Today we’d like to introduce you to Chris Black.
Chris, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I guess you could say my introduction to the construction industry was during high school in the Atlanta area, where I was raised. After first working summer jobs in a few restaurants, a buddy of mine and I found work with some construction firms building homes. Our first responsibilities were at the bottom of the totem pole for construction…literally digging ditches, gathering supplies around the site, cleanup, etc. The next summer we “moved up” to the framing crew, which is where I really began to learn about how buildings were constructed.
I went off to college at Clemson University and had no idea what I wanted to major in, but during fraternity rush midway through my freshman year I was talking with a fraternity member about how I used to frame houses and enjoyed that type of work. This guy suggested I look into Clemson’s Construction Science program. After investigating it I realized that that was what I wanted to do, so that chance encounter really served as a fork-in-the-road type of moment for me.
After graduating in December 1991 with my construction science degree I began working in the commercial construction industry in January of 1992. I worked for a couple of different firms, from very large to small, which enabled me to gain a really in-depth view of how projects were put together and what made a project successful or unsuccessful. One thing that really stood out to me is how companies often grow but in doing so they “glom on” procedure after procedure and end up with a spaghetti network of processes. Even when they have software to help manage everything, the mash-up of processes often leads to inefficiencies that can impact the project.
I moved to Dallas for a job in February of 1997. It was a good move as it enabled me to work with some of the largest commercial construction firms around and opened up an entire new chapter of my life in a new city. However, by early 2002 I began to wonder if working for a big commercial construction firm was really where I wanted to be long term, especially since the industry had begun to slow down substantially post-9/11.
Something was gnawing at me but I wasn’t sure quite what my next professional move would be. A few months later, after seeing many colleagues lose their jobs as my firm cut staff, my position was eliminated as well. While scared to be without a job it actually was a bit of a relief as it forced me to examine what I wanted to pursue next. One day soon after losing my job, I went on a long run and during that run the idea of opening my own business stuck in my head. Given my background in the construction industry, as well as my experience working on building homes during high school summer jobs, I decided that a residential renovation firm was what I wanted to do.
Residential renovation was a business I could get into without a lot of initial capital investment or special training. However, as outlined further below, it was a business that required much more than I expected in order to do it right and achieve success. Thus, in mid-2002 what would eventually become Blackline Renovations was born.
Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Anybody who tells you that starting his or her own business and building it up to achieve success over 15 years has been a smooth road is telling you a lie!
Since I had been in the commercial construction industry I really had no contacts on the residential side in Dallas. In addition, I knew a lot about construction management and a little about framing and home building from my high school and college jobs, but there was still so much I had yet to learn. So, it wasn’t as easy as hanging a shingle and having the jobs start to roll in. That first year I really had to claw and scrape for work and relied mostly on winning small jobs, many of which I did much of the work myself. At one point, I even picked up a copy of the Advocate magazine to thumb through and find architects and designers who might be looking for contractors to implement their designs. It wasn’t much different than picking up a copy of the phone book and smiling and dialing for work!
I also had no base of subcontractors and had to go through a lot of trial and error to find good ones who could perform at the level I expected, as did my clients. In a similar fashion to how good players help make a coach look good, good subs help make a contractor look good. It was definitely a struggle to find good, reliable contractors in the early years of my business.
Perhaps my biggest early struggle, aside from simply learning how to make jobs run smoothly, was learning how to protect myself, and my company, from the small number of clients who created big problems. For example, one client demanded we perform extra work that was beyond the scope of the project. After we had already completed most of the project that client locked us out of the house and refused to pay. We sued and won all the payments due. We had a few other projects go poorly for various reasons but always we attempted to learn what we could do to improve the next time, even when it wasn’t our fault.
Blackline Renovations – what should we know? What do you guys do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
Blackline Renovations is a design-build home renovation firm that handles all aspects of renovation and addition projects, from design through construction. We take the separate tasks of budgeting, designing, and construction and deliver them in one streamlined package. This fundamental aspect saves money and time by transforming the relationship between designers and builders into an alliance, thus fostering collaboration and teamwork.
In addition, we specialize only in residential work, which allows our team to be focused and give clients the personal attention they deserve, as well as to solve problems in a timely manner. Our reputation for excellent communication, quality construction and outstanding customer service has grown along with the company, enabling us to work on some of the most beautiful and highest quality projects around.
What are you most proud of as a company? What sets you apart from others?
I would have to say I am most proud of the awards our team at Blackline Renovations has won. We have won 8 Best of Houzz awards going back to 2013, we’ve won multiple regional NARI CotY awards, and this year we won TWO national CotY awards (for a little perspective, Magnolia Homes of “Fixer Upper” television fame, won just one regional CotY award this year). In one of the categories in which we won a national CotY award we were competing against one of the very largest remodeling firms in the entire country, so we were as surprised as anybody when our work was recognized for its quality.
Also, we were named for the first time this year to Remodeling Magazine’s Remodeling 550 list, which ranks the industry’s largest and most successful firms. Not only were we ranked on the Remodeling 550 list, but we also received the GuildQuality Service Excellence Distinction, which means that in their surveys of all our customers from 2016 we achieved a recommendation rate of at least 90%. These achievements are testament to the outstanding team members that make our company what it is today.
Has luck played a meaningful role in your life and business?
I am not a big believer that luck, good or bad, has played a role in the success of our business. The success we have achieved is truly due to the hard work of our team and their dedication to making Blackline the best that it can be.
Now, I do believe that at some critical points in our business certain decisions we made turned out in hindsight to be really fortunate, but again I don’t really attribute it to luck but to the result of hard work. For example, one of the earliest subs I worked with encouraged me to join NARI as a way to network and learn more about the remodeling industry. Soon after joining I went to NARI’s national conference and rather than spending the week in Vegas partying I really focused on absorbing all I could from the classes and networking events. In addition, I leveraged the resources available to me from my membership, such as lists of solid subcontractors. So, the decision to join NARI and get all I could from my membership played a key role in helping me grow Blackline far beyond what I might have otherwise.
Another key decision that turned out well was deciding to hire my first full-time employee. I had joined a group called Remodeler’s Advantage, which is a peer group of remodeling firms. We would meet and attend classes to learn more about the industry as well as discuss what issues we were facing with our businesses and how we could make them better. This group also provided guidance on setting up proper accounting and operational systems so that we could spend more time in the field with clients and less running things on the back end.
After being in business for a few years I had grown it to the point that I was truly becoming overwhelmed. I would work on client projects in the field during the day and then head back to the office at night to handle all the administrative and business development activities. My life was becoming consumed by everything it took to run the business and I knew I needed more help. My first employee, Jennifer Holloway, started working for me part-time but I was struggling with whether to bring her on full-time. Eventually, my peers in Remodeler’s Advantage pushed me to hire her permanently, so I did.
Hiring Jennifer made a huge difference in allowing me more time to work directly with clients and to make sure our projects were being delivered with the quality our clients expected. I also found the need to have somebody who could be on the jobsites throughout the day and eventually hired a full-time project manager, Taff Welborn. Having Taff onsite enabled me to spend more time developing new business.
However, hiring Jennifer full-time proved fortuitous for another more personal reason. When she was working part-time Jennifer would typically leave the office around noon leaving me alone with whatever I was working on at the time. Just a few weeks after she began working full-time, meaning she was in the office with me rather than having left earlier in the day, I had a stroke. Unable to communicate, I fell to the floor, shocking Jennifer who didn’t know quite what to do. Just a few seconds later one of the architects with whom we worked on various projects happened to call the office and fortunately Jennifer was there to pick up the phone and speak with him, which I wouldn’t have been able to do. He calmed her down and guided her about what she should do next, particularly calling 911 for emergency help. Thankfully, the paramedics arrived in time to treat me, get me to the hospital, and most likely save my life or prevent me from becoming permanently disabled. Without having made that first full-time hire my life would have forever been changed. I guess some would call it luck, or divine intervention, but because Jennifer had proven herself as a part-time employee and we had grown the business to a point that I felt comfortable bringing her on board full-time, she was there to help me in my time of need.
This article was originally published in Voyage Dallas.