Construction is in Josh Appelman’s blood. Under his dad’s tutelage, he learned how to build solid houses from an early age. When the housing market collapse forced him to make a fresh start, he decided to try his hand at building a business. Now his firm, United Installs, makes customer service its main mission. It finds reputable contractors to complete flooring, fencing and decking jobs for customers, and holds them accountable for getting the jobs done right. Since 2011, United Installs has scaled considerably - revenues grew a whopping 2,020 percent, to $2.6 million in 2014. He also added 16 jobs, which includes a position for Appelman’s dad. That growth put the Erlanger, Kentucky-based firm at No. 215 on the 2015 Inc. 5000. Here, Appelman reflects on his company’s growth and how he has managed it.
-As told to Alix Stuart
In 1983, my dad started his own construction company, Appelman Construction. He managed jobs out of our house, and would bring me on jobsites after hours. Once I finished school, I worked for him full time on those jobsites with the other crews. I learned the basics of construction and the process of building a new house from the footer to the roof.
Then in 2008, the housing bust displaced us. I went off and learned flooring, which is one of the highest turnover products in the market. There’s always a need for flooring. I started as a sole proprietor, with no real vision for what it could become. But in 2011, I had a lot of work coming in, and I saw I might be able to bring in some crews who could do it as well as I could. Then my role transitioned to more managing than installing. I submitted the paperwork to incorporate my business in the beginning of 2012.
The business model has become managing jobs and customer service; we’re a service provider. We’ve got a streamlined process: we have someone go out to give the customer an estimate. Then we hire a crew to do the work. We’ve since expanded our services from flooring installation to lighting, fencing and decking installation as well as facility maintenance.
Like my dad did with his business, I was initially running the installation crews out of my house. They would pick up the paperwork and leave for their jobs in the morning. My mom was my first employee, she came on to run the books and help administratively when I grew to the point I couldn’t keep up with the paperwork. As we brought on more crews, I felt that working out of the house was holding me back. We moved into a small 1,100-square foot warehouse and office in August 2012. After a year, we had about 20 to 30 customers per week, so we moved again to a larger warehouse. And since more work and more crews require more management, we now have 19 office employees overseeing 73 installation crews serving between 100 to 120 customers per week.
When we moved into new facility, we were running off a Google calendar. That got us by, but limited us because it didn’t allow any strategic planning. Then we brought on new technology that allows us to handle even more customers. Now we can bring customers’ accounts up on screen as soon as they call in, and have a contractor dashboard that displays their schedule and their performance, with customer survey scores. All of our technicians are surveyed out after job, and our incentive plan pays a $25 bonus for a positive review. We debit $25 for a negative review. Things do happen, but overall, we have a good grasp on giving customers what they expect. I was raised on the principle that you must give respect to get respect. Today, I define customer service as understanding customers as if you were in their position.
My dad’s firm had four employees, now we’re at 19. But that doesn’t bother my dad. He’s been right there with me, every step of the way. He was indirectly involved in the company all along, and officially joined in February 2013. Now, we’ve come full circle and it’s more or less the two of us growing the company together.