By Courtney Thomas
It was one very bad experience with a real estate transaction that left entrepreneur Mike Brewer thinking there had to be a way to professionalize the home inspection industry. Like many serial entrepreneurs, after an unsatisfactory business transaction (in Brewer’s case with a home inspector), he began researching the industry to see how it could be improved to make it a better overall experience for everyone involved in a real estate transaction and a home inspection.
Home Inspection…Back Then
In 1994, the home inspection industry was largely comprised of independents or homebuilders offering their opinions.
“There was no structure, no standards and certainly no leading brand,” says Dan Steward, Pillar To Post’s current CEO. “At the time, the economy was in great shape and the real estate market was really heating up. Back then, only about 30 percent of real estate transactions included a home inspection. Mike recognized a void in the marketplace and founded Pillar To Post on the premise of creating a brand built on technical training and standards.”
Brewer, who had experience in the automotive glass industry, knew this was a business that could be franchised and recruited his first two employees with that goal in mind. Gordon Williams was the first employee of Pillar To Post and was instrumental in franchise growth. Brewer also hired a technical engineer who designed the Pillar To Post technology program, developed a standardized home inspection report and a training program to implement it. The late ‘90s was a key period of technological innovation, and technology was becoming dated as fast as Williams was selling franchises. In 1999, Brewer made another key hire, Trevor Welby-Solomon, a tech-savvy home inspector who was heavily involved with industry associations.
Welby-Solomon is still with the company today and serves as the company’s vice president of technical services and support.
“No other home inspection company had computerized inspection reports when Trevor launched the first generation in 1999,” Steward reports. Prior to that, Pillar To Post offered three-part carbonless NCR reports, allowing the homebuyer, the real estate agent and the inspector to receive identical reports on the spot. “At the time, that was innovative!” says Steward.
“Trevor brought a unique vision to the development of our first computerized report,” Steward explains. “Trevor has continued to be one of our company’s leading visionaries. He is currently working on the fifth generation of our proprietary software and enhancing its computerized reporting capabilities.”
Raising the Standard
In addition to the foundation laid by Welby-Solomon, Brewer wanted an added layer of professionalism to set Pillar To Post apart from the competition. He made it mandatory for every Pillar To Post home inspector to carry Errors & Omissions (E&O) insurance, which was a major turning point for the industry.
“For some home inspectors, E&O insurance is a large expense and one that is often forgone,” Steward says. “As Pillar To Post inspectors and others in the industry began to carry it, real estate professionals became much more trustful of and willing to recommend home inspectors. The percentage of real estate transactions done with a home inspection shifted upward.” Today, nearly 85 percent of residential real estate transactions include a home inspection.
An astute businessman, Brewer’s intent was to build a leading brand and sell it. As the company grew, The Franchise Company (today known as FirstService Brands) was paying close attention.
FirstService Brands is a leading North American company in the category of property services, which it delivers through its extensive franchise and contractor networks.
“FirstService really saw great potential in Pillar To Post,” Steward explains. “The business was profitable and really strong operationally. FirstService was also attracted to the business to gain a better understanding of the homeowner before a home was purchased.”
FirstService acquired Pillar To Post in October 2003. FirstService Brands include Paul Davis Restoration, CertaPro Painters, California Closets, College Pro Painters, Floor Coverings International, Handyman Connection and BrandPoint Services. Currently, there are more than 2,000 franchises operating under the FirstService umbrella.
Traditionally, FirstService prefers to maintain company leaders when making acquisitions, but Brewer wanted to move on.
When Steward joined Pillar To Post in 2004, he brought more than 25 years of experience to his CEO position. He had formerly been a vice president with Fortune 500 company Iron Mountain Corp. and executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Shred-It Group of Companies.
“Business at Pillar To Post remained status quo from the time of the acquisition to my joining the company,” Steward says. “I was tasked with growing the company. We had a strong foundation, but we wanted coverage in all 50 states and all major metropolitan markets. Although I joined the company in the middle of the housing boom, the majority of my tenure has been during the rockiest real estate market in many years.”
In strategy meetings on how to continue to grow the Pillar To Post franchise network, Steward kept hearing about company legend Gord Williams, who had left the company prior to Steward’s arrival.
“I actually hired an outside recruiting agency to help me find a talented franchise recruitment professional and even the recruiter knew Gord!” Steward recalls. “I said to myself, ‘How could you not want to meet the first employee of the company who sold more than 300 franchises?’” It turns out, the two gentlemen lived less than a mile apart and shortly after meeting for coffee for the first time in 2005, Williams rejoined the company to help spearhead franchise recruitment.
With Williams approaching retirement, Steward knew he needed to keep the momentum going and, earlier this year, hired Brian Wieters as vice president of franchise sales. Wieters has spent more than two decades working in various capacities for some of the biggest names in franchising. Over the course of his career, Wieters has been responsible for more than 500 franchise sales.
Reaching a New Level
Today, with more than 400 locations in 45 states and eight Canadian provinces, Pillar To Post is the largest home inspection franchise company in North America. Wieters will be instrumental in Pillar To Post’s plans to add 500 to 600 new franchisees over the next five years.
In addition to a re-energized franchise recruitment strategy, Steward has implemented a franchise field support program with 11 regional directors. This localizes inspection and business coaching and operates under the leadership of Charles Furlough. A 15-year veteran of Pillar To Post, Furlough started as a franchise partner and inspector in Raleigh, N.C. He went on to become master franchisee for the Carolinas and is now the vice president of field operations. Furlough has personally done more than 5,000 home inspections. A number of other programs have been launched across the country, including: an ongoing investment in technology, which resulted in Pillar To Post’s Computerized Home Inspection Reporting Program (CHIRP); advanced marketing programs that help franchisees with rapid start-up; Net Promoter Scoring by customers and agents on every home inspection done by a Pillar To Post inspector; and extensive ongoing business development.
Eight years into the job, Steward hasn’t slowed down. Intent on keeping Pillar To Post at the top of its game, he’s eyeing many other initiatives to stay ahead of the competition, including leveraging Pillar To Post’s size and technology to capture and maintain ongoing contact with REALTORS® and customers, extending the use of social media, as well as introducing new services to meet growing customer needs.
For the past year, Pillar To Post has been testing and developing premium home inspection packages that include expanded service offerings. These include rodent inspections, appliance recall safety checks, ERMI testing, which uses DNA analysis to detect potentially harmful molds and allergens, and infrared scanning that can detect moisture that is invisible to the human eye as well as overheating or malfunctioning electrical components, which could potentially cause a fire. Pillar To Post also offers a lifetime maintenance advisory service allowing homeowners to call their inspector as long as they own the house in which the inspection was performed. Sixty-five percent of Pillar To Post franchisees are now offering the three-tiered line of home inspection packages, and all franchisees will be offering it by early 2013.
“We have been testing this for a year now and the feedback from customers and real estate professionals has been tremendous,” Steward says. “We developed these new packages on the premise of giving consumers and real estate agents choices in obtaining information about their home, above and beyond the basics. Homebuyers are taking inspections far more seriously than they did 10 years ago, as are real estate agents. We don’t want to expand the scope of the inspection or potentially alarm homebuyers. Technology today simply allows us to do a better home inspection.”
When presented with the new service offerings, more than 40 percent of Pillar To Post clients have upgraded and Steward expects that number to continue to rise as word spreads in the real estate community.
“These new services are very meaningful to homebuyers and agents,” Steward says. “People are becoming increasingly concerned about the safety of their living environments. Real estate professionals appreciate that we are offering added value to their clients so they can rest assured they are being taken care of.”
Partnering with the Real Estate Community
Pillar To Post is an approved and preferred supplier to many of the leading real estate companies in North America.
“It is important for everyone at Pillar To Post, from our franchise partners and their home inspectors to members of our management team, to build ongoing relationships with real estate professionals, contributing to their ongoing education and success and being involved in their local real estate community,” Steward adds.
Pillar To Post provides a Continuing Education Program for REALTORS® and brokers to earn credits to maintain their state real estate license.
Every party involved in a residential real estate transaction can benefit from a professional home inspection. An inspection conducted by a buyer may present an opportunity to take the cost of repairs into account in the offer to purchase. A home inspection conducted by a potential home seller prior to listing can help avoid nasty surprises during negotiations and provide a list of potential upgrades.
“We’re seeing more and more real estate professionals encouraging their clients to do pre-listing home inspections,” says Steward. “In the real estate community, it’s common to hear about sellers who are unrealistic about the salability and value of their home. As an objective third party, we are able to provide potential home sellers with terrific insight into the shape of their home so they can price it accordingly and not be surprised during the buyer’s home inspection. Whether its cosmetic annoyances like chipped paint or a leaky faucet or a 20-year-old HVAC system that doesn’t have much life left, pre-listing inspections can be instrumental to a quicker and smoother sale.”
Steward is passionate about the future of Pillar To Post, especially with so many younger, energetic home inspectors joining the company. “Three-quarters of our new franchisees are in their 30s and 40s. This next generation of home inspectors will help us continue to build a great local brand based on strong innovation from the corporate office and strong feedback from homebuyers and real estate agents.”
Tom Capuano launched his Pillar To Post franchise in southwest Ohio in 1997.
“Pillar To Post allows every franchise owner to run a stronger business because of the network of support,” says Capuano. “Real estate agents know when they work with Pillar To Post, the process will always be consistent and sophisticated, with no surprises. I can help real estate professionals close deals, even when they are on vacation. Technologically advanced home inspectors and inspections aren’t a luxury today. Real estate professionals and consumers expect them.”
Steward agrees: “People want to work with a well-known, trusted brand. That is always our No. 1 goal. At the end of our work, a family will call that house a ‘home;’ we want to help make the home-buying experience the best it can be.”
For more information, please visit www.pillartopost.com.
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