Refusing to Settle at Austin Retrofit

Installation-centric company strives for complete satisfaction
Christina Lewellen
October 1, 2011
SPECIAL FEATURES | Operations, Channels, Close-Ups

 
Plumb, Level & Square

EXCELLENCE IN INSTALLATION


Austin Retrofit
 

Austin, Texas

After spending decades building a career in the window and door business, John Nelson Sr. still drives by customers’ houses in his free time to show off his company’s handiwork to his wife. “I’ll say, ‘Honey, you’ve got to see this one place we just did,’” he says. “After all this time, I still get excited about it.”
Along with his son, John Nelson Jr., and a dedicated team of employees, John Nelson Sr. knows that every project carried out by his Austin, Texas, window and door replacement company will be to the highest standards—not only surpassing industry-accepted best practices but also impressing the keen eye of a patient wife. “Later on, when I retire, my son can be proud to take over the business as a retrofitter,” Nelson Sr. says. “Many years ago when I sold windows, it was a door-to-door business and I thought retrofitters were looked down upon. When we got into this business, we said we were going to change that. We said we would always be honest with the customer.”
 
 The team at Austin Retrofit, including John Nelson Sr. (left side of sign) and John Nelson Jr (right side of sign), as well as Cody Marwitz (far left) and the installation crew behind them, believe that the key to a successful business is perfectionist installation practices.
This commitment to integrity means that Austin Retrofit’s sales team may recommend window solutions that mean less profit for the company if it’s the right solution for the customer, trim will be taken off and reapplied if it’s not as close to perfect as possible, the sealant stocked in all the installation trucks costs six times as much as what its competitors are using, and Nelson Sr. has been known to call a customer and offer a refund when a billing mistake is discovered. “The other day, I called a customer and told him that we had made a mistake and overcharged him,” Nelson Sr. explains. “He couldn’t believe I called him. But it’s just the right thing to do.”
Austin Retrofit, in business since the mid-1990s, is particularly fussy about its installations and the quality of the windows it sells to customers. Its five-man crew is practically silent on the jobsite, executing a well-choreographed process of training and techniques that has resulted in zero complaints to the local Better Business Bureau. “We do about 450 to 500 jobs a year and in the last five years, we haven’t had a single complaint,” says Nelson Sr. “Not a single complaint to resolve.”
“With very controlled installation practices, Austin Retrofit has solidified themselves as one of the premier installation companies around,” says Cody Marwitz, a sales manager for the company who started his tenure with Austin Retrofit as an installer. “I can say that, being in sales now and installing prior, that selling jobs is very easy knowing that the crew will exceed the expectations of homeowners.”
The perfectionist approach also resonates with Austin Retrofit's suppliers. "Austin Retrofit has a lot of experience and is extremely knowledgeable in their field," says Joe Jenkins, branch manager of Austin-based Norandex Building Materials Distribution. "We have never received any complaints on their workmanship. Austin Retrofit is our best customer because of their expertise, customer service, and their dedication to making sure the job is done correct."
THE RIGHT SALE
The Austin Retrofit philosophy supports the notion that an excellent installation starts early in the sales process. The company—with a primary focus on window and door replacement, supplemented by some repair services and supplying new construction products for some key builders and remodelers—carries about 20 window and door brands. “This allows us to offer a variety of options for homeowners and the ability to find the best fit for the homeowners’ wants and needs,” Marwitz says.
Nelson Sr. adds that the company offers a softer, more educational sell in the field. “We’re not into the hard sell, or games or tricks,” he says. “We just take a real honest approach. We sell so many brands, it doesn’t matter to me which they pick. We advise them on the good, in between and not-so-good options. We’ll tell them, ‘For what you want here, with this application, you’ll want this brand.’”
The same is true of suggesting certain configurations or money-saving options, Nelson Sr. says. “If a window is behind furniture and they don’t need it to open up, we may suggest a picture window,” he says. “It’s the same thing with some of the configurations they may want. If they want a really tall slider, we’ll let them know it might be tough to slide. If they’re going to open it every day, they may not like it. If it’s only once a month, it may be okay. We’ll explain that a slider isn’t meant to be that tall.”
The installation crew, led by Nelson Jr., also has opinions about certain window brands that travel upstream to the sales part of the project. “John Jr. and the crew, they’re so picky about windows,” explains Nelson Sr. “Certain brands may offer a good window, but we’ve had one company that’s been going downhill lately. Dealing with those people is hard right now—it’s hard to get an order in correctly and we’ve had problems with the last several jobs. We’ll be really honest with our customers about that stuff.”
A big part of the educational sell involves significant communication about the installation process. The Austin Retrofit team explains to homeowners how the windows will install in their homes and how operation may impact their lifestyles. “If they have blinds in the way, we’ll show them why we need to move those out because of the thicker jamb we’ll be installing,” Nelson Sr. says. “Often they’ll tell us that no other company explained that to them.”
 
The installation crew at Austin Retrofit can often complete a job in near silence—everyone knows their roles and carries the same expectations for the finished product. 
THEN, THE RIGHT INSTALLATION
Austin Retrofit is one of the few companies in the state of Texas that employs in-house installers. Most construction and home improvement companies rely on ample sub-contractors available in the region, but the Nelsons aim to have much tighter control on the projects they do. “No matter how much faith you have in a sub-contractor, they still get paid per window and will always install their way to make the most money,” says Marwitz. “The Nelsons completely understand the financial benefit of using contract labor, but they also understand the risk involved in using outside labor.”
Carrying workers’ compensation and general liability insurance on all of its employees is a significant financial commitment but Nelson Sr. explains he wouldn’t operate his business any other way. “There’s a story here in Austin about a [subcontractor] who fell from a ladder and no one had any insurance on him. Eventually, he went after the homeowner [for compensation for his injuries],” he explains. “I may not drive an expensive vehicle because of having workers’ comp, but I can sleep well at night.”
Nelson Jr. is a certified InstallationMaster trainer and he has trained the entire Austin Retrofit crew. The company is also EPA certified for the lead-safety requirements and certified by each of its window brands to install to industry-accepted standards. “We don’t want to go out and not know what we’re doing,” Nelson Sr. explains. “Here in Texas, you just need a tape and a drill and you’re an installer. When people ask if we’re certified, we able to say yes.”
In addition to following ASTM and AAMA guidelines on proper sealant and flashing methods, InstallationMaster techniques and lead-safe work practices, the Austin Retrofit crew takes care to protect customers’ furniture, floors, outdoor landscaping and any other areas where airborne dust can travel. “Working together every day, everyone knows exactly what their jobs entail and they don’t even need to communicate that much on the job site,” Marwitz says. “They aren’t your typical construction crew—no radios blasting or yelling to each other.”
The Austin Retrofit team won’t cut corners when it comes to complying with local or national regulations. When EPA required lead-safe work procedures, the company was quick to jump on board to understand the nature of proper practices and documentation. Recently, the city of Austin started requiring building permits on home improvement jobs and the Austin Retrofit leadership was instrumental in working with city officials to approve a single inspection for window replacement projects rather than the multi-stage permits typical of longer construction projects. “We run into plenty of companies, new or existing in town, that do not pull permits and avoid the headache of complying with all codes and inspections of the city,” says Marwitz. “We have not even considered running outside the law, and we play but the rules. I know we’ve lost some jobs to companies that don’t comply, but we refuse to lower our standards.”
Even if the policies or regulations create hurdles for the company, the leadership accepts their responsibility to comply without hesitation. “With the tax credits, we knew that one standard for the entire U.S. was not a good approach, but we accepted it and figured out how to get a .30/.30 window,” Nelson Sr. notes.
“Although we don’t always completely agree with what is set before us, we will always do our best to keep the industry viewed in a positive light,” Marwitz adds.
 
 John Nelson Jr. (right), a certified InstallationMaster trainer, conducts regular training sessions with the Austin Retrofit crew to ensure best practices in the field.
The Austin Retrofit approach to installation means no cutting corners and sub-par work will not be accepted. Recently, Nelson Sr. recalls, one of the crew members noticed that some trim on a finished project didn’t look great. Under the guidance of Nelson Jr., the crew removed all the trim and repeated the process for the entire opening. “We won’t put up with sloppy,” Nelson Sr. says. “We’re not joking around. I don’t care if the customer is happy—if we’re not, everything will be redone.”
This ownership and pride in the craftsmanship of the installation permeates the entire crew, Nelson Sr. says. “They’re very proud of their work. It’s unbelievable. You’d think it was their company.”
HIGH EXPECTATIONS
The team at Austin Retrofit considers itself an installation company rather than a sales or marketing company. This approach continues to work well for the company, even in a tough economic environment and a local building market that is increasingly saturated with one-man-shop contractors. “Over the years that John Sr. and John Jr. have been in business, they have acquired a lot of knowledge and learned ways to success that aren’t the norm but have proven to work,” Marwitz says. “Even in slow economic times, Austin Retrofit has been plugging along with no signs of slowing down.”
This could be because the perfectionists at Austin Retrofit enjoy the fact that more than 90 percent of its customers come from referral business. “We decided early on that our marketing would be referrals,” Nelson Sr. says. “Recently, we had a woman tell us that her Realtor told her she’d be crazy not to use us—and we didn’t even know the Realtor who referred us.”
Austin Retrofit plans to stick with its installation-centric approach, contending that the most critical element of a window or door replacement project lies in the expertise it offers. “If the install is no good, it doesn’t matter how good a window you buy,” Nelson Sr. says. “Even a picture window does have a top and bottom. If you have it upside down, the weep holes are in the wrong spot and it will leak. It’s amazing some of the stuff we see in the field. But I’ve always been proud of my company and the employees I have. They will always continue to exceed expectations.”

Click here to see the other 2011 Dealers of the Year.

Contact Christina Lewellen, senior editor, at clewellen@glass.org.