Building a Future for Distributors and Dealers of Building Products
Volume 44, Issue 7 September 2005
Expansive Homes Expand Archadeck's Business
by Megan Headley
Mel Perry, president of Archadeck of Raleigh-Durham, may have only taken over the reins of the Raleigh, N.C.-based company last year, but he wasn’t born yesterday.
“I’ve been a business executive, I’ve been a consultant, I’ve been middle management in Boeing,” shared Perry. “I’ve run projects—multi-million dollar projects. How difficult can building a deck and a screen porch be?”
Shaking his head with a wide smile, Perry answered his own question. “Boy, did I have an education coming!”
Then again, some people might consider building a deck and a screen porch easy compared to the job of building—or managing—a deck and screen porch company. Even for one of the first branches of the Archadeck franchise, the job of managing company growth and dealing with jobsite and industry challenges requires a constant rebuilding of sorts.
The Popular Design
The popularity of decks today means that many homeowners view their outside space as an extension of the home, and as such many homeowners are looking for more than a simple platform for the grill. Archadeck Inc. (part of Richmond, Va.-based U.S. Structures Inc.) is best known for its high-end decks and porches, although with changing trends that reputation has grown to include sunrooms, gazebos, docks and more—more than 65,000 projects worldwide.
The company was founded in 1980 and includes almost 90 locally-owned and -operated offices in the United States, as well as in Canada, Japan and the United Kingdom. The Raleigh-Durham franchise, which has been serving Wake, Durham, Orange and Johnston counties for about 16 years, is one of the earliest branches of Archadeck Inc., and one of the largest in the country. Annual sales exceed a million a year and between decks, porches, gazebos, pergolas, combinations and very unique and specialized customer requests, the company has constructed well over 5,000 projects.
“Right now, Archadeck will not sell a franchise as large as we are,” said Perry. “We’re three times as large as any franchise that can be bought today as a single unit.”
Perry and his partners Mike Vickery and Gail Mannina bought into the company in January 2004 and have since been heading a team of two to three design sales consultants, several staff carpenters and currently 12 independent builders. Since then, they’ve also learned a thing or two about how “difficult” building a deck and a screen porch can be.
For Archadeck-Raleigh, the process of creating a deck begins with what Perry says is one of the biggest challenges faced on the job: discovering what the customer wants.
“The biggest job we have got is to listen,” said Perry. “The secret is to ask enough questions to allow the customer to tell you what they really want. And sometimes that’s hard because they haven’t figured out what they really want yet.”
Equipped with a questionnaire, a sales design consultant visits the homeowner to get the first idea of what the structure will look like. Is budget a concern? Will the outdoor area be a place for entertaining guests or home to a hot tub? Is low-maintenance important?
Once an idea of concerns and likes and dislikes has been developed, the consultant returns to the office with photographs and dimensions in order to plot out several designs using CAD software. The homeowner is then able to draw from elements of each draft to get closer to a final design.
Next comes the actual building process, which also carries a number of distinct Archadeck characteristics. Bayed corners and diagonal decking are signatures of even the most basic decks. In addition, rather than simply bolting crossbeams to supporting posts, the builders cut a notch into the post so its strength is supporting the beam, rather than the strength of the bolt.
“That’s integrated unified construction where everything is very positively attached to everything else. So you’re not looking at breaking one little part. It’s all supporting the rest of it,” explained Perry. “A lot of people try to copy it and find out it’s a little harder than it looks.”
In addition, the builders start at the top of the deck and work their way down. Using stiff knees for support, the builders can ensure that the deck starts level. By putting up railings and other finishing touches before digging footings, they can also ensure that there is only one inspection, reducing delays. Builders Rob Callender and Joe Molinari currently work for Archadeck. They were familiar with the process of building down before coming to the company and assure others that it’s a simple technique to learn that just makes sense.
At the end of the process the homeowner is left with an attractive and secure deck that should be around for the lifetime of the house.
“There’s been many areas where after a hurricane came through, the whole block of houses are gone, but the Archadeck decks are still there,” Perry said.
Building a Team
In addition to the deck building process, Perry and his colleagues know they are also in the business of building relationships—with employees, subcontractors and suppliers, as well as colleagues through the corporate headquarters.
Building a relationship with the subcontractors is a particularly important part of the job, according to Perry. Because they are not strictly employees of the company, Archadeck has to be sure that the contractors share the same values and are willing to offer fast, reliable and courteous service.
“The trick is finding the roofing people, the painting people, the whole team out there that you can develop a partnership with,” said Perry. “They have to be worried about our success and we have to be worried about theirs.”
Callender has worked with Archadeck-Raleigh since the end of 2004. He explained that as an independent subcontractor, he’d spend about three days working and the rest of the time seeking leads for more jobs. By working for Archadeck, he’s able to spend every day working.
“You don’t have to find your own jobs,” added Molinari. “There’s something for you every week.”
In addition, Callender said that the company takes care of the unforeseen problems that inevitably happen on the jobsite, leaving him responsible only for finishing his job. Even more importantly, at the end of the week there is always the guarantee of a paycheck, a problem that many independents face.
Members of the industry know that concerns about getting a paycheck is often matched by homeowners’ concerns about getting the job done without losing money to an unreliable builder. Perry said that this is one of the concerns the company addressed as it was founded: every time a project is sold, part of the money goes directly into an insurance corporation.
“If you sign a contract with me, I’m going to give you the paperwork right then and I’m going to ask you to send it in within 72 hours,” explained Perry. “If I get in my car and I skip town with your money, you’re not out. The corporation will guarantee we’re going to build your deck your way—and that is kind of unusual.”
Other benefits to operating as a franchise are the resources available from the Archadeck headquarters. The corporate marketing department, business department, engineering department and drafting department are available to answer questions and provide assistance.
Another important resource is e-mail; specifically, an e-mail network that connects members of each of Archadeck’s nearly 90 franchises.
The second someone experiences a problem on the job—whether it’s with a product, an employee, a client or design—they are able to search for answers among their colleagues in the company.
“There are some building products that have developed a lot of problems—after long histories of being an excellent product. And we know about it almost instantaneously because just as soon as someone hits that problem, it’s out there, we know about it.”
One goal of effectively managing a company must be growth, although learning to manage that growth can be a challenge. Since Perry came on board in 2004, he’s seen the company grow in a number of ways. To begin with, the company usually has about ten jobs going at a time and demand is high.
“We just called up the radio company two days ago and said ‘slow down the rate of the advertising; it’s hitting too fast right now,’” he said.
A variety of marketing techniques have certainly contributed to the company’s growth. On a national basis, the Raleigh franchise pays an advertising fee to Archadeck, which covers the corporation’s publicity in national magazines and an extensive website that Perry said brings in a great deal of business. In addition, the Raleigh-based company pays for its own local advertising, which includes home shows and radio spots.
While advertising has proven to be effective, it’s not nearly as rewarding as the referrals that come into the office.
“I’m very proud to go back and look at that lead-book … and see how many referrals we’ve gotten from previous customers, how much repeat business.” said Perry. “The most rewarding part of the job is having that customer call up.”
As the amount of business the company does grows, so too does the number of employees needed to serve the company.
“We’re going to have to hire a dedicated permit runner,” Perry explained.
In addition to new employees, the company has recently formed a partnership of sorts with the Salem, N.C. branch of Proscapes Inc., a landscaping and hardscaping company.
Perry explained that he frequently gets calls from customers interested in a combination of services—such as a screen porch complete with landscaping or a deck bordered by a water feature—that Archadeck can’t supply. Then representatives from Proscapes approached him and suggested they work together to ensure that customers could easily find everything they were looking for. The companies tested the partnership by doing a home show together and found the results to be worthwhile.
“Now we just get on the phone and call Proscapes and say, we’ve got a meeting with a client, let’s go. The client knows he’s dealing with two different companies, but we try to make it as seamless as possible.”
A Changing Industry
As the company has grown during its 16 years, the type of requests it has gotten has changed.
“You don’t know how happy we’d be if it went back to the original days of Archadeck when we were building decks. Nice, fancy decks, but building decks,” said Perry.
The latest design trend Perry has noticed is the popularity of screen porches, especially complete with fans, lighting and other features. Creating what is virtually an addition to a home can be a challenge, particularly when it comes to coordinating with other contractors and learning to work with materials that aren’t usually part of a traditional deck, including electrical outlets or glass and screen for windows.
Perry said he’s also seen a rise in interest in composites. He attributes that to the rise in quality in the products available.
“It looks like a lot of engineering has gone into some of these products,” Perry said.
“Some of the product [manufacturers] have really stepped back and said, ‘Okay, we’ve got something that the public likes out there. Now what are the complaints with it and how can we make it better?’”
An example Perry gave is the change in the type of fastening materials available. Rather than putting screws into ultra-hard composites, Archadeck builders often use a plastic biscuit joiner fit into a groove in each board, which is then fastened into the support beams. The product makes it quick and easy to install hard composites, Perry explained, and when aesthetics are a priority for the customer, it’s an added benefit that the fasteners are invisible.
Of course, the more dramatic change in fasteners, from arsenic- to copper-based, proved to be more of a challenge.
“The way it happened, the way it came about without any fanfare, they caught the fastener industry by surprise and not everyone had the fasteners that would work,” said Perry. “It affected us greatly at first because we couldn’t go buy a box of nails without reading the fine print.”
New products have provided a world of options for deck purchasers, but a lot to keep up with for builders striving to offer the newest technology.
Perry said, “This one especially takes some guts: going into new products. Not just a different type of wood, but a really different type product than we’ve done before, than my crews have got experience with. My appetite isn’t right for a day or two, let’s just leave it at that.”
Despite the challenges the industry has thrown out, Archadeck-Raleigh has clearly built the legs on which it needs to stand.
Megan Headley is an assistant editor for SHELTER magazine.
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