Home Improvement Firms Ready for ‘New Normal’

Businesses in the home improvement industry know things aren’t going to return to normal anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean they’re not eager to get working in the new normal, even if they’re still figuring it out.

March 22, the day Gov. Mike  DeWine issued the stay-at-home-order, caused a seismic shift throughout the industry, although its impact varied from company to company.

“We had to lay off pretty much everybody,” says Jim Popovich, the owner of Biviano Carpet One Floor & Home in Girard. Almost immediately his staff of 20 was reduced to one warehouse worker, a bookkeeper, him and his wife.

Biviano installs floors and kitchens as well as blinds and countertops.

Because most of the work isn’t safety-related, business has come to a near halt.

Popovich says his company is still doing some work at nursing homes when safety is a concern, but he’s eager for the stay-at-home order to be lifted. “As soon as they tell us, I’m going to call everybody and bring them back in,” he says.

Even before the order was issued, Brian Pritchard, president of A to Z Dependable Services in Niles, gathered his employees to ease their concerns. “I could see fear in people’s face,” he says.

“It was mainly to let everyone know that we are going to do everything that we can to keep all of us safe.”

At Joe Dickey Electric in North Lima, the order meant the rollout of a new residential program that the company had been working on the past year had to be put on hold.

Normally residential work comprises about 8% of the company’s business and creates enough work to keep 15 employees busy, says President Eric Carlson.

The new program would have updated the way Dickey engages with its customers. 

A key component, Carlson says, is the new pricing guide, which would allow electricians to present homeowners with a list of options so they can immediately decide on the work and allow construction to begin.

“Hopefully when the governor’s orders are released we’re going to be able to do some of the extra work and some of the normal electrical needs that the customer has that they’re waiting on,” Carlson says.

The new program, he says, will likely begin May 1.

Dickey Electric employs about 100 and so far it hasn’t had to lay any workers off, although Carlson says some of the residential workers are working short weeks.

Like A to Z, Dickey is performing only emergency work.

But while traditional home improvement projects aren’t permitted under the order, business owners believe the demand is still there waiting.

“We do have some pent-up buying. I’ve had people calling and these are our biggest months,” Biviano Carpet’s Popovich says. “The business, to me, is still there. It’s just on hold.”

Carlson agrees. “I see our normal serv-ice business picking back up pretty fast and furious once the order is lifted,” he says.

At A to Z, the director of bathroom remodeling, Marcella Zinz, says it has already booked several remodeling jobs for May, in the hopes the order will be lifted by then.

“We’re encouraging people now to get on the schedule because once we’re all freed, it’s going to come out at one time and you’re not going to be able to get on the schedule,” she says.

Zinz is looking to hire two or three workers for the bathroom division to keep up with the influx of work she’s expecting.

Pritchard is looking to hire two or three HVAC workers and another five apprentice plumbers. “People that are staying at home during lockdown are realizing the things in their home that are broken need fixed,” he says.

Likewise, Carlson says his estimators and project managers are busy booking projects. He expects their workload to increase based on what they have on the books. “Work is a little light right now,” he says, but he estimates they’ll have to bring on 20 to 30 people once business picks back up.

In the meantime everyone is taking advantage of the lull to adjust to a new way of doing business.

Pritchard says A to Z now has sanitizer and wipes on all of the trucks and his company has moved to a no-contact policy with customers.

Workers use tablets instead of paper, and customers can make their payments online.

“A lot of the customers are thrilled about that because they don’t want to have to worry about handing somebody a check,” he says.

The bathroom division is doing virtual estimates. “They can text or email photographs to us. We’ll walk them through what photos they need to take,” Zinz says.

Even for those businesses that are shut down, Zinz says the important thing is to keep moving forward. “Never stop. Just because you’re shut down, you still have to work.”

Popovich decided to use the time to upgrade the A to Z showroom.

At Joe Dickey Electric, Carlson says the company has purchased thermometers to check workers’ temperatures and has begun to set up its own restrooms and hand-washing stations at all job sites.

All of the office staff is working from home and they’ve begun to conduct meetings on Zoom. “I met with each of our project managers and we did it over a Zoom meeting. It actually worked pretty well to the point where that might be our new normal,” Carlson says.

That’s a sentiment Joseph Sylvester, owner of JS Interior Innovations in Boardman, hears a lot lately. “I’ve been hearing this over and over again,” he says. “We have our people working from home and it’s actually working out pretty good.” 

JS Interiors specializes in creative solutions for office spaces, with a wide range of products and services for home offices, which now have become a must-have for many.

“We are getting calls. Because people are starting to realize, ‘I may be here for a little while,’ “ he says.

When putting together a home office, Sylvester says to look for a space that is clean and bright and free of clutter. “You need a space that’s going to inspire you,” he says.

A home office space could be an entire room or just a small space that is set aside. The important thing, he says, is that it’s neat, efficient, and allows you to conduct business in a professional manner.

To improve productivity, Sylvester recommends using a height adjustable desk. As for storage, he recommends mobile cabinets. “Those can be moved around so they can go under your desk when you’re done,” he says.

Sylvester expects the shutdown will cause many people to realize the benefits and efficiencies of working from home, and that many companies will scale back their office space. “This virus has changed a lot of thinking and ideas and ways that we conduct our work,” he says.

What’s important, Carlson says, is that companies be ready for the new way of doing business so they can take advantage of the recovery. “There’s just going to be that new normal of how do we go about it safely. That’s going to be an interesting challenge.”