And what of Mr. Build itself, the company whose founder, Art Bartlett, shared that 1984 INC. cover with Kelley? Then, as in 1981 when he founded Mr. Build International, Bartlett was hoping to duplicate his spectacular success as the creator of Century 21 in the 1970s. He wanted to "remodel the remodeling industry," predicting at start-up that 1,000 contractors would sport Mr. Build's maroon-and-gray colors within a year and a half.
It didn't happen. Instead, Mr. Build fell short of growth projections, lost millions, and diversified into a variety of property-maintenance trades, and Bartlett sold the company in 1985. Some former franchisees blame Mr. Build's problems on inept management -- and chief executive officer Thomas Tyska admits that some regional franchise buyers didn't do well.
But more significant, the franchisor claims, is that tradespeople proved less marketing oriented than real-estate agents. "We may have fancy commercials, videotapes, and brochures," says Glenn Cooper, president and regional director of Mr. Build New England, "but they're very uncomfortable implementing them." While Mr. Build was offering instructions in management and image, franchisees were waiting for the bottom line to improve. When it didn't, they didn't hesitate to drop out: after peaking at more than 600 in 1985, the number of Mr. Build's U.S. franchisees had dropped to 450 by 1987. And Tyska estimates the company had to sell 1,000 to 1,200 franchises just to achieve its 450 members.
Today, Mr. Build is still in the red -- losses have totaled about $4.5 million over the past three years. Nevertheless, Tyska thinks he has finally figured out what contractors want: more sales. In February, Seattle-area Mr. Build franchisees began getting work through a home-and-garden-supply chain. Since then, Mr. Build Northwest has gone from 20 to 80 members. So Tyska wants to open one-stop showrooms called Mr. Build Plus, where customers can hire contractors while buying supplies.
Though Tyska feels that he has learned from his mistakes, no one disputes that Mr. Build's founders were naive to assume that what they'd learned in real-estate franchising could be easily reapplied. "We all expected this thing to take off like crazy because of the success we had had at Century 21," says Cooper. "But this is a different industry. You're dealing with contractors -- and though it's taken us six years, now we really understand what they need."