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Saturday, May 02, 2009

The FW&D marketing and business model: Intelligent building from a local base

Ned Overton of FW&D LLC in Arlington, Virginia near Washington D.C. His trailer is less for equipment and material storage than marketing -- it has a 'take one' box with flyers for people walking or driving by.

Yesterday, Karen Buckley and I met Ned Overton of FW&D LLC in Arlington, Virginia and I discovered how to build a successful contracting business from scratch.

Overton's two keys to success have been his ability to connect to immediate community needs, and really thoughtful (and inexpensive) marketing.

Overton had been a career employee with the Prince William County Fire Department in suburban Washing on, D.C. for 25 years when he retired in 2002 after 25 years of service. His responsibilities before retirement involved the staffing and scheduling of hundreds of firefighters in various stations. This challenge required him to be acutely sensitive to individual personalities to ensure working harmony and safe operations.

As retirement approached, a cycling friend who works at a local building supply dealership suggested he could start a second career by installing replacement windows and doors in his neighbourhood. Overton had been a carpenter before joining the fire department, and his neighbourhood, Fairlington (the "F") in the company abbreviation) has plenty of windows and doors needing replacing.

The neighbourhood's solidly-built townhouses, originally built during World War II to accommodate military families, had last been refurbished in the 1970s, when the neighborhood's residences had been converted to condominiums. Now, more than 30 years later, these windows and doors needed to be replaced.

Overton recalls his first order, from an free online Yellow Pages listing. Then others arrived, from the local community newsletter (where print ads cost less than $100 a month). Soon, referral business started, as Overton gathered all the information he could on various aspects of the business.

He found people needing windows and doors also wanted other services, including roofs, deck, new kitchens and bathrooms, and complete remodeling projects. Rather than turning this business away, he discovered he could do the work effectively and with client satisfaction.

Overton serves communities throughout the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C. He generally stays clear of the Maryland suburbs unless he receives a referral call -- he is acutely aware of the cost in time and effort to serve communities outside his area. Of course, just the Virginia suburbs give him a large enough market area.

Current business volume is about $1 million a year -- he is hoping to double that to $2 million within the next year. Window and door jobs generally generate about $5,000 in revenue, kitchen and bath renovations of course can be in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Fair enough, but how does he achieve marketing success.

Overton, at 57 years old, indicates he is like a sponge for information, especially from sources like He has learned simple techniques, like answering all inbound calls with an initial remark "Thank you for calling", to more thoughtful uses of online resources in explaining his company's services.

"When we receive a call, office co-ordinator Meaghan Hudson often refers the potential client to relevant pages on my blog, website, or our videos," Overton says. This allows the potential client to see first-hand the quality of the company's work -- and of course the potential client can also view the FW&D's lengthy list of testimonials.

Other marketing techniques include:
  • Company wine. Overton says he has high quality bottled wine with the company label. "The wine has to be really good, because the people around here know good wine," he says. He gives the wine as a 'thank you' for referrals or to clients when a job is completed.
  • Use of effective and simple local resources. He ensures his flier in a local "door hanger" service stands out from the crowd by using a thicker stock paper Similarly, he is happy to pay a local leads service whose operator charges a 10 per cent commission when the lead pans out. "We just build the cost into our price, and if a client doesn't respond after we provide an estimate, we pass the information on to the leads service provider -- who often helps to close the sale." Because clients are satisfied with the work, and the leads service operator can make thousands of dollars for a lead, Overton receives many leads.
  • The trailer. Overton says his job trailer is too small to be really useful for equipment and work -- but is a great advertising vehicle as it is in front of the home on residential streets. The trailer has a "take one" box for flyers -- and it draws business.
  • Rational service extensions. You may call FW&D for a simple window replacement project, a relatively small job for about $5,000 for 10 windows. Then, seeing the work quality, clients order more services -- Overton says he will often do uneconomically small projects to either serve former clients or build relationships for larger work. His wife Alica provides design and co-ordination service for the larger interior renovation projects.
Perhaps the most impressive element of Overton's service, and the reason it is successful, is his ability to connect with the people in his community; his home office reflects his clients' environment and employees and former employees 'connect' as if part of his family.

Can you follow Ned Overton's example? I think so -- and, like other contractors I've met in my journeys around the U.S. and Canada, he will be happy to share his insights and observations with you, just as he acknowledges the ideas and advice he has received from others on and elsewhere within the online community.

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