“Is the juice worth the squeeze?” A great question! How do you apply it?
A coworker used to say this and it always resonated with me. I use it when a client/potential client proposes something that may be expensive for very little return, and as a “fact-finding” question. For instance, someone might want an elaborate hidden door to their only downstairs common bathroom. I ask if it’s truly worth the effort given the amount of times that door will be used. I wonder, “Do they have children? If so, the door will probably be left open all the time.” On the other side, I use fact-finding questions to glean what is truly important to my prospective clients. “Why are we doing XYZ?” If their answers reveal strong opinions that I never considered or teach me something about their use of space, then I can really get behind the undertaking ahead.
How did “bopping around” lead you to a career as a remodeling contractor?
I spent my post-college years in telemarketing and sales jobs. A friend asked me to help him on a residential framing crew and I discovered that I really liked working with my hands. Of course, my first six months was a lot of lifting, sweeping and “hold this”, but I observed and asked lots of questions. An opportunity came a year or so after to move “inside” and get into trim work. It was then I found I really enjoyed the precision and challenge of finish carpentry. Performing these tasks in occupied homes inevitably finds you getting to know the client and building a rapport and relationship with them. I found that I really enjoyed this part of the work, too.
Any advice that has stayed with you?
My dad would tell me: “Too much of anything will make you sick.” I try to remember to balance my professional responsibilities with my family life. Otherwise, what/who am I doing this for?
You studied English literature in college. Who are three of your favorite authors?
I would have to give a nod to my childhood and say L. Frank Baum, who wrote the Wizard of Oz (and 13 others in the series). I’ve read some of them to my own children and am fascinated that these books were written in the early 1900s. Currently I look forward to Richard Kadrey’s yearly addition to his Sandman Slim novels. It’s kind of a heaven and hell action story that’s become a bit of a guilty pleasure. I also will give Robert Frost a seat at this table. Not an earth-shattering choice by any means, but I always enjoyed poetry that was simply put.
You also love the math and engineering necessary to solve the problems of remodeling. Your father and brother are both engineers, how has this influenced or helped you?
Early on I found the geometry of what I do spoke to me. It just made sense; I could use the lessons from school and apply them to the task at hand. I occasionally require professional engineering services for projects and I really enjoy those discussions. I don’t grasp all of the calculations or anything, but generally understand the process of going about achieving structural stability. I do consider my knack for math as a gift from my dad.
Please share with us an example of an unusual problem and resolution and one of a fairly typical problem and its resolution.
An issue we see regularly is finding rot when replacing exterior doors or enlarging windows. There are updated products and flashing techniques that have evolved over the years, and we repair these areas using those best practices.
An unusual problem I encountered one time was a laundry cabinet design that I was only hired to install. I had the design and the cabinets, but I saw the client was going to be unable to easily access the upper portion of her cabinetry because of her height and age. Considering how much use this cabinetry was going to see (and with client’s blessing), I redesigned it with the parts available to increase the utility of the system.
Like the title, you mentioned a love for expressions. Please list some of your favorites and tell us why you like them and when you’re most apt to use them.
“Tripping over nickels” is one that I use to explain to clients that a complete redo might be equal to or marginally more expensive than trying to save something. A drywaller can patch 15 large holes in this ceiling for $X, but we can replace all the wallboard for $X + 10% and everything will look better.
“Soldiers get paid the same for fighting or marching.” I try to explain that our hourly work is billed the same regardless of task. Maximizing the efficiency of the labor will result in less expense. For instance, if a basement remodel is proposed and there are no children on site, I would be inclined to do weekly cleanup instead of daily to save the client money (or at least give them the option).
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” I use this frequently when instructing my team to protect existing floors or dust-proof rooms that are not included in the scope of work. The embarrassed hand cleaning of clients’ personal effects after drywall sanding is an experience one should have only once!
Keeping the end result in mind to preserve the value for the homeowners is one of your main goals. How else do you make the homeowners interests your main priority?
In the early stages of a project I try to learn what is important to my clients. Whether it’s site cleanliness, preferred deadline, time without a kitchen sink, or even working around childrens’ home schooling days during the pandemic. If we can identify, prioritize and remain flexible to the areas of concern of our clients, we can offer a better overall experience.
You collaborate with interior designer Vanessa Helmick on interesting projects. What about your working relationship makes it so successful for you both and for the client?
Vanessa has the vision for the ultimate end game of each project we participate in together. I tend to be more “meat and potatoes” when it comes to accomplishing certain tasks, while Vanessa has the gift of being able to examine the potential of spaces before the work begins. It is successful because we are both good communicators. She handles everything from conception to the material selection process, provides overall progress reports to the client and makes sure all obligations have been met, while I manage the day-to-day operations, technical support and execution. We converse often and meet any challenges aligned to provide the best outcome in any situation.
Vanessa Helmick: Danny started his career working as a finish carpenter, so he mastered the art of understanding detail early on. As a result, he notices every detail on all jobs and checks in with the various team members to ensure the end result is both functional and beautiful. I think this is why he went on to be such a good contractor. I can design lovely spaces, but I need an experienced contractor to alert me to any possible surprises that could come up. Each renovation is so different.
We both consider the clients' day-to-day lifestyle and the impact that a renovation, with all of its construction, dust and disruption, can have on their family. It’s critical in a contractor. You can't teach that to people. They either understand it with professional empathy or they do not. I jokingly tell people that "my" contractor is rare because he also promptly answers emails and phone calls.
Do you focus on whole-house remodels or bath and kitchen mostly?
I have always felt at home in a kitchen or bathroom remodel project. However, as my company has grown, we are able to offer a wider variety of services and complete larger scale projects. It’s also nice to be in one spot for a longer time.
Where’s the passion and creativity in it for you?
Every project is different in detail and yet similar in overall process. I have one initial opportunity when I meet with clients to look at a project and to represent myself. In this time, I must deduce the purpose of the work, decide if my services are a good fit and determine compatibility in the human interaction. I delight in meeting new people, accepting new challenges and designing an action plan. Every project brings out the hammer and the broom. But everything from site conditions to subcontractor availability to weather can affect how the operations take place.
What’s the highest compliment a client can give you?
A referral, of course. I feel very fortunate to be the beneficiary of these. We work hard to perform the work to satisfaction while also building the relationship piece. Working in an occupied home is still a rather intimate undertaking. If the client would recommend us after that experience, I feel proud because it says a lot about my team.
. . .
Having spent my adolescent years in the Boy Scouts and grown up camping, my best family memories are now made around a fire pit. We purchased a pop-up camper about five years ago and started setting it up at Sebago Lake, where my wife’s family has properties that overlook the water. Once I became comfortable with the towing and setup, we started venturing to campgrounds all over Maine. Spending time fishing, cooking outdoors, playing games and swimming are surefire ways to decompress. It’s also a welcome disconnect period from the data. We upgraded to a travel trailer last spring so we could go farther and more often during the pandemic.
Some places offer more activities or things to see, but all we really need is to pay attention to each other, if only for a long weekend.