Interview by Clayton
Gil Boyles, C.G.R., C.A.P.S., is owner of GB General Contractors, a
design/build remodeling firm situated southeast of Houston serving
the metropolitan communities between Pearland and Galveston Bay.
With a full-time staff of four — Gil, his wife, Patty Boyles,
who handles much of the design work, an office manager, and a
project manager — his company operates on a volume of $1
million, specializing in room additions, kitchens, and baths. The
week before this interview, Hurricane Rita, which had just
intensified at an astounding rate from Category 2 to Category 5 in
less than 24 hours, had reached peak wind speeds of 175 mph and was
making a beeline for Galveston Island and on toward Houston. At the
eleventh hour, Rita turned northwestward and made landfall near the
Texas/Louisiana border — while Galveston, Texas City, and the
greater Houston area breathed a collective sigh of relief. Having
just witnessed the devastation caused by Katrina, and with the city
of Houston taking in vast numbers of evacuees, contractors in the
area were hypersensitive to the destructive possibility of a major
storm. Gil Boyles, the incoming 2006 chair of the Remodelors
Council of the Greater Houston Builders Association (GHBA), shares
his experience of growing a business in the nation's fourth largest
city. His story offers some important insights on how contractors
can approach rebuilding in a densely populated area after a major
storm. In short, success comes from focusing on sound business
practices, not from operating in a position of crisis
In Friendswood, Texas, GB General Contractors added this 20- by
20-foot exercise room with a covered porch that provides a shaded
view of the pool.
HOUSTON IS A HUGE METROPOLIS. WHAT'S IT LIKE TO WORK IN THAT VAST
We've been pushing a high-end product down here for about 26 years,
and it's a tougher sell in our area of greater Houston than it
would be in other communities. I think we're the only remodeling
contractor that's involved with the GHBA in Pearland. In a way
that's good, but in a way it's not. The people here still have a
small town approach to life. Of course, it's not a small town
anymore, but compared with the more affluent areas in Houston, like
West University Place, River Oaks, or Tanglewood, the price
structure remains much lower. We have to work a little harder to
find clients who appreciate high-quality work.
The "crew" at GB General Contractors (from left to right):
President Gil Boyles, Vice President Patty Boyles, Production
Manager Mark Gonzales, and Office Manager Janice
We depend on a strong marketing plan. We have to put our name out
there to generate more volume than referrals alone could do.
Our marketing plan focuses on three things: doing home shows,
involvement in the GHBA, and doing a lot of follow-ups with past
clients. My philosophy is that if you're not going to work for
everybody but want to select better jobs, you've got to get the
phone to ring enough so you can pick and choose. As long as we've
been able to keep the phone ringing, we've have had a steady stream
of good work.
The guys who are starving to death out in this market are the ones
just living off the referrals. Don't get me wrong: If you don't
have a good reputation, you might as well shut down. Our referral
sheet is the basis for new clients learning about who we are. But
if we're not out there getting that sheet in front of people,
there's no way we'll ever grow.
HOW EFFECTIVE ARE HOME
In the city of Houston, there are probably eight or nine home shows
a year. We do three or four of them — roughly one each
quarter. I'll grant you, 98% of attendees are tire kickers. But we
ask people who stop by if they're interested in us following up
with them. We'll get anywhere from 30 to 40 phone numbers of
potential clients, and the very next day, our office manager sends
out a packet that includes a nice flyer, letters we've written in
the paper and articles that our Remodelors Council has published,
and the referral sheet. About a week or two after that, if I
haven't heard from those potential clients, I personally call every
one of them.
We do get a fair of number of projects because we make this effort.
Clients tell us it's what set us apart as professionals, and it
gave them something they could hang onto while they got ready. But
patience is required. We just signed a design contract yesterday on
a job from a home show in early June. So sometimes it takes time,
but it does work.
While remodeling remains the focus of GB General Contractors,
the company continues to build the occasional new home. In a new
3,000-square-foot home (right), the curved stairway exemplifies the
detail and intimate design appropriate to the family room — a
central gathering space for friends as well as relations. One step
up in the emerging high-end market of Pearland, Texas, an elegant
entry with a self-supporting radius staircase sets the stage for a
new 9,500-square-foot home (left).
HOW DOES INVOLVEMENT IN THE GHBA WORK INTO A MARKETING
We actually get leads from it. Members do a lot of referring to
other members. The greater Houston area is very large, and most of
us have to focus our work in one general area. We're on the south
side, so if somebody on the north side gets a lead on the south
side, they'll refer us, and we do the same for them. Also, when
people move into town for the first time, they often call the HBA
or pull up the Web site where there's a member directory. Being the
only member in Pearland helps us. We don't get all of the leads,
but we have opportunities that we can follow up on.
WHY FOLLOW UP WITH PAST CLIENTS?
People appreciate this effort, and they remember who you are. This
gives us a chance to visit and to get their feedback. That, in
turn, generates some referrals and sometimes generates more work
from these clients. We have a number of past clients who we take
care of on a regular basis.
Actually, we reached out to them. Prior to the storm, we focused on
boarding up our own business and securing our job sites. But we
also made sure that we called as many past clients as we could,
went out to help them board up, and made sure they had all the
stuff out of their yards.
HAD YOU EVER BEEN THROUGH A HURRICANE
Tropical storm Allison was a big storm we didn't dodge. It caused a
lot of flooding. [Ed. note: According to the National Weather
Service, nearly 37 inches of rain was recorded at the Port of
Houston during Allison's five-day rampage in 2001.] After a storm
of this magnitude, you have to know what to expect. In a few days,
we had more than 400 phone calls from all over. People were
grabbing the phone, just to try to get free quotes, so they could
take three to their insurance company. It's a tough situation, but
it's one we're going to have to do a little differently next
I don't have a problem giving a quote, but I have a problem giving
a free quote if we're not going to be involved with the project. So
I have to make it clear at the beginning that we actually charge
for this. If we do the project, we'll rebate the fee. If it's a
client who we've done work with before, I don't always charge for
this. But I do for a stranger off the street who hasn't been
referred, which is what you get inundated with after a storm. If
people are serious, they'll pay us a nominal fee to have us put
meaningful numbers together.
If a quote is going to be meaningful to the insurance company,
you're right, it needs to be based on real numbers. To do a quote,
we look at every piece of the puzzle. It's no different than I'd
quote a regular job, and it takes a lot of time; I don't just grab
a number. The more extensive the damage to a building, the more
important hard numbers are.
Right now, to the east of us, people's lives are upended and will
be for a long while. People have just got to be patient; it will
take time to get something rolling. But there's no question —
it is a psychological drain on the people affected by those storms.
If you've ever been through a flood, you know how terrible it can
be. We did six or seven flood repairs after Allison, and it's not
much fun for anyone. It ruins people.
A gut rehab of a bathroom in Pasadena, Texas, required GB
General Contractors to design and build a fully accessible tile
shower with no threshold (left) for a wheelchair-bound young boy. A
complete remodel of a master bathroom in Pearland, Texas, included
this frameless shower enclosure and a cultured-marble whirlpool tub
It's a babysitting job. Not just babysitting the clients, but also
the trades that are scrambling to get back on their feet. You've
got to go in with tender hands and just listen to see what
everyone's needs are, then try to fulfill them the best you can.
But I think it's important not to let go of certain business
practices. Certain things we do to alleviate the headaches have got
to remain in place, regardless of the circumstances.
First, we've got to prequalify clients. When we're interviewing
someone, they're also interviewing us. If we don't feel good about
them, or if they don't feel good about us, I tell them, "Let's
don't start this, because this is a short-term marriage." After a
storm it can be even more intense, because people's lives have been
turned upside down.
Second, we make sure our contracts are very specific about exactly
what we're going to do, and we constantly communicate progress.
Perhaps the most important part of this is providing a detailed
schedule. The clients get a copy of our schedule, and all of our
trades get a copy, so everybody knows what and when everything's
going on. Of course, in remodeling, things have a tendency to
change. Clients have to know that and keeping them up-to-date is
critical to smoothing relations.
In any situation, but especially after a traumatic situation like a
flood, you've got to pay attention. Your customer's been through a
traumatic time, and everyone's hearing a lot of horror stories
about contractors, and they're not all wrong. The problems usually
occur when people who don't know what they're doing bid too low and
then run out of money. That's nothing new, but it becomes an
especially tricky situation after a flood if some defect in the
building is discovered once the work begins. I avoid these jobs,
because it presents too great a liability. Once I touch a job, I
become responsible for it, but I won't take that responsibility if
I don't know what's inside the wall.
Don't get me wrong — there are some good guys out here doing
excellent work, but I meet a lot of the remodelers who are working
for nothing; they don't even know it and don't particularly want
to, because they don't want to change the way they've always done
things. I was in that same boat for a long time myself, until I
broke out of my little shell.
HOW EXACTLY DID YOU BREAK OUT OF
One of the best things we did was to get involved with the
Remodelors Council. I get an opportunity to see what other
companies are doing all over the country. Now our company is trying
to stay up there with the best in the industry. In order to make a
profit, we have to charge accordingly, and we have to increase our
production. This has been a big shift in growing our company. I
came up on the technical side. I was trained by a remodeler who had
been in the family business for two generations. I learned all the
technical stuff, but now I've had to turn to the management side,
and it's been quite a transition; it's kind of hard when you're
used to doing all of it yourself and then you're having to turn
into a full-time manager in order to increase volume.
We used to have full-time employees, but we gradually shifted over
to subs in order to increase our volume. We now sub everything out,
right down to the broom sweeping.
If you sit down and figure out what it actually costs to have
employees — set them up with tools, put them in a truck, and
insure them — we feel that we're money ahead with
subcontractors. Not only that, but if things slow down, I don't
have to feel like I have to keep someone busy 40 hours a
Known for designing masterful kitchens, GB General Contractors
took this kitchen right down to the studs, then brought it back
with custom maple cabinets, granite countertops, and hardwood
Not in terms of quality. We use some of the same trade contractors
who we've been using for 15 to 20 years. These guys can turn out a
better product because they're so specialized. I know when I was
coming up, I did framing, I did trim, I built cabinets. I can do
all of it, but I'm not as efficient as someone who does it every
We get real defined on our specifications, making sure the guys on
our jobs have clear drawings with all the details spelled out. We
don't do any projects without a set of complete plans. This is key
to maintaining a high level of workmanship.
We also try new approaches to working with our guys. For example,
all of our cabinets are fabricated out of our shop, but we sub the
production out to an independent contractor who rents the space. We
run our entire operation out of a 3,200-square-foot metal building.
More than half of it's shop space and the other part's office.
We're just a lot more flexible when we can custom-build cabinets
and control their production.
The only issue that I have had with subs is that you're at the
mercy of their schedule. But if we schedule our jobs properly, we
don't usually have a problem. That means I need to forecast out far
enough so I can tell these guys, "Hey, I need you in three weeks"
or whenever. Some contractors will call them on Monday and expect
someone on Tuesday. That's just not fair.
More important, I don't mess around with their money. I pay them
fair; I pay them what I tell them I'm going to pay them. Because of
that, I've earned their trust, and when I pick up the phone now, I
don't usually have a problem getting them when I want them.~