Hundreds of thousands of remodeling companies compete for work every day in this country, but fewer than 1,500 have ever shown the expertise, business savvy, and professionalism to make the annual Big 50 list of top firms identified by Remodeling magazine, a sister publication of ProSales.

What exactly is it that remodelers want from their suppliers? We talked to five members of this year’s Big 50 class and one from 2011. Their backstories varied markedly, but their message to dealers is remarkably consistent. Here’s what they had to say.

Clint Howes / Revive Construction LLC
Kyle T. Webster Clint Howes / Revive Construction LLC

Clint Howes

Owner, Revive Construction LLC
Portland, Ore.
Historic Renovation

Unlike the others featured here, Clint Howes is a one-man crew, albeit as part of a group of six independent remodelers who split projects and revenues. He’s a contractor who focuses on historic renovation, taking on projects most remodelers would shy away from, either because the jobs are too intricate or are outside their skill set.

“I get a lot of work doing what other people think is impossible,” he says.

Howes says that when he was younger, he made most of his purchases at The Home Depot. But over time, he began to realize that the answers he needed were lacking at the big-box retailer.

“When I ask a question at a lumberyard, it’s usually a pretty technical question,” says Howes. “It’s not what color duct tape is on sale.”

Since switching to professional lumberyards, he puts great store in dealers that respect his business.

“I’m not giving these people hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales a year, I’m giving them a few thousand dollars a month, sometimes nothing,” Howes says. “It’s pretty meaningful to be recognized even though I’m not one of the big fish in town.” He says making him feel special can take many forms, from recognizing his voice on the phone to helping him load his truck.

Steve Gray / President and CEO, Steve Gray Renovations
Kyle T. Webster Steve Gray / President and CEO, Steve Gray Renovations

Steve Gray

President and CEO, Steve Gray Renovations
Design/Build Remodeling

Steve Gray Renovations can tackle projects as large as a room addition or as small as a handyman visit. Business is booming, and the company is on track to have its best year ever in business—it has already doubled its sales from the year prior. To top it off, the projects are getting bigger.

With such a wide-ranging business, Gray relies heavily on his suppliers and looks upon them as more than just a place to get building materials.

“First and foremost, anytime I’m looking to change up or try a new supplier, I’m looking for a new partner,” he says. He views that partnership less as a buyer/seller relation and more as two companies working together to provide the best service and highest quality products.

He deals with an upper-class clientele and price is often a non-factor for him. He pulls no punches in what he expects from a dealer. To Gray, the person selling him lumber is as important as the subcontractors he hires for each project.

“Any new supplier I go for, I want their top salesperson,” he says. “I want somebody that is highly motivated, knows their products inside and out, and has a great rapport with the people that work on our team.”

Tony Szak /Owner, Empire Development & Construction
Kyle T. Webster Tony Szak /Owner, Empire Development & Construction

Tony Szak

Owner, Empire Development & Construction
Onalaska, Wis.
Full-Service Remodeling

Originally making its name as a home builder, Empire Development & Construction ceased its home building operations earlier this year and now focuses on remodeling projects of all sizes. “Our philosophy is that the happy client that we do a small project for, such as installing a screen door, someday they may have us come back and replace all their windows,” owner Tony Szak says.

Szak says he looks for smart customer service when working with a supplier. “We all run into problems, and in the contracting world, most of the time your biggest challenge is trying to solve a problem,” he says.

Szak mentioned a mistake made with a deck package his company was hired to install. There was a mix-up between the number for the package in the brochure and the actual order number. “We’ve got $6,000 of material out on the site and it’s not right. It’s at that point that you find out how good your material supplier is,” says Szak.The vendor remedied the problem by taking back the incorrect goods and delivering the right products at no charge.

Having a salesperson who knows his business also helps. “It’s important to have somebody who has good experience in the field,” Szak says, “because the only way you’re going to learn remodeling is from doing it.”