Sanwick Remodeling Contractors

An Interview with Todd Sanwick, President and CEO of Sanwick Remodeling
By Nick Welsh and Johnny Zapala, Creighton University MBA students

Even in a difficult real estate market, the company founded by Todd Sanwick and his wife continues to prosper under the same ethical values they use to guide their family life.

During times that some have called a housing crisis, you would expect that a remodeling contractor would not be in the greatest of moods. Not true with Todd Sanwick. Mr. Sanwick and his wife, Lisa, are the founders of Sanwick Remodeling Contractors. With their combined years of experience and qualified and professional crew that they consider family, the Sanwicks have found success serving the Nebraska market. As proof of their commitment to serving their customers with excellence, they have won numerous awards – including the 2007 Better Business Bureau Integrity Award.

We were really impressed with Todd Sanwick because it appeared as though he gives ethics a lot of thought on a daily basis. He not only uses his faith to ethically guide his actions, he also tries to instill ethical thoughts into those people he encounters on a daily basis. Whether its one of his four children or his ten employees, everyone that encounters Todd knows what is expected of them, both in and out of his presence. This overarching ethical atmosphere has not gone unnoticed in the community, nor with customers as was demonstrated with a filled “job board”, even in these uncertain economic times.

We have seen your website and have heard about all the good your company has done and continues to do, but let’s start from the beginning - tell us about your background - where did you grow up, go to school, what jobs did you have?

I was born and raised in Omaha. I went to a Catholic grade school up to the 8th grade, then to Burke high school. After my senior year, I started reframing houses for my wife's step-dad and have been in the business ever since. I actually took a semester of courses at the University of Nebraska-Omaha to study computer science, but decided I would stick with the job I had. I moved up to an executive position with another re-modeling company, before my wife and I decided it was time to start our own company.

What do you like most about your work?

I was actually asked this same question in another interview and it is still difficult to answer. I guess I would say that I enjoy seeing the changes we make happen - the change from old to new, small to large is wonderful. At the same time I love having employees, running my own business, and having the flexibility to spend time with my family.

So what is it that you like least?

Definitely having to collect from our customers. Having to make calls can be difficult, but it's business and if we didn't do it we wouldn't be in business for long.

Let's talk for a few minutes about your company. What's life like here? How do you feel about the people you work with?

I feel like we are all a big family. We go through ups and downs, but we do it together. It's important to know how to set business and the person apart. While it is important to get things done, it is just as important to listen to people. There is more to life than work and if there is something going on that affects your attitude, it shows at work. Taking the time to listen to your people does more than show that you care. It's the reason why I feel like this is my family and it shows in our work and our customer's appreciation.

How else have you shown your employees that you care for them like family?

We always try different things. If you have ever been to Starbucks, you may have noticed the messages they post. We have been putting positive messages on our checks to our employees. Our hope is that they can read the message and step back for a second to separate the check from work and think about life. To make sure they have been reading the messages, I have occasionally given $50 to anyone who could remember what message was on the previous week's check. We also have meetings where everyone attends on Fridays. This has allowed everyone to keep in touch with each other, the team and company, and has allowed me to judge how everyone is functioning and find out about any challenges we may be facing. Another thing we have done to show our people we care is give them loans. We'll do whatever we can to inspire and motivate our people.

Are there unspoken ethical rules in your company?

There are. We believe that there is never time to do it twice, but there is time to do it right the first time. A big part of that means paying attention to the details, such as cleaning up the site, not parking in the driveway, and watching our language. To enforce that, we empower everyone to take action to correct the situation. For example, we employed a subcontractor who refused to take his shoes off when walking into a person's home. Even when he was asked to remove his shoes he refused. One of my employees told him to leave, before I even heard about it. We have allowed our people to make some of the important decisions and without our knowledge and it has worked very well for us. It is a great feeling to get a letter from a customer thanking you for the great job and particularly for something my crew did that I didn't even know about. Part of doing things right the first time is making sure that you manage the customer's expectations. Before we begin working we provide our customers with a Job Expectation Sheet. Basically, if it's not in writing, it didn't happen. We want our customers to give us a call if anything goes differently than what they expected. It's cheaper to take care of a problem sooner than later and it keeps our customers happy. Sadly, part of it is that the days of the handshake have disappeared and if it's not in writing, they can always go back and say the work was not done as they expected.

Very generally, when you think of “ethics” what does it mean to you?

Ethics to me means doing right by people. It means giving the customer what they require, what they pay for, and standing behind your work. Along those lines, it means doing what you say and saying what you do. It’s important to follow up with your customer and finish the work like they expect. It's important to remember that the customer comes first. I tell my crew to take care that our customers are happy in all ways. For example, if they see that the family just returned from grocery shopping, I tell them they should take the time to help the family carry the groceries in. Again, the details matter.

Have you always done business in Omaha? If not, where else have you done business? What moral values typify the Omaha business community?

There are good people everywhere and Omaha is no exception. I would say that people in the Midwest tend to look after each other and show more concern. For example, if I were to ask where something was in a convenience store in Omaha, I have noticed that the employee would come from around the counter to help me out. On the other hand, that sort of service is not something I have seen on the coasts. A possible reason for this is our pace of life. Instead of running in a million directions, we focus on the people in front of us. We try to do this in our company by taking the time to explain everything to our customers from how the process works to how we put our bid together. We invite our customers to ask for bids from other places and they appreciate our honesty – I believe that our practices are part of the reason we continue to do so well.

Describe an ethical situation in business you have faced that was relatively easy to handle – who was involved, where, what did you do, why?

One recent situation involved the remodeling of a bathroom. Everything was great, but the grout didn’t dry and the color didn’t seem right. We re-did the work four times before everything worked out. In the end, the work cost us money, but the customer was happy. The reason it was easy is because the customer was willing to work with us. The key to that is knowing that you don’t find good customers or employees, you make good customers and employees. The way to make good customers and employees is in your attitude and the way you treat them. The way you treat others will reflect back in the way they treat you.

Describe an ethical situation in business you have faced that was hard to handle – who was involved, where, what did you do, why?

Like I said earlier, the situation was easy because the customer was willing to work with us. We had another situation where no matter what we did the customer would not work with us. The customer had asked us to do something in a way we normally would not. After explaining what could go wrong, the customer wanted us to do the work anyway and what could go wrong did go wrong. When we tried to do the repairs, the customer did not want to work with us and we ended up going to court. Although it would have been easier to settle, I stand behind the work we do and did not want to compromise our standards. The court process was a burden not only for the business, but also my family. However, had I not fought back and stood behind our work I feel it would have hurt our reputation and sent the wrong message to our crew.

Why do you consider the two previous situations ethical?

Well, I knew that there was a right and wrong in the situation and I also knew that what I was doing was right. It’s not really an ego thing; it was me standing behind what we were doing as a company. Because on the business side, you’ll continue to get pushed around if it turns out that you’ll roll over when someone refuses to pay. In addition, we let our employees know what was happening because they need to be well informed in these situations, and it would have cast a bad image to them as well.

How do you infuse ethics into your organization?

We empower our employees to deal with individual customer complaints. I learned this lesson while studying the Ritz-Carlton, where everyone down to the maid cleaning the rooms could comp a customer if they felt it was necessary to maintain satisfaction. This allows an upset customer to talk about their problem with the closest person to them and answers come much faster. This also improves employee moral because they are all a part of a decision making team.

We’ve been talking a lot about your company; let’s get back to you now. How do you feel talking about ethical quandaries you’ve faced?

I love the experience! I’m willing to talk ethics with anyone that wants to learn. In my opinion, if you are willing to give it your best shot, you can become more ethical.

Have you had a mentor? If so, who and why?

Typically, I have looked up to the older members of the Metro Omaha Builders Association for guidance. However, I wouldn’t say

that I had any one mentor in particular. When I first started these guys showed me the ropes. They taught me that paying your bills on time and being honest to subcontractors would go a long way toward building a successful business in this industry. Some of the younger people in the industry are looking for the quick buck and don’t prepare for the slow times. Your company’s reputation really helps pull you through the slow times. I learned to be upfront with the client, put everything in writing, and invite customers to compare while never talking down about another company.

Do you see any connections between how you were raised and how you handle ethical situations at work?

Well, I come from a family of fourteen, a Catholic family. I’d have to say that the faith that was instilled in me through Catholic school was a great base to build on, and really established my ethical views.

Tell us about your work history. What was your first real job? What were some of your key experiences before becoming self-employed? Why did you decide to start this company?

The first real job I had where I was looking to build a career was the job I had just previous to owning my own company. It was a small company with only four employees and paid vacation, but there was no health insurance. I thought we could have something bigger, possibly double the size of the company, in order to get better benefits for all the employees. However, my boss didn’t agree so my wife and I decided to go another direction. Now that we have the larger company and benefits for our employees, we try to keep employee attitudes together with different incentive programs. In addition, we never say we’re changing procedures, only improving upon certain things. This way we don’t give our employees a bad perception of our procedures because, once again, our employees’ attitudes matter to us.

Tell us about your family. How has working with your wife been? Do you keep family and business separate and if so, how do you go about it? Any key values you try to instill in your children?

Sometimes working with your wife and balancing a family life can be tough. We’ve had our office in this house for the past three years, and previously had an office outside the house. We have four children, ages 15, 13, 7, and 1. The current setup is very beneficial because we can be here when the kids leave for school in the morning and come home in the afternoon. One key value we try to instill in the kids is that there are no cash handouts, you have to earn it. Cleaning your room, doing the dishes, and doing your own laundry are all chores kids need to learn to do when they’re younger because their parents won’t always be around to do it for them. My 13-year-old daughter even knows how to tape and mud drywall!

In regards to leaving a legacy, what are the biggest ethical challenges that you think face the younger business professionals today? Any tips for dealing with these challenges?

Planning is probably the most important aspect of a company that often gets overlooked. You have to plan for the slower times and unexpected events that can cause things to go south in a hurry. Also, when you’re making money you can take care of your customers, your employees, and yourself so the most important thing is to make money because if you don’t the customer suffers most. Also, give people the best you can, at a fair price. Another few tips I’d leave you with are to always try and wake up in a good mood, greet people with good morning/afternoon, and keep a positive attitude. Along those lines, the only reasons I’d even fire an employee is if they lie, steal, or have a bad attitude because a bad attitude doesn’t do anyone around you any good.