Quest for Quality
June 11, 2006
Scott Koeppen bursts onto the job site. The ninth floor of the old Chicago Playboy Building is being turned into condominiums. There, a drywall finishing crew and foreman have completed their work and await Koeppen's inspection.
It's a blissfully sunny day but the light pouring into the room exposes every gash in the gypsum, crater in the joint compound and uneven wall surface. Except on this job, no blemishes can be found. The inspection reveals a top-notch finish. Koeppen is elated.
"Time is money for many contractors," says Koeppen. "But I look at it differently. I think quality is money."
Control growthTo be exact, Precision Drywall Inc. is Koeppen's money. The five-year-old firm, based in Huntely, Ill., is possibly the fastest growing residential drywall company in the country.
In 2005, Koeppen's precision-minded crews cranked $2.7 million in sales-five years after posting first-year gross receipts of $130,000. In other words, Precision Drywall has grown 20-fold in half a decade and at 91 percent rate per year.
The company focuses on Chicagoland's mid-range to high-end residential remodeling market. The firm handles some new construction but Koeppen says profit margins and the opportunity for control are greater with room additions and high-rise renovations. Control is important because one of Koeppen's main selling points is his proficiency for turning in tidy work. It has caught the attention
of Chicago's top-tier remodeling
"He's clean, professional, on time and his price is good," says Jim Cochran, president of J.R.C. Construction Inc., a $10-million-a-year homebuilder and room-addition contractor based in Arlington Heights, Ill. "That's hard to find among drywall subcontractors."
Koeppen's business clearly has growth potential. But last year, that caught up with the company. The payroll had bloated to 40 individuals and the firm contracted too many jobs. Maintaining quality became a challenge.
So, Koeppen and his wife and company president, Kacey Koeppen, started to rethink their growth strategy. They are a special husband-and-wife team: Scott, the blue-collar hustler blazing new trails, and Kacey, the white-collar company comptroller pushing for sensible growth.
"Scott is always out there bidding the work," says Kacey Koeppen, who has a sales and marketing background. "I'm about keeping it grounded. We need to be professional about this. Last year, we simply had too much work."
The Koeppens decided to drop some accounts. They pulled away from 15 of 30 general contractors and pared back employees. It seemed like a step backwards, but it wasn't. It was about going after the right kind of growth.
"I want to work for contractors who demand quality like I do," says Koeppen. "People who demand quality will pay for it-they always will."
Lessons learned long agoKoeppen realized the potential for quality drywall construction a long time ago. In 1986, while a junior in high school, he earned $5 an hour doing drywall construction. Energetic and ambitious, Koeppen put in long days for his employer but added his own projects on the side.
"People noticed my work," he says. "I realized that quality would be my niche."
To Koeppen, quality is the only worthwhile niche. It is his overriding mentality to do things expertly and he insists that those who work for him do likewise.
"Our work gets tedious because Scott insists on a very high standard," says foreman Aric Bandur, Koeppen's right-hand man of four years. "Before we hang any ‘rock,' we put in temporary plastic walls and floor protection to contain dust and debris in the construction area. Scott won't have it any other way."
A tidy job site is important but so are Precision's procedures for building walls: After hanging gypsum panels and before taping joints, crews pre-fill any voids using Durabond Setting Type Joint Compound, by U.S. Gypsum.
After that, they apply a four-coat finish-a rarity in the industry. It begins with two coats of ready-mixed all-purpose joint compound. Those are topped with two coats of USG's Plus 3 mud.
Along the way, Koeppen conducts several personal walk-throughs. He guarantees his work for a year and his motto is to "never skimp, never cut corners."
No compromiseCertainly, drywall contracting has become very competitive. Koeppen, for example, recently bid $27,000 on a drywall job but lost it to a contractor who bid $7,000 less. Getting underbid is normal. But being beat by $7,000 certainly indicates business is tough.
"It's not going to be possible for that company to pay their workman's comp, insurance and people," says Koeppen. "I can't imagine how they'll do it-except poorly."
Competitive bidding is one factor. Like others, Koeppen also faces rising oil prices, building material shortages and jumps in insurance premiums. Maintaining a company 401(k) retirement plan and offering paid vacations also aren't cheap.
So, Koeppen worries. Rising costs and stiffening competition are putting pressure on Precision Drywall's quality approach to construction. One day, might the firm be forced to cut corners? Skimp on joint compound? Use inferior products?
"No, I will never let that happen," says Koeppen. "I'd just as soon get out of the business.
"I'm in business for one reason and that is to take care of customers," he adds. "It's about working for superintendents of remodeling companies who won't ask me to compromise my quality. It's about doing pre-drywall and post-drywall walkthroughs on the job. It's about my attitude and the attitude of my crews. It's about offering a 100-percent guarantee of satisfaction."
Thus, Koeppen has no plans to change his approach to drywall construction anytime soon.
"I've never had a dissatisfied customer," he says. "I just won't allow it."
Precision's New Niche: Priming And PaintingRecently, Precision Drywall expanded its services by adding a priming and painting crew. The company now does it all: hanging gypsum drywall, taping and finishing joints, and applying primers and final coats of paint.
Precision Drywall even has the capability to apply high-build, drywall surfacer/primers, such as Tuff-Hide Primer-Surfacer. Such primers require the use of high-pressure spray equipment but give a Level 5 finish in one step.
"We think priming and painting makes perfect sense," says Scott Koeppen. "We like that we can control the finish. It's one more way for us to make a great impression."