It's a classic example of working hard to make lemonade out of lemons. That was the case for Richard Marks after working on the credit card side of the house at several banks for 35 years.
His last stop was at Columbus Bank and Trust, and then TSYS, where he rose to group executive before cuts at the company left him out of work in 2007. The Missouri native and Harris County resident took a year off to clear his head, then set out to find his next career.
He ultimately wanted to become an entrepreneur, launching a search for a business to buy. The effort led him to Kitchen Tune-Up, an Aberdeen, S.D.-based company that specializes in restoring -- you guessed it -- kitchens (and bathrooms) to like-new condition.
Five years into his venture and the Great Recession behind him, Marks said business is good and getting better. He also has found himself enjoying a job that lets him see immediate results after a project, often with a smile on customers' faces.
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The Ledger-Enquirer talked with Marks, 61, recently about his journey, his job and his life in the "kitchen." This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.
Describe how you got involved in Kitchen Tune-Up?
I spent something like 35 years in financial services, and I left TSYS in 2007 and spent about a year not doing a whole lot of anything. But then I decided that I wanted to see if I could find a business locally to purchase. So I went through a bunch of business brokers. All of the businesses that I looked at, the owners really thought more highly of them than I did. I ended up engaging a franchise consultant and we looked at a variety of different franchises. I kind of narrowed it down to about three, which Kitchen Tune-Up was one of them.
Why pick that franchise?
Kitchen Tune-up at the time was ranked one of the top 10 small franchises in the country. And everybody I talked to who was in the franchise had nothing but good things to say about the company. The visits that I had with them were excellent. And it turned out that they're a very good company. They provide excellent support and training. They've got an excellent reputation.
Their ethos, if you will, is about basically doing what you say you're going to do when you say you're going to do it, providing quality and standing behind your work.
It's things like: We guarantee our quotes, we guarantee our work, we arrive on time, we clean the work area daily, return messages within 24 hours, we strive for harmony with our customers' daily schedules. It was things like that I really liked.
Before that, what did you do in financial services?
I primarily ran credit-card programs. What brought me to Columbus was I took over the CB&T card program and ran it for four years. I then moved over to Total Systems and ran their outsourcing services, background services, for their customers -- customer service, collections and things like that. From that, we created a process management system and we were selling that to our customers, and I did that for seven years.
Have your skills from the previous jobs helped you with Kitchen Tune-Up?
Certainly, the management skills have helped from a financial planning standpoint. When I started with Kitchen Tune-Up, my original intent was to take this franchise and get it to a size where it was profitable and start expanding throughout the state. But then we hit the recession and that kind of derailed that initially.
Coming into it, did you have any home improvement skills?
I had done carpentry work back early in my college days. I did construction with apartment buildings and things like that. Growing up, my dad was pretty much a do-it-yourselfer, so I ended up helping him a lot and learning a lot of skills. I've done a lot of stuff in terms of work and improvements around the house, building decks and things like that.
It's well known that kitchen updates tend to improve home values?
The kitchen is certainly one of the most important areas that folks look at when they're attempting to sell or buy a house. The nice thing about Kitchen Tune-Up is we offer a variety of services and price points that -- depending on your budget and the condition of your kitchen -- we can pretty much fit anybody's needs.
What percentage of customers improve a kitchen to get a home ready for sale?
I would say it's probably around 10 percent.
The vast majority of people are simply doing it to make their surroundings nicer?
Yeah. Most of the kitchens that we deal with are anywhere from 15 to 50 years old.
What's the toughest job that you've had?
We've done some remodeling projects that have been pretty extensive. In fact, we're working on one right now where we ran into some electrical problems, and it ends up the customer is going to have to rewire his entire house. But most of them go pretty smooth.
The majority of what we do is either kitchen restoration, cabinet restoration, which is a process where we go in and restore existing wood cabinets and try to bring them back to 90 or 95 percent of their original condition.
Or we do refacing, which is a process of replacing doors and drawer fronts, putting matching veneers on the face frames of the cabinets, and matching panels on the sides of the cabinets. Typically when we do something like that we also replace countertops with granite or some kind of solid surface.
Remodeling, which is replacing all of the existing cabinets, is maybe 10 to 15 percent of the business that we do.
So it's more affordable to reface the cabinets?
Yeah. Refacing typically runs about 70 to 75 percent of the cost of a full remodel. And restoration is probably 30 to 40 percent of the cost.
But the work can run the gamut, as far as new flooring and light and sink fixtures?
Uh-huh. We offer all of that. Typically the flooring that we do is either hardwood or some type of tile, either porcelain or ceramic.
Give me a feel for the price ranges on this stuff?
Restoration can start around $600. My average restoration runs around $1,100, something like that. My average refacing job is about a $6,000 or $7,000 job. And then remodeling, you're probably talking starting around $10,000, but it can go up to whatever you want to pay. We've done $50,000, $60,000, $70,000 jobs.
Most of these jobs can be done within a couple of days?
Yeah, typically. A restoration we can do in a day. A refacing project, if we're just doing the cabinets and not the countertops and all of the other stuff, is typically like a two- to three-day job. A remodel, it's probably going to take a little bit longer because once you get the cabinetry in, you have to template for countertops and things like that. So you're probably talking total work time of maybe a week to two weeks on a remodel.
What's your day-to-day life like on the job?
Most of my time is spent either in sales or doing project management. I'm generally out (of the office).
What's the toughest part of your job?
I'd say probably the sales part. You really have to work hard at it, and do a lot of things to anticipate people's expectations and be able to convince them that you've got the right solution at the right price for them.
What's the most difficult task of tuning up a kitchen?
When you get into doing a remodel and you get in an older home, none of the walls are going to be straight. So you're always struggling with trying to get things plumb and squared. It can take a lot of work doing that.
Or you just get into things, like I said earlier, running into an issue with the electrical problem on this current project that we're on. You just don't expect those kinds of things.
We were doing a bathroom remodel earlier in the year, and the water shut off in the house. It actually broke on us. The customer was without water and we had to rush in an emergency plumbing crew to work on it and get the water back on.
So it's unexpected things like that that are really the most difficult.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Going in when we finish and looking at the after work and how much of a difference it makes. It can be dramatic. And it's the customer's reaction. We had one lady we started off doing her kitchen, and then we did her bath. When we finished with her bathroom she walked in and started squealing because she was so happy. It's moments like that that makes it worthwhile.
Has the overall economy impacted your business and are things getting better?
When the economy crashed it was difficult. It was probably not the best time to start a new business. But things have been rebounding over the last several years, and I think as evidenced by the number of leads that we're generating now, compared to what we did three years ago, it's obvious that people are looking to do more.
I think even the new home market is improving. Home values, I think, are improving and I think people who maybe were holding off selling homes are now looking to do that and looking to update them a little bit to make them more sellable.
What good pieces of advice do you have for someone considering making a career change such as yours, perhaps with a franchise?
I think what you have to do is think about what you're looking to get out of the business. What are some of the characteristics of the business that are important to you? Like when I was looking, some of the things that I didn't want to get into were food services and things like that. It just didn't have the appeal to me.
I wanted something that I could look at when the project was over and say, we really did accomplish something here. So that was important for me.
If you're going to get involved with a franchise, you really need to look at the background of the franchise. They have to give you certain disclosures. When you look at those, see if there are a lot of lawsuits filed against the company, what's their reputation, and things of that nature.
Name: Richard Marks
Hometown: Independence, Mo.
Current residence: Harris County, near Pine Mountain, Ga.
Education: 1970 graduate of Fort Osage High School, Independence, Mo.; earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 1976
Previous jobs: Held various positions with First National Bank of Kansas City; NCNB; Mercantile Bank of St. Louis; INTRUST Bank in Wichita, Kan.; Columbus Bank and Trust Co.; and TSYS
Family: Wife, Michele Garner, and daughter, Hilary Tramel, 33, and two granddaughters, ages 6 and 4
Leisure time: Enjoys playing golf and watching sports live and on TV
Of note: Was a previous “Kiss a Pig” winner with the American Diabetes Foundation fundraiser; he and Michele co-chaired two American Cancer Society Crystal Balls
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