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September 2009
Built To Last
By Susanne Deitzel

     Levi Strauss. Coca-Cola. Campbell’s. While these behemoth brands have decidedly different exteriors, they share a vital trait: authenticity. And as much as marketing rock stars and business gurus offer to sell access to the a-word, there is only one path to being the genuine article: commitment and integrity.

     Which brings to mind another name: Andrew Roby.

     In certain Charlotte neighborhoods, mentioning the general contracting company triggers descriptions of jaw-dropping remodeling projects with an obsessive emphasis on craftsmanship and personal service. The name has become synonymous with value, quality and a concierge-like service mentality.

     But Andrew Roby, like most successful brands, has a quirky little paradox at the core of its personality. While Andrew Roby is responsible for delivering high-dollar, award-winning building services to the most prestigious homes in Charlotte—the success of the company is grounded in down-home humility and old-fashioned sweat equity.

 

Laying a Foundation

     Andrew Roby general contractors was established 60 years ago by Andrew Robicsek (who later shortened his name), a Hungarian immigrant with a mind for relationship-building and honest business practices. Two years after starting the company, Robicsek hired Glenn Haston as superintendent. The two would work together for over 25 years, establishing the fledgling organization’s reputation for craftsmanship.

     In 1976, Haston bought the firm outright from Robicsek—but kept the name—and today, the second and third generation of Haston’s extended family work for the firm.

Grandsons Trent and Travis Haston are charged with the weighty task of merging Andrew Roby’s virtues with new technology and business efficiencies. Trent Haston is vice president of internal operations, owner and resident visionary. The 31-year-old Jim Collins disciple has enthusiasm and confidence to spare; his genuine warmth and approachability highlighted by a homespun, Charlottean drawl.

     Trent explains the essence of his company like this: “My dad will walk into somebody’s house, get down on his hands and knees to inspect their flooring, and spend the rest of the conversation on his knees. That is who we are—down to earth, plainspoken people with a natural desire to do the job right and treat people with respect.” (Notably, as Trent describes his father, he too is on the ground looking up, his hand brushing the plane of the office hardwoods.)

     While cut from the same Haston cloth, Trent is also a management-savvy systems architect, whose ideas from time to time raise eyebrows of the company’s conservative founders. He explains, “We grew up on job sites learning that there is a very clear boundary between the people who do the work and the customer. We were also taught not to invest in anything that might suggest privilege.”

     Trent goes on to explain that while the company’s rock solid work ethic, integrity and value are immutable, he has built a strong case for meeting the customer where they are.

“Company trucks obviously cost money, but today we don’t consider them an extravagance. Anytime we are present on a client’s property, we communicate the quality and impeccability we bring to the job. In the end, it creates more peace of mind for the customer, and that is one of the biggest priorities we have,” explains Trent.

     Trent’s brother Travis is vice president in charge of field operations, principal superintendent and also an Andrew Roby owner. He’s tall and quiet with the same southern lilt to his words, but he talks about quality, no-excuses execution and integrity.

     Travis says when he and Trent decided to build a new management structure, he often got stuck in old-school thinking. “It was hard to give up doing everything myself, but we both knew that’s what was necessary to grow the company. So we got together for two hours every other week, and four years later we have an infrastructure that is leveraging our strengths, growing relationships, and building the business divisions.”

 

Building Out

     While Andrew Roby is best known for extraordinary craftsmanship in remodeling historical Charlotte homes, the company also delivers high-end, new home construction.  In early 2009 the company completed a $3 million four-unit townhouse and has also undertaken several high-end commercial projects. Roby has renovated a day care center into an expansive private office and collector’s car showcase, renovated an historical Victorian home for law offices, transformed a bungalow home into a trendy clothing boutique, and built a corporate guest house for Springs Industries in Rock Hill, S.C.

Melissa Vandiver has been an Andrew Roby client for over 30 years, and has contracted them for a major renovation, several commercial properties for her real estate brokerage, and handyman projects.

     “Commercial and residential work is very different, but no matter what the type or size of the job, I can always count on quality, honesty and courtesy from Andrew Roby. I love doing business with them,” says Vandiver.

     This quality focus also inspired the incorporation of the Roby Electric Division in 2008. “We were having problems with electrical subcontractors delaying building schedules due to missed appointments or failed inspections, so we created a unit that could deliver to our quality standards,” says Travis. Now, other contractors call Roby Electric to get reliable, quality electric work.

     The company has also created a handyman division. Comments Trent, “When you grow up with the principles of working hard, honoring your word, and doing it right the first time—that goes pretty far in the business world these days.”

     While the company is keen on growth, it sticks to its specialty. For example, Travis says that Andrew Roby will not grow to include building design.

     “Companies that offer ‘turnkey solutions’ in terms of design and contracting are often tempted into value engineering for its own sake. We believe that architectural design and contractors speak a common language, but we bring value from independent perspectives. The architect designs the structure; we bring it to life,” explains Travis.

     Sam Greeson, principal of architecture firm Meyer, Greeson, Paullin, Benson, says that Andrew Roby has been one of their favorite contractors for just this reason.

     “Not only do they deliver high quality work, but we can trust them to make decisions on our behalf. We have confidence that their decisions will respect the vision and integrity of the design as well as what brings the highest satisfaction to the client,” affirms Greeson.

      He adds, “The people at Andrew Roby also go extra lengths to make sure clients are comfortable and satisfied during the building process as well as with the final result. This brings a lot of value to us as an organization.”

 

Penchant for Precision

     While visionary and energetic, both Trent and Travis believe in incubating initiatives. While green building is abuzz, Trent and Travis are developing a green offering that complements their core business. They also plan on expanding into the mountains and the beachfront of the Carolinas—on the right time frame.

     Says Trent, “It’s not always easy to be patient when opportunity is so clear, but so far it has paid off.”

     This penchant for precision distinguishes most decisions at Andrew Roby, including the decision to charge for estimates for larger jobs.

     “Many people ask for our quotes as a yardstick. It is flattering, but it takes time, so this saves our project managers from quoting jobs that aren’t a good fit,” says Travis.  “Sometimes the best service you can offer is to say you’re not the perfect match for the job.”

     The same discernment influenced their decision to buy computers. Instead of yielding to the urge to invest in the latest equipment for every workstation, Trent was strategic in outfitting the office and field supervisors with systems that expedited communication flow.

      “With laptops, supervisors can e-mail status reports, orders and send photos from the job site to the project managers. This creates efficiencies for construction and allows us to give customers precise status reports,” Says Trent. The Hastons are also considering webcams for job sites to enable customers to see their project in real time.

      Another pivotal decision included selecting a charity partner for Andrew Roby. Trent said ‘no thank you’ to several well-known entities because he “wanted a partnership we could sink our teeth into.”

     Ultimately, Trent chose to support the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS) when he found out that one of their employees was a survivor of the disease. The company contributed $7500, 500 hours of service, and authored a business plan for their first annual fundraiser, “Pitchin’ Corn for a Cure,” which netted over $30,400 in two months.

     “The partnership came together perfectly,” says Trent.

 

Blueprint for the Future

     Roby’s penchant for precision extends most significantly to its employees. Channeling Jim Collins, Trent says, “We focus on getting the right people on the bus. And sometimes that means getting the wrong people off of the bus,” says Trent.

     The organization currently has 50 employees, down from 80 in 2007. Unlike many businesses, the reduction was generated more by a desire to invest in the right people than by the need to cut back. As Trent describes the company’s new 401(k) program, it is clear that his commitment to having a company of life-long employees isn’t a hope...it’s a  declaration.

     The company’s longest serving employee, Leroy Oates joined the company in 1953 as a 15-year-old mason’s assistant; he is now a respected mentor and company ambassador. Over a dozen more employees have served with the company for 25 years or more.

Explains Trent, “Everything we do is built upon the values of our family, and is designed to create customers and employees for life.” He says the time and energy they have devoted to processes, org charts, and SOP manuals have only made this vision clearer.

     “Distractions and conflicts are a thing of the past; we took the guesswork out of things, which frees people to be customer-focused.” The result is old-fashioned quality delivered with modern efficiency. As Collins would say—a business built to last.

     Some of Trent’s favorite stories are about delivering old school service in an increasingly hectic world—an employee picking up the paper off the sidewalk on his way to a client’s doorstep, or delivering firewood to a customer’s home just because he called to ask where to find some.

     “In our work, we are invited into people’s homes, where their kids are playing, dinner is cooking and life is going on. We want them to feel comfortable enough to call us for anything. That is when you know you have done a great job,” grins Trent.

     Another sign of a good job is when you run out of shelf space for prestigious industry awards. At this year’s NAHB Excellence in Remodeling awards, Andrew Roby took home an impressive thirteen awards, including Best in Show, the Judges Award, seven Gold and four Silver medals.

     Legacy owners Ron and Don Haston are content to stand vigil from the Andrew Roby board of directors and lend their charisma to frequent job site visits, because it is clear that Trent and Travis have the right amount of Haston DNA, business acumen and youthful ingenuity to keep Andrew Roby the real deal.

 

 

 

Susanne Deitzel is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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