It is easy to think of home improvement as just a service but depending on the project you could really be changing your customer’s life. That is certainly the case with Atlas Home Improvement.
For more than thirty years, Atlas has been the premier home improvement company in southern Michigan. Although they offer many home improvement services, they specialize in accessibility and mobility solutions that allow customers to stay in their homes.
We recently talked with father and son owners David and Darian Bobby and Director of Operations Ela Pichan about why Atlas has been so successful.
From getting their start cleaning windows to helping customers age in place with specialized services, they share what has set them apart from other home improvement contractors. Let us begin with…
How did Atlas Home Improvement get into the home improvement business?
Darian Bobby: We got into the home improvement industry by accident. I had a window cleaning business when I was in college and one of the services, we began offering was gutter cleaning. It got to the point where every single time we asked people if they were interested in having their gutters clean, they would say yes. So, then we started to sell gutter screens. Since the gutter screens did not work for pine needles and other little things, I started researching a better option. That led me to Gutter Helmet and they took a chance on a 22-year-old kid. And the rest is history, everything developed from that one business decision.
What has been most instrumental to the growth of your business?
Darian: I think it comes down to the owners being willing to let go of some of the control. At some point you think your company cannot grow without you. I have found through proper training, scripting, and, frankly, great people, that your company can grow and you as the owner can still have a life. I used to be one of our top salespeople and I thought there is no way we will ever be able to survive without me selling. This was really the first year where we really focused on training, great professionalism inside the home, and great products. They stopped giving me appointments and our numbers went up substantially. So, I was not the key to our success like I thought I was. Giving up control is probably the hardest thing for a business owner, but if you have the right people and the right systems in place you can have amazing growth.
David Bobby: The thing that is wonderful for me, is that we do not have specific jobs. This gives us a lot of freedom to work on other things, to generate sales, and to get our name out there.
Ela Pichan: Atlas looks at it the way Steve Job’s always said. You do not hire people to tell them what to do, you hire people to tell you what to do. That is the whole purpose of hiring the right people. The Bobby’s tend to understand that everybody needs a seat on the bus, but they have to be in the right seat on the bus. The reason that Atlas succeeds is they have the right people in the right seats on the bus. It is a small business with 60 employees and the very nice thing about it is that it is a very family teamwork atmosphere. We are not a big corporation, everything that every employee does affects the profit, the bottom line of the company, and helps keep everyone’s families fed. Everybody is on the same page. Do you agree, Darian?
Darian: Yeah, great employees is the key.
Ela: They make the company as far as I am concerned. You can have a business but to have a successful business you need people that care. David likes to say and it’s on every wall in the offices, we do ‘what we do almost perfect almost every time’. We do the best we can every single day. Are we perfect? Absolutely not, no one is but we have no customers that complain. We stand behind what we promise. At Atlas, it is all about trust and we have the trust of our customers.
How would you describe your company’s personality?
David: Our personality is, we care about people because we save lives. The things we do for people in the home save lives. We put stair lifts in, so they do not have to go up and down the steps on their bum or fall and break a hip. We put in the Gutter Helmets, so they never have to get out a ladder again and crawl up there to clean those dirty gutters. We put in showers with very low thresholds or no thresholds, so people do not have to step over a seventeen-inch threshold in the tub. That is where they fall, they fall in the bathroom. It is the smallest, most dangerous room in the house. A lot of surfaces are wet, people slip and fall and hit their head or break their hip.
How have you differentiated yourself from other home improvement companies in Michigan?
Darian: Most contractors are traditional windows, siding, roofing contractors. We see ourselves as a specialty contractor that focuses on a handful of niche areas that are being underserved. We are an aging-in-place specialist, so we specialize in helping homeowners stay in their homes. Maybe they are making purchases when they are forty or fifty, so they do not have to leave their house when they are in their mid-sixties or mid-seventies to eighties. They can stay in their home that they love for the rest of their life. A lot of our products are geared around that, a walk-in tub, stair lifts, low-threshold showers, Gutter Helmets. That is what sort of makes us unique. When we look around, there are not many companies that we see as competition because there are very few companies that do that.
What marketing tools and strategies have you used to help grow your business?
Ela: When we are talking about how to grow the business, we have weekly meetings where we discuss and clearly research what is working and what is not working. That to me is the hardest part, knowing what marketing is working and what is not. Like Sarah from Keyword Connects, I have calls with her constantly to go over the stats as to how everything is going. We turn things on and turn things off as necessary, but it is all trial and error until you find something. Then keep reviewing everything you are doing to make sure it is working properly.
David: Also, we have some wonderful CRMs that we have brought on and that is made a big difference in our operation. We record every call going in and out for training purposes.
Have you ever tried an “out-of-the-box” marketing strategy? If so, what happened?
Darian: So, the first thing that came to my mind and I am going to give my dad credit for it. He was shopping in Meijer, that is a grocery store chain here in Michigan, and there was a blank location. They were looking for a Subway or Starbucks type of operation and it had sat empty for a while. So, he went up to the manager and asked what does it cost to have space in the store? Nowadays, this is kind of common. You will see home improvement contractors in the occasional Wal-Mart, but this was more than ten years ago. This was unheard of; nobody did this at the time. We signed a lease to have a showroom inside Meijer. Instead of needing to put a showroom on Grand River someplace and advertise to bring people to our showroom, we just found a grocery store that already had traffic. People would be walking by with their grocery cart with no intentions of anything to do with home improvement. The next thing you knew, they had put aside their grocery carts and come into our showroom. We sold a tremendous amount of business out of that original showroom.
How do you choose the products you sell to homeowners?
Darian: Quality is the number one most important thing to us. There are lots of products out there that make lots of claims, but our first intention is always to have the highest quality product we can find to offer to our customers. There might be ten different companies that are all selling the same windows in Southeast Michigan or they are all selling the same roofs. But nobody else sells Gutter Helmet besides us. Nobody else sells the Jacuzzi brand bath systems besides us. Nobody else sells the Navigator stair lifts besides us. So, everything we do is top of the line and high end, to do it right the first time.
Ela: Any time we see a new product, the question we ask each one of ourselves is would I put this in my house? And if it is not something, I am willing to put in my house, we are not selling it. Right Darian?
Darian: So I just moved, but in my old house I had our bathroom system, I had our gutter system, I had our Gutter Helmet system, I had our roof system, I had our heat wire system. So, we believe in our products and we have them in our own houses. And I am in line to get a new bathroom here shortly in my new home. So, like Ela said, if we would not put it in our own house, it is not really something we would feel comfortable selling to the public.
What is the most meaningful experience you have ever had with a customer?
Darian: I think this experience says a lot about our company and it taught me a lot about our company, frankly. I was on an appointment a few years ago for a stair lift and the customer did not answer the door. I knocked several times but got no response. I was about to leave and decided to try one final time when she finally opened the door. Turns out, she timed her entire day around only going up and down the stairs once. It had taken her that long just to get to the door and that had such an impact on me. The concept of improving or even saving people’s lives. I knew purchasing a stair lift was a big decision for her, it was a lot of money but we worked out a budget so she could afford it. So as soon as her job got installed, I got on the phone and called her, and she was crying. She just kept saying thank you, it was just powerful.
Ela: I know you might not understand, but we see this every day, and this happens constantly to us. I think that is one of the reasons most of our employees work here.
If you were to give yourself one piece of advice when you were first starting out, what would it be?
David: My advice to myself would be to major in business administration instead of biology.
Ela: I would have to say, be brave. I think that if you are starting a new business, you must take chances and those that do not take chances are not going to make it. It is always not easy, there are ups and downs, but if you are brave, you will succeed.
Darian: Once we got the business off the ground and we knew what we were doing, we struggled with control issues for a long time. We tried to do too much, we tried to do all the work instead of allowing the managers to do their jobs. When you let go of some of the control and trust your people – you have to train them, you can’t just hire someone out of the blue and expect them to know what to do. You know what to do, so you must train your staff and give them the opportunity to bring their own ideas to the table. And that ultimately has really allowed Atlas to flourish. Owners working on the business and not in the business.