a lot about what to do and what not to do” during his years at Patriot, he said, but when he launched Vista Home Improvement in a second-floor apartment in 2008, he didn’t realize he’d soon be staring into the teeth of a global financial crisis and resulting recession.
“We didn’t think about the economic landscape; we thought about what we wanted to accomplish,” Rudd told BusinessWest, adding that the company’s small size — he did $319,000 in business his first year — was actually a benefit during a time when larger companies were struggling to keep their large crews busy. In other words, he earned enough business to survive and grow, one customer at a time.
“Whether times are tough or not, your house — outside of your children — is your number-one investment, and you’re going to need to have it fixed,” he explained. “And at that time, people were more selective about who to spend money with. We were always obsessed with taking care of the customer. And that’s how we grew.”
Starting with a focus on siding, windows, and roofing, Rudd hung up a shingle on Elm Street in West Springfield soon after, then moved to Vista’s current location on Riverdale Street three years ago — a space he’s already outgrowing, with 26 full-time employees and 24 more installers in the field. Last year, the company did $6 million in sales.
To reach that point took a lot of hard work and hustle, particularly while building a name that first year. “I’d be at Home Depot at 6 in the morning picking up lumber, then off to work a bunch of appointments.”
Weekends saw him at home shows, flea markets, and other events, soliciting for appointments, and then it was back to work early Monday morning for another non-stop week. But by doing so much himself in the early days, he was able to hone a customer-service philosophy he says has always driven his business.
“I really wanted to focus on customer service, because unfortunately, in this business, so many people get burned,” he said. “It’s a great business to be in — even now, I’ll be out checking out job sites for cleanliness, helping finishing up jobs … it’s a blast.”
Rudd knew he wanted to forge a more intimate, person-to-person model of business than his father’s large firm, so he has grown gradually, never taking on more than he could handle without losing that service-oriented touch.
“Our big thing is growing one good person at a time,” he said. “And as we get bigger, I’m still concerned with giving customers the ‘wow’ factor. They can choose anyone, so you have to give a great experience. That’s what we do. We’re not perfect, but when we make a mistake, we hold ourselves accountable for it and take care of it.”
Windows to Success
That philosophy, Rudd said, has helped grow Vista largely through repeat and referral business. “We might do a roof for a customer, and three years later, we’re back there doing the windows because they remembered the good experience we delivered.”
Today, Vista specializes in all types of exterior remodeling — custom doors and entryways, windows, awnings, decks, gutters, and sunrooms in addition to roofing and siding projects — but also installs bath and shower systems.
“We got into bathroom systems because, in the wintertime, when it’s cold, we want to keep working,” he said, adding that Vista has become one of the top dealers for its manufacturer of choice, Luxury Bath Technologies.
It’s a good niche to be in, he noted, because, while many homeowners enjoy tackling DIY projects around the house, they’re often loath to look behind the tiled walls of their bathroom and deal with issues of mold, poor plumbing, and other problems that might arise. Rudd recalled someone he knows who started a bathroom remodel on his own and still isn’t done six months later.
“Eventually you get so much mold and mildew buildup, you can’t avoid the project — it has to get done,” he said. “What’s your time worth to you? We can do it in a single day.”
However, quick turnaround doesn’t mean cheap materials, he noted. “I do not sell the cheapest products — they’re not the least expensive or the lowest-quality. Companies that do that are just putting lipstick on a pig. If you buy the cheapest windows, and five years later, there are problems with that window, and no warranty on it, well, that poor customer is out buying it again. We see this all the time. I partner with good manufacturers that have great warranties and great customer service. That is so key.”
For instance, Vista is one of about 200 Owens Corning platinum preferred contractors. As part of that program, the installers attend annual trainings, and each project is factory-inspected by Owens Corning when done, so the manufacturer knows the roof is installed to the correct specifications.
That program also provides lengthy warranties — “not the kind where you have to read the fine print, but true warranties, so if there’s a system failure 10 years from now, I’m covered by the manufacturer, and so is the customer.”
In short, Rudd said, customers shopping for roofing or other home-improvement needs get what they pay for, but Vista does try to work within each customer’s budget and offers no-money-down financing, which makes large, necessary projects slightly more amenable to a household budget. “It’s like when people are looking at a car — they’re not looking at the $50,000 price tag; they’re looking at the monthly payment.”
More customers each year are choosing Vista for those exterior and bathroom needs, he noted, and not only from Western Mass. The company has also opened an office in Northborough to service the central and eastern parts of the state. “We get a lot of referral business there, so having an office out there is so much easier.”
But at the end of the day, Rudd says Vista has grown because of the way customers and employees are treated.
“It’s all about customer service,” he told BusinessWest. “To me, the number-one person in the company isn’t me; it’s my employees. If you treat the employees like they’re number one, they’ll treat the customers like they’re number one, and that’s how it works here.
“We don’t have to be the least expensive guy to be the best,” he went on. “We provide very high-quality products and build off referrals and repeat business.”
The accolades speak for themselves — Super Service Awards from Angie’s List the past six years, an ‘A’ rating with the Better Business Bureau, and the aforementioned platinum status with Owens Corning, to name a few.
While always looking to expand on the company’s product lines, Rudd said he won’t take on work he’s not accustomed to doing just to get a contract. But he said the region’s remodeling companies form a tight network, and will refer customers to each other.
“I love what I do; to me, it’s not work. I take care of my customers, and making money is secondary,” he said, adding that he expects to keep growing in the coming years. “It’s a fantastic business. As long as people live in houses, you’re in business. But a lot of companies are top-heavy; they don’t pay their help. And the help is what makes the customer happy.”
In fact, one hindrance to growth is the ever-present challenge of finding quality employees at a time when the trades are struggling to attract young talent.
“It’s hard to find good people, but I’m blessed to have great employees. That’s what makes it happen,” he said. “There’s a ton of opportunities, but you also have to pay people. Typically in this business, a lot of people don’t want to pay for talent.”
Rudd wants to go beyond that, and has a goal of making Vista an employee-owned firm, with profit sharing, within five years — which would help the company become even more of an employer of choice.
“We’re happy with where we are now,” he added. “We could grow more if we had the right people, but we’ll find them.”
Meanwhile, he’ll keep his boots on the ground as much as he can, in between managing the day-to-day affairs of a company that is a far cry from its humble beginnings in a small apartment at the start of the Great Recession.
“I run appointments, go to see customers, I’m moving bundles of shingles, I’m loading trucks. I absolutely love it,” Rudd said. “I’m a people person. I enjoy working with people, and it’s good for my employees to see me out there. Besides, it’s good exercise.”
Sure, but love it?
“I really do,” he said. “The minute I can’t do that, I probably won’t be happy. It’s that important.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org