No Place Like Home
01 Sep 2012
A couple's complete renovation creates a clutter-free, high-style home in Wild Dunes.
By ROB YOUNG
Given their talents and experience, the decade or so spent in the construction and home business, their proficiency at negotiating the upturns and downturns of the market, and even their continued success, the best part about the company might just be the name: The Renovators.
The title alone suggests the group’s way of thinking: no gimmickry or false devices. Their conventional, straightforward style belies an honest approach, their aim cast toward value and results. “We’re just three guys trying to carve out a good quality of life for ourselves,” Chris Hicks, one of The Renovators’ partners says modestly.
The group cuts a sharp figure across the Southeast, the company centrally located in the Lowcountry. Its reach extends from Myrtle Beach to Savannah, Ga., with expansion efforts centered on Florida. Last year The Renovators completed 138 projects, and the number is expected to double this year. More recently, the group, comprised of partners Hicks, Michael Johnson and Shannon Davidson, finished up a top-to-bottom renovation at Isle of Palms.
“From the ceiling to the floor, it was just high quality work. There were no surprises,” says homeowner George DeBin. “To us, the house looks like it was originally built. Nothing looks like a renovation.” In fact, DeBin and his wife, Leeann, refused to move into the house prior to the overhaul. “I wouldn’t live there,” he says. “It was 12 years old and outdated.”
The DeBins bought their home, situated in Yacht Harbor, Wild Dunes, in 2009. DeBin, a New York native, retired to Charleston after spending 10 years as vice chancellor for finance and administration at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. The DeBins’ daughter moved to the area about 10 years ago, giving the couple additional impetus to move here. “We had an opportunity to stay in Wild Dunes maybe six years ago, and we fell in love with the area,” DeBin says. “My wife is originally from Alabama, so she already loved the South, too.”
Prior to the work, the DeBins solicited bids from contracting companies. The Renovators’ response overwhelmed the competition, encouraging DeBin. The company’s scope of work ran 42 pages long. For comparison, the two other bidders submitted scopes tallying six pages and three pages. No specifics were mentioned. “(The Renovators) were already on top of the job,” DeBin notes.
Indeed, the scope was impressive. The Renovators performed an entire rebuild, constructing a 400- square foot, two-story addition, and added on a sun roof and top deck, both fully accessible from the master bedroom on the top floor.
The group offers full in-house design, facilitating a cost-conscious, effective means for home transformation. By drafting the blueprints themselves, the Renovators enjoy flexibility, allowing for improved configuration management and modifications. It grants them full control, which helps speed up the schedule. “Everything is stamped by a third-party engineer that we use,” Davidson says. “We don’t charge for consultation or conceptual plans.” DeBin and his wife essentially told the group what they wanted – and The Renovators got after it.
“They did everything from the crown molding on the ceiling, to the baseboards on the floor, to the window shutters,” DeBin says. “They redid the bathrooms, put the extension on the house, and made way for new lights, new railings and new appliances.”
Prime additions include Leeann’s favorite feature: an archway running the length of the living room to the sunroom extension, fully enclosed by glass. Beam board walls and ceilings, antique ceiling fans, and hardwood floors offer other choice trappings. The deck off the master bedroom is made from stain-resistant, scratch-resistant AZEK decking material. DeBin, for his part, spends most of his time in the sunroom and living room areas. “I just love the house,” he says. “It’s low maintenance.”
The Renovators allow the work to speak for the group – or rather, they allow the homeowners to speak for the work. The Renovators typically provide six references to the homeowner along with their proposal. Two of the contacts represent new contract holders. Two more are current projects, while the final two signify finished projects. “This way, homeowners can ask other homeowners why they chose the Renovators,” Hicks says. “Or they can call people and ask how we’re doing on the project, or ask how the project turned out.”
DeBin phoned two of their references and found the following: “They’re straightforward guys. They won’t nickel and dime you. They’ll come within budget, and they won’t play any surprise games at all.” Then during the project, Davidson, the assigned principal, visited the site several times a week, returning each of DeBin’s phone calls. His diligence was significant. “These guys are professionals,” DeBin acknowledges.
But there are no tricks here, either. Hicks and his partners recognize the power of word-of-mouth and persuasive marketing, but only if it’s based in legitimacy. “You can do anything with marketing. You can make yourself look like a golden child,” Hicks says. “Though, if you don’t have the reviews or longevity to back yourself up, people find that out pretty quickly.”
Hicks grew up in the construction business in California, as his family helmed two businesses: one a stucco lath, brick-and-mortar business, the other being a partnership with a real estate company.
Hicks holds the general contractor and home builders’ licenses within The Renovators, starting the business with Johnson and Davidson in 2003. Hicks and Johnson met while working at Home Depot Chattanooga, Tenn. Davidson, whom the pair met when they worked as Home Depot managers, attended Clemson University.
Hicks worked for the Home Depot corporate office for 12 years, helping to open 120 new stores in seven states. “I picked up management skills there,” he says. “It was like another college for me, but I got paid to do it.”
Today, The Renovators lean on a family and faith-based philosophy. Hicks and Johnson and their wives each have three kids, while Davidson and his wife have two sons. Personally, the partners also have the Lowcountry well covered. Hicks lives in Seaside Farms in Mount Pleasant, Davidson is in the Westcott area of Summerville, and Johnson lives near Harborview Road on James Island. The company’s home office and warehouse are both located in Mount Pleasant.
The owners are hands-on, too, traveling the roads, swinging from job site to job site. They don’t rely on assistants for quality assurance and control; they perform the necessary check-offs for consistent results. “If there is a mistake, we fix it immediately,” Hicks says. “We don’t let a customer go unhappy as best we can.”
During the Renovators’ run as a company, the group has witnessed much: the housing market at its peak, the bubble bursting, and a more recent uptick. “When we first started, there was no such thing as economy,” Hicks says dryly. “We couldn’t build houses fast enough without contracts being put on them. Before dry wall even went on, we had the full asking price or better.”
Today, diversity is required. “If you’re a two-man-and-a-truck business, you’ll stay a two-man-and-a-truck,” Hicks says. “But if you want to make it to retirement, you can. Charleston is unique. There’s so much business here. As long as you have a good reputation, there’s enough to go around. At this point in our lives, we don’t really have to compete much.”
The Renovators generally operate within a niche market of $70,000 to $200,000. How other companies are performing isn’t especially concerning. “We don’t worry about other people’s grass,” Hicks says, smiling. “We mow our own lawn and make sure it looks good.”
Their outlook and candidness is, frankly, refreshing. “We need positive reviews, but we need negative as well. We need to know where we’re failing so that we can improve,” Hicks says. “We want to be the first choice for every home improvement project, by always providing 100 percent customer satisfaction.”
For the Renovators, the goal is deceptively simple. “We just want to give homeowners a good place to wake up to,” Hicks says. “We want them to be able to say that the work was money well spent. And then our takeaway: we want someone like George DeBin to tell his friends.”