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Stilwell Architectural Design & Custom Remodeling: Second time the charm for remodeling company Owner polished business skills after his first firm folded

February 13, 2006

Joe Stilwell knows how stressful homeimprovement projects can be.

So when his remodeling and design firm is on the job, he can find himself tackling more than his supervisory duties-sometime acting as marriage counselor, pastor and even dog walker.

"We become part of this family for four to 10 months," he said. "We need to know if we should let the pets out."

Client Paula Ruppert can attest to his expertise. She and husband Michael hired Stilwell Architectural Design & Custom Remodeling to work on their Meridian-Kessler home. While they love the result, they're also glad the project is complete.

"I tell people that if your marriage can withstand remodeling, then you'll make it," she said.

Stilwell knows his job is to make it as easy as he can.

"When the project is two-thirds done, the occupants reach a burnout place," he said. "They want it to be done. They begin to question if it was a good idea. Somehow, we need to make it sound enticing."

Projects can last anywhere from three months to a year, depending on the scope. Prices also run the gamut, from $50,000 to $480,000. The average is about $150,000, Stilwell said.

Clients typically "have decided they like the neighborhood where they live and don't want to move, so they remodel," he said. "They want to make their home into the home they've always wanted it to be."

Sometimes, this means virtually starting over, as when Stilwell gutted Paul and Sue Wood's 1876 Italianate home in Avon. Sometimes, it just means improving what's there, as when he combined the kitchen and breakfast areas in Kent and Jeanne Van Tyle's Butler-Tarkington abode.

Stilwell's company typically completes eight to 12 projects a year. It posted $1.2 million in revenue last year, down slightly from 2004. But business has been picking up, he said, and revenue should return to the $1.5 million mark this year.

His road hasn't always been easy. After earning a bachelor's degree in biology from Earlham College, Stilwell worked as a carpenter trainee for three years, then started a remodeling business in 1989. That lasted two years.

"It ended because I was going crazy: I had no background in accounting and I had to learn estimating and design," said Stilwell, 42. "I was on the job site 40 hours a week and the rest of the time I was doing the accounting, estimating, billing, and seeing customers."

So Stilwell set about learning the business more systematically. He worked as a construction manager and then for a remodeling company before trying again in 1998. This time, it worked.

As with all new businesses, the immediate challenge was finding enough customers. Family and friends hired him at first, and he gradually branched out thanks to word-of-mouth referrals.

"It takes a few years," Stilwell said.

He also had to find the right subcontractors to handle specialized tasks like masonry, plumbing and roofing. The company doesn't work on more than three or four projects at a time, which allows Stilwell to supervise them all-maintaining the personal involvement he believes is so important.

"Lots of people have to rely on architects or outside design firms," he said, "whereas our entire design process, product selection and carpentry is all in-house."

Ruppert spent thousands with an architect before hiring Stilwell.

"Joe came in and said, 'I'll take your plans but I'd like to start from scratch with input from you.' We said, 'Here's what we want. Make it happen.' ... And he did."

"The design is the most critical aspect," Stilwell said. "It makes or breaks a project. We develop a rapport with the customer and we get to know what they want to accomplish within their budget."

His firm also does its own millwork, making custom molding and cabinetry for older homes-anything to set the company apart in a highly competitive field.

"Our industry has a big turnover-companies go under quickly," Stilwell cautioned. "Many talented carpenters aren't necessarily capable of running a business. It's a tough field."


Joe Stilwell supervises all the projects his remodeling firm tackles, including this Meridian Street room addition.
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