In May of 1985 at the age of 25 I was married with one child and I decided that I no longer wished to work for someone else. I decided that I was going to open my own home improvement company. At the time I had been working as a sales person for several home improvement companies specializing in vinyl siding. I had a relationship with another salesperson that had many years of experience so we decided to partner up with this new venture.
The first question to be answered was where we would open? We were both living in Texas and decided to move our families to San Antonio and there we opened VDI, specializing in the sale and installation of vinyl siding. On paper, my partner, John Finley was in charge of the sales and marketing and I was responsible for installation and administration. The truth is we both found out early that we both had to do a little of everything. As I tell people today, when you decide to start your own business, you only have to work half days. You just have to decide what 12 hours per day that half will be. Now 30 years later, I am still working just half days.
The next question was, what products we were going to offer? Since we were both experienced with vinyl siding, we initially made that our primary focus. Then we needed to be clear on our philosophy. How were we going to run this company? John and I both agreed to keep it simple. We will treat our customers and employees like family. We will deliver exactly what we said we would and we will pay for everything that has to do with every individual project as soon as the project is completed.
Things got off to a quick start. John and I started going door to door telling homeowners of our products and services, and it did not take long for us to generate some business. By the second year, we had hired additional sales people and were keeping three siding crews busy. We both felt comfortable enough to purchase homes and my wife, Leslie and I had our second child. Then, disaster hit! Texas was a one product economy- oil. In the late 80’s the price paid for a barrel of oil went from $40.00 a barrel down to $4.00 almost overnight. The economy of Texas along with all the other Oil dependent states collapsed along with almost all the Savings and Loan type banks in the United States. Home values plummeted, including mine and John’s. The banks were foreclosing on whole neighborhoods. Don’t let anyone tell you that the mortgage crises of 2008 was the first time this sort of thing happened. It was exactly the same in the late 80’s.
Very few people in our market were interested in improving a home that was crashing in value and the few that were, could not secure financing. In October 1987, every contract we wrote either canceled or were rejected for financing. John and I knew we had to find a new market. At the time we narrowed our search to North Carolina or California. We choose California.
We discovered that California required a State Contractors License to operate. We, of course, did not possess a California State Contractors License. Texas at the time did not require a State Contractor’s License so we decided we would go out to California and work for a California Contractor until I could obtain a California Contractor’s License.
So in early 1988 John and I left a manager in charge of our San Antonio office, packed up a car, said goodbye to our families, and drove out to California. We in a way felt a lot like the Okies of the dust bowl days. We had no idea how we were going to make this work, we just knew we had to make it work. Once we reached LA we secured the positions with the contractor that was operating under a contract with the Broadway Department Store Chain to sell vinyl siding, painting and a new permanent exterior coating product called TexCote. Then to save money, we checked into an old motel on Hollywood Blvd. across from Hollywood High School. We worked during the day and walked around Hollywood at night for our entertainment.
At that time, the contractor’s test was only given two times a year in the old convention center in Sacramento California. I purchased a book that covered the business law section of the test and hoped my experience in the industry would be enough for me to pass the contracting and building section of the test. John and I would stay in California for 3 months at a time and would then drive home for a couple of weeks and then go back. In November of 1988, I left LA on a Friday afternoon after running my leads and arrived in Sacramento. The next Saturday morning along with hundreds of other hopefuls I sat down in the convention center to take the test. Approximately 6 weeks later I found out that I had passed both the law and the contracting sections of the test and I was now a licensed contractor in the state of California.
In the beginning of 1989 John and I quit the Broadway and opened VDI in Sacramento CA. We commuted for the next year between Sacramento and San Antonio. Then in 1990, we officially closed our office in San Antonio and moved our families to Sacramento. Due to the fact that we both were upside down on our homes in San Antonio and we were trying to build the company, thus money was tight, we rented a three bedroom apartment in West Sacramento for John and his wife, Leslie and I and our two daughters. It was tight but is was what we had to do at the time.
Over the years we slowly built the business to where we both had our own homes and things were going smoothly. Then we secured the contract to operate out of 32, HomeBase Hardware stores. The stores were located from Washington through Oregon down to Bakersfield California and also Boise Idaho. For those that do not remember the Home Base stores they were very much the same as Home Depot stores. In order to finance this expansion, we incorporated VDI and sold 49% of the company to private investors. To cover these stores we opened branch offices in Washington and Oregon. On paper this contract with Home Base looked good. Sales grew at an astounding rate, but due to overwhelming lead costs and a crippling percentage cut to Home Base, it never became a profitable endeavor. As a matter of fact, it almost bleed the company dry with the resulting pressure causing John to leave the company.
With the removal of John, and the company on the verge of bankruptcy, my wife Leslie came to work. I arranged for VDI’s gradual withdraw from the Home Base deal. The closing of the Washington and Oregon Offices and I bought out all of the private investors. It took approximately 5 years for Leslie and I to accomplish these goals but in the meantime the economy in California was booming. The housing market was going crazy and our business grew. We had added replacement windows to our product line up years earlier along with aluminum patio covers and the TexCote COOLWALL permanent exterior coating system. In the late 1990 and early 2000’s the federal government along with most power companies were offering incentives for homeowners to replace their old inefficient windows. These incentives included rebates and tax credits. These incentives along with drastic improvements in window and glass technology were very successful in encouraging home owners to replace their old windows.
Our two daughters Amanda and Michelle grew up and married. Amanda our oldest, came to work for the company along with Michelle’s husband Sean Chiquet. Amanda became responsible for all material ordering and Sean came on to help me with our Multi-Family division. Both additions were great because they are both very good at their jobs and it brought our new grand children to the office on a daily basis. Though as the grand children have grown they cannot come in as often and Amanda now has three children so she stays at home more. Sean is no longer assisting me with the Multi Family division, he is now in charge of that aspect of the company. The company is, by all definitions, a family owned business. As when we started we have always made an effort to treat all of our employees as family and Leslie and I have been told on many occasions from many employees that they feel the same.
Then came the recession of 2008. Because of Leslie and my experience with the 1980’s recession and the oil collapse in the late 80‘s, Leslie and I were very debt averse. We had saved a large portion of the profits we had earned during the boom years. We had the company completely debt free and were in a good cash position. These fiscal decisions enabled us to weather the economic storm without having any layoffs. Though business slowed, unlike many of our competitors we stayed open and slowly built our business back to pre-2008 levels.
As Leslie and I have reached our mid 50’s, our exit plan is now entering the forefront. Though neither of us is ready at this time to sail off into the sunset, we know we have other activities we wish to pursue. With that in mind, we agreed in 2014 to sell ½ of the company to one of our sales personnel, Paul Cromwell.
So as VDI enters its next 30 years, we will continue to operate with the same family atmosphere and conservative approach that has guided us through the last 30 years.
Written and submitted by Stephen Kuhlke