Opening Up a Unique Niche in Interior Doors

Targeting the replacement market, California company has developed unique processes and strategy
By Pete Frank
November 1, 2006
FEATURE ARTICLE | Products, Close-Ups

Plenty of companies specialize in replacement windows. Few, however, specialize in replacing interior doors—a fact that suggested a big opportunity to the founders of Interior Door Replacement Co.

“Homeowners have had to hire general contractors or a large home improvement store, which generally make a mess of a home, are in the customer’s home for days, sometimes weeks, and are quite expensive,” explains Mike McElroy, founder and chairman of IDRC, based in Mountain View, CA. “Until now, there has not been a company offering homeowners a one-stop, hassle-free door replacement service.”

By focusing on interior door replacement, developing proprietary technology and systems, and emphasizing customer satisfaction, IRDC claims to perform their task at one third to one half the cost of major home improvement stores and general contractors, and with significantly less work or hassle for the homeowner. Started in 1997, the company is now setting up franchise operations throughout the country.

 The replacement process uses the existing frame, with IDRC installers bringing in a new pre-painted slab and hardware.
 An installer prepares to fit a replacement door into place

FILLING A NEED
According to IDRC, the number one reason people replace their interior doors is the profound impact this single process can have on the home. “Our customers are primarily homeowners, with some rental properties,” says Dave Winter, president and CEO. “Anyone who wants to dramatically improve the appearance of their home and, in return, increase its value—the return on investment is quickly seen, so it’s an easy sell.”

Most who have tried to replace their own interior doors can’t forget the sizeable obstacles—limited door selection from the large home improvement stores, an expensive and cumbersome pre-hung or the burden of cutting and matching to an existing installation, not to mention locating hardware that at least somewhat resembles the other units in the home, says McElroy.

“Homeowners have had to hire multiple contractors and travel all over town to buy doors, levers and knobs, hardware, have the doors painted and have them installed. Plus most of the work takes place in the customer’s home or garage. This is time consuming for the homeowner, a messy process, and loud.”

Replacing a few doors in his own home and enduring this experience inspired McElroy to start the business. Over a couple years, he did numerous door replacement jobs for other people, taking the doors to a door shop to be cut and matched, “but they were unable to adjust for the irregular reveals or gaps due to the house settling or too big or tight of a backset,” he recalls.

“Replacing interior doors is somewhat of a specialized skill, requiring that the proper installation process be followed,” says Jim Hackett, director of marketing for Jeld-Wen Inc., an IDRC supplier. “By focusing solely on interior door replacement, IDRC is able to offer this service quickly, easily and at a great value to the consumers.”

Hackett also sees big potential in interior door replacement. “Industry research shows that the average age of U.S. homes is now more than 37 years old, and for most homeowners that means it’s time for a facelift. If you think about it, doors command a great deal of wall space,” he says. In addition to targeting homeowners who are fed up with flat doors and dated hardware, IDRC teams with realtors, looking for people who want a “quick-fix” to improve the value of their homes before selling. “We work a lot with realtors and home stagers,” Winter says. Professional contractors also use the company’s service. “They don’t know how we offer the services we do at the price (about $129 per installed door),” he notes. “They try to offer the service at our price and quickly fail.”

AN EVOLVING METHOD
Measuring was the first element of the process McElroy attacked. Progress on this front, however, created bottlenecks in other areas. This led to the development of new tools, and improvements made all around, step-by-step as needed. “The measuring, the cutting, the install—everything was improved at some point,” says Winter.

 The enhanced look offered by new doors makes the process “an easy sell.”
 An example of the enhanced look provided with a new door.

McElroy’s system allows for, “the accurate transferring of information from the old door to the new door but allows for any necessary changes due to a poor fit or maybe the settling of the house.” The service takes installation a step further by offering pre-painting, made simple by the fact the doors are already out of the house. This also prevents the mess of paint on the hinges and hardware.

In addition, for homeowners tired of their old door trim, the company offers its own casing design, actually placed over the existing casing. The company’s casing features an updated, wider profile and the concept eliminates the mess and disposal of removing the old material. 

HOW IT WORKS
An in-home consultation begins the door replacement process, followed by the online order and scheduling of the installation week.

Monday.
Each crew goes out to as many as five to ten homes to retrieve the old doors (50-100 doors) and take them back to the location’s shop. The crews use a proprietary marking process on each individual door, so down the line they can improve performance, gaps and appearance with the new doors.

Tuesday. Crews match the old doors with new slabs supplied by Jeld-Wen, then cut and mortise using a unique cutting station and equipment designed specifically by IDRC. New doors then go straight to the paint department for color according to the customer’s specifications.

Wednesday through Friday. Production teams take the new doors out to install, again using special tools and equipment. “At the end of the week all jobs are installed and payment collected,” McElroy says.

“The retro-fit is really the niche” versus pre-hung, Winter notes. Ninety-five percent of the time, they use the existing frames and jambs, and always replace all the existing hardware. “All production work is actually performed outside of the customers’ home. We are only in their home less than two hours total—once to measure the existing doors, then for installation of the new doors,” Winter continues. This eliminates messes and simplifies the process, reducing overhead and keeping prices low. “Molded doors is the core business,” he adds, “and French doors are becoming trendy, due to glass options available.”

BUSINESS SENSE
“I have always enjoyed developing solutions and tools for problems,” McElroy says. At age 18, he became Shell Oil’s youngest service station franchise owner ever in the United States. He grew four new locations, started another related business and then successfully sold them all off in 1989.

The next step was a real estate investment (his mother’s home), which led to remodeling and thus his enlightenment of the interior door replacement process. “I read all the how-to books, but, still not convinced, I set out to develop a process that would be faster and more accurate.” IDRC opened its doors in 1997, teaming up with Jeld-Wen for high-quality doors, and Emtek and Yale for hardware.

Mike began marketing with coupons and direct mail pieces, while word of mouth spread the news quickly. The Mountain View location covered the entire San Jose metropolitan area—targeting approximately half a million households. Marketing materials aimed toward breaking down the perception that interior door replacement takes a lot of time and money. Winter estimates it takes six to twelve months for a market to catch on and realize there’s a new, different option.

Mike McElroy (left) started the company after experiencing the frustration of the door replacement process himself. Dave Winter joined in 2002 to help expand the business nationwide. 
Mike McElroy, left, and Dave Winter 

The executives believe that since opening they’ve replaced tens of thousands of doors, in thousands of homes. “It’s better to do one thing better than everyone else, than to do 10 things as good as anyone else,” states McElroy, which is why Winter entered the picture in 2001. “Mike knew he had something good and wanted to make the service available across the country,” Winter explains, and they opened IRDC’s first franchise in 2002.

SHARING THE WEALTH
Recently the company announced a strategic expansion plan for select U.S. markets, offering training, regular seminars and meetings to franchise owners. “Over the past nine years, we have perfected our niche concept and built a solid reputation within the home improvement industry as the door replacement pros. Now it’s time for us to move into the next phase of our evolution and offer our business opportunity to qualified entrepreneurs across the country,” Winter says.

Franchise owners receive a protected, exclusive territory, as well as ongoing training and support including an initial two-week training program in California.

According to Winter, “a background in construction or home improvement is not necessary to become an IDRC franchisee.” Most existing franchise owners come from professional backgrounds as diverse as law, sales, marketing or other unrelated fields.

“We actually turn down more candidates than we accept,” Winter notes.

Currently 17 independently owned franchises operate in three states—Arizona, California and Texas—with hopes that the number will grow as high as 200 locations within the next 10 years. “We have an economy-resistant franchise opportunity,” Winter states. “As long as people continue to either move, or update their existing homes, there’s plentiful opportunity for jobs in every market around the nation.”

As far as competition, the niche seems to lie well below the radar. “IDRC has no direct competition at this time. We get contractors who try to replicate our services but they quickly fail and often call us to tell us about it,” Winter says. “I always tell our [franchisees], ‘Your biggest competition is the homeowners that don’t know about you’.”

McElroy states, “Our goal is to educate the consumer that door replacement can now be as easy as painting your home or changing your carpet.”

UPDATE: Interior Door Replacement Co. continues to operate in California, serving home and building owners with replacement door installation services. It no longer offers a franchise program, however. A new business, Grand Mark Solutions, was formed in 2011 to offer a successor franchise business called HomeStory.