7 Business Lessons from a Pro Builder
We sat down with professional homebuilder Jeff Sweenor to talk about what he's learned over nearly 30 years in the business
Jeff Sweenor has been building houses for nearly 30 years, though he says, "in the construction business, 30 years is young!" Specializing in high-end, custom residential construction, Sweenor Builders Incorporated (sweenorbuilders.com) has grown from a two-man operation to a thriving firm with about 50 employees. Sweenor was recently named the Best Custom Home Builder in Rhode Island, and has been nominated for Custom Home Builder of the Year by the National Association of Home Builders. He's also part of the TOH family, having served as contractor for the Jamestown Net-Zero House and the builder for the This Old House Idea House in both 2017 and 2018. In fact, for the 2018 Idea House, Sweenor received a 2018 Best in American Living Award from the National Association of Home Builders Design Committee. Here, he shares some of what he's learned with This Old House Pro2Pro.
1. You can start anywhere
"My family's in the candy business, and I started pitching in when I was about 10, working summers and holidays washing dishes. Everything was handmade, so it became a real pitch-in kind of effort, especially around holidays—I'd go to work before school and put in a couple of hours. I worked through high school and college, and after I graduated from college I worked full time. I was about 24, and had just gotten engaged to my wife, when we decided that we would build a house instead of buying one. I'd always been relatively handy—we'd build displays for the candy store, or if equipment broke, I could fix it—but I didn't have any training. I'd never taken any classes. I took the summer off, and before it was over, I knew I wasn't going back to the candy store."
2. Recognize your limitations
"I hired a contractor who knew what he was doing to build that first house with me. When I didn't know how to do something, I've always hired people who knew more than me so that I could learn from them. I can remember framing an especially complicated roof—I couldn't figure it out, so I hired somebody that knew how to do it, and I learned."
3. The right attitude is key
"Building a house was never a scary concept, or starting a business—I felt that entrepreneurial spirit. It doesn't matter what you're going to do, you could set out to build your own house or to hike Mount Kilimanjaro, but you've got to have that independent thinking, that 'I can do it' attitude. It really needs to be a personality trait right out of the gate."
4. Any experience can be a learning experience
"Something I definitely learned from my parents' candy business is the importance of presentation. From the beginning, that was something I was able to bring to the table and capitalize on, even though I didn't go to school for marketing. When I was starting out, there was plenty I didn't know yet about building a house. But I knew how to keep a clean job site, a professional looking truck, that kind of thing. I took a lot of pictures, which even back then was important—you didn't have Houzz or Facebook or Instagram, you had an actual photo album, and when you met with people, you brought your album. Making candy might not have much in common with building houses, but there were still things I was able to absorb and carry with me as I built my own business."
5. It's called the school of hard knocks for a reason
"I always found it easier and faster to learn by doing, but that can come at an expense—sometimes you don't get it right and you have to do it over again. I remember many years ago, digging a foundation in June, and I'm thinking we've got a perfectly dry hole. We built the house, and six months later, it's winter, it's a week before closing, and there's water in the basement. The whole floor had buckled, it had displaced the slab like four inches! Now I will never put in a basement without a French drain."
6. Sometimes you need to hit the books
"If I were to have done anything differently, it would just be that I could have paid a bit more attention in college—maybe gone to school for business, accounting, or finance, instead of physiology and exercise science. Maybe gotten an MBA! I didn't have business skills and found those harder to learn—being able to frame a wall is one thing, figuring out how to conduct the business side of building houses was its own set of learning curves. Learning how to budget jobs, learning computers as that became part of how you ran the business, I had to learn every single thing."
7. Never stop pushing yourself
"You have to keep chipping away. After about ten years, I had figured out that I could build a 24x36 Colonial and I could do it really fast and really well, but I wasn't content. I always wanted to build the best thing, the highest caliber, the most complicated. Even going way back, after finishing that very first house, I went right to building a spec house after that. We lived in that first house for about ten years, as it happens. We built another house in 1998 and have been there since, though if I'm honest with myself I've probably been wanting to be out of there for about ten years! But the bottom line is, as soon as I get to a comfort level, a certain quality, I want to push myself beyond that. I always want to keep learning."
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