Zak Fleming was 23 when he started his remodeling business in 2000. The 37-year-old owner and his Des Moines-based Fleming Construction have earned the respect of clients and peers, as well as those at Professional Remodeler magazine. Fleming was named to the publication’s 40 Under 40 class of 2014, chosen from a pool of more than 100 applicants.
Selections were based on various criteria, including measurable growth in company profit year over year and how the nominee contributed to the growth, philanthropic work, involvement in industry associations, and long-term personal and professional goals.
Tell us about your company.
We’re a custom builder that specializes strictly in renovating homes. We operate just like a builder does—we have a designer and everything just like your own builder would. We’re just over $600,000 in annual revenue right now.
Why did you decide to go into remodeling?
It’s just more of a creative field. Being an electrician is a great way to make a living. But you’re kind of a technician, and you just follow the plans. I wanted to do something that was a little more creative, where I could have a change of scenery a little more often.
What was initially the biggest challenge when you established your company?
I think getting the right people to work for me was a big challenge when I first started. I was 23 years old and trying to get the right people that would follow my lead and try not to lead from the back. When you’re that young, you have to earn people’s respect in this industry, and being the owner of the company doesn’t automatically get you respect.
And then there was also just being that young and trying to get a customer base together. I had to find the right people who wanted to take a chance on a young guy. In order to do that, we had to offer our services at a pretty discounted rate back then to try to establish our customer base.
I just had to be confident in our abilities and just kind of exude that confidence, and it just trickled down. That was just saying that at the end of the day, this is my company. I just had to be confident that I could handle the work and that we could do it and make sure everybody realized that.
What motivates you?
I enjoy the relationships that I have with people, including our trade partners and employees. I like the relationships I establish with the customers, too. That’s a weird thing because when I started in this business, I thought it was all about getting the best work I could produce. Now I’m a relationship builder. We do great work. But by a long shot, the relationships we establish with the customers, that’s what motivates me and helps build the business.
I think one issue is the legal changes. The rules seem to be constantly changing from the government, including the lead laws, licensing, OSHA regulations. It’s almost a full-time job to keep up with that stuff. The other big challenge is a labor shortage issue. Right now a lot of younger people don’t want to go into the trades. Even though it’s a good way to make a living, they’re just not convinced it is. We need people to come up and eventually take over this industry. A lot of the older guys are retiring or went on to other fields, especially after the recession, so it’s leaving a void.
How is the remodeling industry changing?
It is becoming a very specialized field. Twenty years ago it was something that your out-of-work uncle or carpenters on the weekends would do for you. Now people expect very professional remodeling companies. The days of the “Chuck in the truck,” where one guy in a truck does everything, have gone away. Now it’s managed like a building company. People expect you to have a designer on staff to help with the design process.
One issue is that you still have to bid a lot of work against some of those guys who don’t have the fully established company, that one “Chuck in the truck” guy who could be way lower in price than everyone else because he doesn’t have any overhead. But he’s not necessarily following all the rules either.
How important have mentors been in your career?
It’s been a huge part of the transformation of my company. When I first was involved in the Home Builders Association of Greater Des Moines (HBA), I got a membership to add some legitimacy to my business. Once I got involved, I saw how great the Remodelers Council is and how the older guys are willing to give you some hints on the way to build your business. It’s not necessarily about making your company bigger, but more about how to run your business efficiently and how to make a living as a business owner instead of just making wages.
What advice would you give others interested in getting into the remodeling field?
To me, the most important factor was my involvement in the Remodelers Council and the HBA. If I was a young guy getting started in this field again, I would go right to the HBA and try to get in. They will help you with all kinds of stuff. All you have to do is volunteer a little bit of your time.
What community activities are you involved in?
I’m the chairman of the Gabe Fleming Memorial Hockey Scholarship Fund. Five years ago my brother passed away playing hockey. He was 30. People give memorial money to families all the time, and we used the funds to start an organization that helps kids have fun and play hockey. We’ve helped about 35–40 kids now to play. I’m also involved on many different levels with the National Association of Home Builders, the HBA of Greater Des Moines, and its Remodelers Council.